Bags of bottles bring in a pocket of change

  • 2006-01-11
  • By Steve Roman
TALLINN - Like a lot of foreign residents in the Baltics, I come from a place where recycling is something people do as a matter of course, like brushing their teeth or doing the laundry. So after moving to this corner of Europe, I found it rather disturbing that there was no clear or convenient way to recycle all the empty soda and beer bottles that somehow end up in my kitchen. Seeing no reasonable alternative, I started doing what nearly all of my local friends did 's I chucked them in the bin with the rest of my trash. And I felt a twinge of guilt every time I did it.

A ray of hope came last May, when two key requisites of Estonia's Packaging Act came into force. One is a requirement that retailers have to take back all types of sales packaging sold in their stores, from egg cartons to yoghurt tubs. Another is a scheme whereby most types of beverage containers (glass bottles, plastic bottles and aluminum cans) are sold with a refundable deposit of either 50 senti or 1 kroon (.06 euro), depending on their size.

Such small sums weren't enough motivation for me to actually return any bottles to the shops, but at least I knew I could leave a bag near my front gate at night, safe in the knowledge that, by morning, some industrious local trawling Tallinn's Old Town would have collected them for the cash. This method worked like a charm, but late last year, after a particularly celebratory week, I had amassed too many empties to discretely leave out.

My attempt to get rid of this sack of bottles dragged me into the realm of the absurd. The local convenience store wouldn't take them, nor would the Kaubamaja food shop in the Viru Center. The latter directed me to a taarapunkt (redemption center) in the courtyard behind the Tallink Hotel.

The typical taarapunkt, as it turns out, is not somewhere you'd want to take the kids. I had to squeeze my way through a drunken shouting match to get in the door, stand in line with a man who was talking to himself and suffer the building's overall stench. Though I was finally able to unload my bottle collection, all I got for my trouble was a hand-written I.O.U. for 4.6 kroons signed by the clerk, Natasha. The center was out of cash.

Two things were immediately clear to me: The first was that, despite Natasha's matronly charms, I would not be returning for my 4.6 kroons. The second was that there were some wrinkles to be ironed out in Estonia's recycling system.

I spoke to Peeter Eek, Head of Waste Management Department at the Ministry of Environment, who helped me put this into perspective. He pointed out that the system is now only eight months old, and that it took Germany, which began its redemption scheme in 2003, a year and a half to get all the kinks worked out of its program.

"All the examples from other countries show that, whatever …efforts you are putting in, there is some kind of transition period, and this is where Estonia is today," he said.

The legal impetus behind the redemption scheme is the Packaging Act of 2004, with amendments that bring Estonia in line with EU norms. It includes specific guidelines for various materials, but its overall tenet is that Estonia should be recovering (reusing, recycling or converting to energy) 50 percent of its packaging waste.

Official estimates put the annual level of packaging waste created in Estonia - everything from shipping pallets to ice-cream wrappers - at 120,000 tons. According to Eek, that works out to 85 's 90 kilograms per person per year.

Certainly, the most difficult part of the Packaging Act to manage will be the collection of so many kinds of packaging waste at the sales points. But Eek sees the container deposit scheme itself as a critical step in reaching the 50 percent recovery target 's something which could happen this year.

More than that, in the world of packaging waste, it seems, drink containers are a force to be reckoned with. In the last 15 years, according to Eek, Estonia has shifted from using mainly reusable glass bottles to a heavy use of "one-way" plastic bottles. At the same time, the consumer market for beverages has taken off. "If we put those two trends together that means that actually we may speak about an explosion of the beverage containers," he said.

I certainly encountered this phenomenon in my kitchen. It turns out that if I throw away a Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle, i.e. the typical Fanta or Evian container, it might be recovered at a waste sorting facility in Tallinn, but more likely it will end up in a new landfill about 15 kilometers east of the city, where it could remain forever and ever. I just couldn't live with that on my conscience.

So why wasn't the system working for me yet? Why isn't everyone else recycling their bottles? Eek pointed to the very problem I encountered, namely that retailers are slow to get on board.

"You can even put a 10 kroon deposit [on a bottle], but if you would have only ten take-back points in Tallinn, most people would throw it away," said Eek. "The attitude will be that it's damned difficult to give it back and I will just not bore myself with this issue."

One current wrinkle is that the law allows retailers, like the ones I encountered, to use a third party to collect the returnables, so long as the collection point is in the "immediate vicinity." Many retailers use this "immediate vicinity" clause to refer people to the taarapunkts, and a few shops even send customers to points a couple of kilometers away 's a practice that pending amendments to the Packaging Act are likely to address.

Despite this hurdle, Eek is optimistic about getting the retailers to come around. Major supermarket chains like Selver have already installed machines at their stores that take back the containers, and more chains are expected to start point-of-sale redemption this year.

"I'm quite sure that by the end of 2006 the situation with take-back will look much better than it is today, much better," he said.

Oleg Epner, Managing Director of Eesti Pandipakend (EPP), the non-profit outfit that effectively runs the container deposit system, is also looking for improvements this year. His figures show that 50.2 percent, that is about 1,500 of Estonia's nearly 3,000 registered retailers, currently take back the containers. He estimates that about 500 more will begin this year, a change that can have a huge impact considering how critical convenience is to the system.

"Our latest consumer research [shows that] more than 70 percent of consumers who are giving back empties want to do it in a store which is in the neighbourhood where they live, and that they are not willing to go to taarapunkts," he said.

Shops also have financial incentives to start taking back the bottles and cans 's they are paid a 27 senti "retail handling fee" for every container collected manually, 33 senti for each collected by machine.

Another positive trend Epner sees is in the attitude and habits of the average consumer. Certainly the 4.87 million-kroon media campaign his company undertook last year put the idea of recycling on a lot of people's minds, and EPP's research shows that 65 percent of people are engaged in some kind of recycling activity each day.

"If you go and buy some bread and milk and a couple of beers, then you'll automatically take a bag of empties. You are free from them and nature says 'thank you my friend,' and that's it," he said.