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Activist: Estonia could take leading role in fight against waste, pollution

Millions participated in the 2018 World Cleanup Day, an originally Estonian initiative.
Millions participated in the 2018 World Cleanup Day, an originally Estonian initiative. Source: Teeme Ära Maailmakoristus

Consumerism killed your culture, not invasion or immigration. Show me your shopping malls and I will show you your occupiers. And the casualties are the small scale shopkeepers, the local suppliers and manufacturers, the blue collar workers and homegrown brands out of business, replaced by American logos made in China.

No man is an island—he is a peninsula

On an islet of an island is the I Land Sound electronic music festival. 12 crews have set up stages where 5,000 revelers party until the sun comes up and beyond. Everything is golden on the magical island of Saaremaa. After two days of partying the site remains spotless. Why? As you enter the festival, you do so empty handed of any plastic bottles, plastic packaged goods, etc. Once on site, you pay a deposit for a cup and receive a tube for your butts if you smoke. The food vendors supply mainly recyclable packaging which is sorted by type. One guy travels the site emptying the bins, and the rubbish is minimal for a festival and such a hard partying crowd.

Now contrast this with the Guns N' Roses concert this summer at the jewel in Tallinn's crown, the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak). The aftermath looks worse than a refugee camp where everyone was forced to flee from an airstrike. Single-use plastic is everywhere, people leave their trash willy-nilly after an orgy of entertainment and consumption. The aftermath is an environmental disaster.

A land of contradictions

Estonia has some of the cleanest air in the world. It is also a major source of fresh pure drinking water: take a filtered glass from the tap in the South or on the islands, and it tastes better than bottled. The recycling scheme for beverage bottles has saved more than three billion bottles in the eight years since its implementation. Not bad for a tiny country of 1.3 million. Yet according to the 2017 Environmental Performance Review by the OECD, Estonia is "the most carbon-intensive, and third most energy-intensive, economy in the OECD, due to reliance on oil shale, with a high level of material consumption, caused by low efficiency of oil shale-based energy generation."

So nil points for energy production. But what about waste? In 2016 Estonia, each individual produced an average of 376 kg of waste per year, a rising number. In 2011 it was 261 kg, according to Eurostat.

And while London is rapidly becoming single-use plastic free, with a Brexit embattled government literally grasping at straws to appease the public's baying for blood, almost every restaurant and take-away in Tallinn is using single-use polystyrene, throw-away cutlery or plastic straws.

With 15 September and the World Cleanup Day emanating from Estonia, the disconnect between this government-backed world initiative and what is happening at home is staggering. The problem in Estonia is common to one being consistently payed out around the globe. Rising levels of consumption, a waste management system which is not transparent, the ignorance of people who don't know and often don't care what happens to their waste. And a political agenda dominated by immigration, economics and security. The perfect storm, while the environment rapidly deteriorates, and the source of the previous problems mentioned, the country's resources, goes unchecked.

Follow the money

It's 2018. Largely thanks to the Chinese ban on receiving Western waste for "recycling" as well as David Attenborough's finally showing the problem of pollution in his feel-good Blue Planet series, the environment is in the news. Social media is choked with turtles with a secret cocaine habit and whales smuggling bags in their stomach.

For those who care, the response is often to practice recycling, buy a water bottle, go organic or get a keep-cup for their cappuccino habit. But if we do recycle, after we have collected our few cents for a bottle, then it is now someone else's problem to deal with. Recently, lobbyists have gone into overdrive explaining Sweden's amazing solution for eliminating rubbish and their innovative waste-to-energy plants.

Where Sweden goes, Estonia goes too: since it implemented its new incinerator at the Iru power plant, recycling rates have begun to drop at an alarming rate. Processing 250,000 tonnes of rubbish a year, this investment in excess of €100 million has had the desirable effect of increasing the cost of landfills, and therefore reducing their use. Yet it has also disabled any attempts to reduce single-use plastic, recycle materials or provide adequate separation for composting.

An incinerator with an average break-even time of 20 years can never be switched off. You have to feed the beast, and that means that trash is now being imported from Finland. Recycling rates in the last three years have dropped by almost 7% and continue to fall. Add to that how the plant burns incredibly inefficiently due to the mixed nature of the waste: how many people do you know that compost in the city? So the smelly wet rubbish is burned, along with resources that could be re-used or recycled.

Difficult circumstances reveal hidden faults

Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives (ZERI) puts forth the proposition that the "time has come to go beyond the global economy where the pursuit of economies of scale and ever lower costs to earn more money needs to evolve to an economy capable of responding to the needs of all. We also need to go beyond the green economy, where renewable energy cannot compete without subsidies, and whatever is good for our health and the environment costs more."

Plastic marine pollution is currently growing at a pace of 8 million tonnes each year. According to the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the plastic industry has revenues of $750 billion, and this is set to increase by 40% according to their targets for the next five years. One of the largest initial public offerings in the history of the world economy is currently being touted as Amarco, the state-owned Saudi Oil company, estimated at $2 trillion, is planning to sell a 5% stake. The main reason is the plan of the new king to reduce the country's reliance on the oil industry and to raise funds for the purchase of SABIC, one of the world's largest manufacturers of plastic, especially polythene.

SABIC employs over 35,000 people in 90 countries and is worth a whopping $60 billion. Big business likes plastic, and we seem to have an appetite for it, which means it isn't going anywhere. By the time you have read this far, a whole rubbish truck of plastic has been dumped into the ocean, and this is happening 24 hours a day 365 days a year.

