New recycling center hopes to change attitudes in Estonia

  • 2004-06-17
  • By Alec Charles
TALLINN - Estonia has a fine, if rather unusual tradition of recycling. But those old ladies who routinely scour trashcans for anything worth selling are being superseded by a rather more eco-friendly phenomenon.

Located on Paide Street, just outside the center of Tallinn, the Taaskasutuskeskus - or Used Goods Center - is a second-hand store with a difference. Its primary purpose is to help promote recycling, and its proceeds are spent on social and environmental projects. It is the first of its kind in Estonia.
The center was opened in May by the Estonian Charities Foundation, in partnership with the Estonian Fund for Nature and Caritas, an international organization that assists children from disadvantaged families. The center includes a handicrafts workshop in which young people are trained in weaving and woodwork. It will also start a series of "green lectures" for schoolchildren this fall.
Although the center is currently open only on Saturdays, there are plans to open four days a week in the near future, and six days a week by the end of the year. The organizers also intend to open a second center in Tallinn, plus centers in the Estonian towns of Tartu, Narva and Ahtme, later this year.
It's a small but necessary first step in trying to change the deeply entrenched resistance of many Estonians to a more actively eco-friendly way of life.

as a way of life
Half-a-dozen customers have already arrived 15 minutes before opening time. The center is used to seeing 40-50 customers in the first hour alone.
Diana has brought her son Roland to look for toys and things for the family. The toddler plays in the children's area, while his mother inspects the crockery. "I came out of curiosity," she says.
Riina is a retired forestry worker in her 70s. She has brought a big bag of nearly new clothes to donate to the center. "I've worked in nature all my life, so the environment is important to me," she says.
The center sells used clothes, shoes, bags, books, kitchenware, toys, furniture and electrical goods. There are even a couple of microwaves and a TV set. But the center is helping to satisfy not only economic, social and environmental needs, but also political ones.
According to a European Commission directive, all used electrical goods will have to be recycled - as of next summer. This poses problems for the EU's older members, let alone for its new recruits. Ireland and Estonia are among several nations that have applied for a two-year exemption from this directive.
The Republic of Ireland has recently signed an agreement with Northern Ireland to recycle used refrigerators in the U.K., an initiative which was praised by Sean Farrell, the Irish ambassador to Estonia: "This is a practical example of North-South and East-West cooperation in an area of considerable importance," he says.
Estonia hasn't yet reached any such deal with a neighboring country although it's currently in talks with Finland on a range of related matters. Halle Haljak, a counselor at Estonia's Environment Ministry, says that the implementation of this directive "is a very hard question for us. We don't know exactly how we will manage."
Richard Caddell, a lecturer in environmental law at Tallinn's International University Concordia Audentes, also sounds a note of warning: "The Anglo-Irish initiative can only apply to regions which already have the recycling facilities in place. Much as I welcome the work of NGOs like the Estonian Fund for Nature, what Estonia really needs is the financial commitment of its government for implementing EU directives."

Old habits die hard
Recycling waste is still a largely unknown activity in Estonia and there has been little significant improvement in the situation over the last several years. "The ultimate goal should be to stop producing waste," says Anu Konnusaar of the Estonian Fund for Nature. "Without any radical changes, this will take a lot of time. It is questionable whether we have that time. Estonia can't really be proud of itself. Our rate of carbon-dioxide emissions per person is one of the highest in the world."
Estonia's limited government resources are certainly part of the reason for this slow progress. Raymond Collins, an American project manager for Estonian Energy, works on a program of power-station's reconstruction that will cut sulphur-dioxide emissions by at least 90 percent - to bring Estonia in line with European standards. "One plant is already complete," Collins says. "But the total reconstruction plan will take significantly longer."
Artur Taevere, the manager of the Used Goods Center in Tallinn, is frustrated by the slow pace of change: "A lot of environmental NGOs are seen as crazy eco-terrorists. If eco-tourism were recognized as an important part of Estonia's economic future, then official policies might change," he says.
Taevere graduated from Oxford University, and joined the Charities Foundation on his return to his native Estonia. He seems disappointed by the lack of social and environmental commitment displayed by his fellow Estonians. "The general attitude is that people are solely responsible for themselves - that it's not the responsibility of the state or of individuals to help people in need. Most Estonians appreciate a weekend in the countryside, but they resist the regulations necessary to sustain the rural environment."
There are of course notable exceptions to this rule. Kadri Allikmae, 22, is a public relations graduate from Tartu University. She is one of 20 volunteers who donates her free time to the Used-Goods Center. "I've met a whole variety of people here," she says. "It opens my eyes to a different world - to the color of life. I'm doing here what I dreamed of doing in my childhood."
A dream of serving the community? "In a way," she says. "I dreamed of being a shopkeeper."

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