Yet the linear economy, unregulated growth and obsession with GDP is now experiencing a push back from nature. It is no longer the animal kingdom, and the so called Anthropocene that is feeling the main brunt. The plastic problem has pushed its way up the food chain. The changes in the structure of the sea are staggering, and the impact on marine life and birds is devastating.

Nothing new here, except that it is spreading to us. Humans consume an estimated 11,000 pieces of microplastic per year through fish. And microplastic is contributing to a whole range of problems, including the plunging fertility rates in Europe. According to various studies, the sperm count of an average male has dropped by 50% in the last 40 years, with an estimated 20% of men now infertile in Denmark alone. The main culprit is an increase in oestrogen, produced by the softening and hardening agents in plastic.

Borrowing against the future

The language of the ecologist is entering the mainstream, Earth Day gains more popularity every year, and people turn off their lights for Earth Hour in March. And then there is Earth Overshoot Day, the day when we are forecast to use up the planet's resources feasible for that year, in effect borrowing against the future.

Until 1970, Overshoot Day was after 31 December, meaning that humanity didn't consume more than Earth could regenerate, but in the last few decades the day has arrived sooner and sooner. In 2018 it was on 1 August, which means that for the rest of the current year we are consuming more than we can repay. We would need approximately 1.7 planets to meet our needs and still break even.

For Estonia, Earth Overshoot day was 30 March, compared to the United States, where it was March 15. Other countries, including the developing economies, are not far off. Think about that.

So where is the vision?

Everyone wants a clean and healthy world, and the main way is to preserve resources according to Let's Do It's Keep it Clean Plan. Saving post-use materials from littering, landfilling and incineration not only means sustainable management of waste, but also saves resources, makes them available for reuse and recycling, and decreases the need for new primary raw materials to be extracted.

One of the reasons for overconsumption is our linear economy model: it is the "take, make, waste" approach. It is not just the waste problem (littering, impacts related to landfilling and incineration), we keep needing more new primary raw materials (oil, wood, metals, rare earth elements etc.) as well. The less waste we produce and the more we reuse and recycle, the less new resources we need to extract from nature. Good waste management becomes first and foremost a way to keep our production and consumption patterns "sustainable", i.e. able to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the needs of future generations."

Almost half of the plastic existing today was produced during the last 15 years. Plastic debris tends to accumulate at the centre of ocean gyres. The North Pacific Gyre, for example, has collected the so-called "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" that is now estimated at five trillion plastic pieces, weighing some 250,000 tonnes. Every year, between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic finds its way into our oceans from coastal areas and rivers. That is 15 bags of plastic waste per every metre for all the coastlines in the world. The University of Georgia's Jenna Jambeck stated in 2015 that if all this waste was put on lined-up trucks, this line would stretch around the world 24 times.

Of the world's population, more than 3.5 billion people do not have access to the most elementary waste management services according to a 2012 study by ISWA on Globalization and Waste Management.

In Estonia as well we are still hooked on plastic, a hangover from Soviet times maybe when plastic bags were like currency. From the plastic straw served in every bar to the small single-use plastic bags that are provided for free in the supermarket or handed out by grocery vendors, magazines wrapped in plastic and the single-use cups which accompany almost every festival, party and nightclub in the city, a simple solution could be to do what governments do with every product that creates a harmful effect: why not tax it?

Cleanup with composting

When in 2008 Estonia held its first national cleanup, nobody thought that a tiny Baltic country would be heard so loud around the world. Yet only ten years later, 156 countries united for the 2018 World Cleanup Day, a stand against waste and a call for a worldwide solution to the rubbish problem as grassroots organisations, business, government and concerned individuals will pick up other people's trash and directly tackle the problem of our age.

If we are forced to pay for the rubbish we create that is not recycled, if we separate our organic material for composting and this is made easy so every home and workplace should be able to put out their food waste for collection, then rubbish becomes a resource. At the same time, non-organic waste should be paid for—and when I say pay, I mean really pay. Only this way will consumers choose less packaging, and will businesses respond.

Estonia could also go for EPR, extended producer responsibility. Under such a scheme, bad design that cannot be reused or recycled is phased out as the producer is made to bear the cost of taking it back. In the United Kingdom, Plastic Attack is a growing movement where shoppers take their own container to the supermarket, unwrap everything, and leave the packaging behind.

Another option is kerbside collection in clear recycled plastic bags. Bags should not be black to hide what's inside. Industrial-scale composting and innovative new ways of dealing with plastic without burning it are all within reach of a technologically sophisticated Estonia today.

Tests are already underway how to safely decompose plastic without the production of greenhouse gases or leaching into the soil to return it to an inert state. So come on Estonia, you have shown the world how to unite to clean up rubbish, and you are one of only 26 countries that implement a deposit refund scheme on packaging. With some bold steps in this tiny country, we handle waste once and for all, export the ideas and technology, and then we can all party by the sea and unravel in the world's most beautiful nature.


Paul Emmet witnessed the 2018 World Cleanup Day in Kyrgyzstan. He has a background in change management and communications and first got involved with Let's Do it! in 2008. He is an advocate for Zero Waste and has been publicising, participating in and documenting initiatives that support local communities around the world. His opinion piece on the state of the world regarding plastics was first published in culture magazine Sirp (link in Estonian).


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Editor: Dario Cavegn


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