Chapter 4. Waste and materials management

Estonia has successfully undertaken a major transition in municipal solid waste management, from heavy reliance on landfilling to energy recovery through incineration. However, it is unlikely to reach its recycling targets, and managing high volumes of hazardous waste from combustion and processing of oil shale remains an important challenge. This chapter provides an overview of trends in waste generation and material consumption, related policy and institutional frameworks, and analyses Estonia’s policies for managing major waste streams and its steps in promoting a circular economy.


1. Introduction

Estonia has one of the most resource-intensive economies in the OECD. The mining of oil shale and its subsequent combustion for heat and power or its refining into oil products require high volumes of mineral resources. This, in turn, generates large amounts of waste, much of which is hazardous.

Joining the European Union (EU) in 2004 has brought significant changes to Estonia’s legal and policy framework for waste management. These comprise new standards for waste facilities, including landfills, as well as ambitious targets for recycling. National waste policies make it a priority to achieve the EU objectives of reducing landfilling of municipal solid waste (MSW) and to increase the country’s recycling and composting. Over the review period, Estonia has made major changes in the collection and treatment of MSW. The construction of an incinerator near Tallinn, for example, has significantly reduced landfilling.

As a small, open economy, Estonia imports and exports relatively high volumes of some waste streams for treatment and recycling. For example, it sends paper and plastic abroad and imports lead-acid batteries from other Baltic countries.

2. Objectives, policies and institutions

2.1. Policy framework for waste management

Since 2005, Estonia has gone through three cycles of waste management plans, which provide overall policy direction. The first National Waste Management Plan (NWMP), which covered 2003-07, sought primarily to organise “environmentally safe, flexible, institutionally granted and economically justified waste management on all levels”. The plan started a major transformation of Estonia’s waste sector, particularly in light of the country’s accession to the EU; the transposition and implementation of EU waste legislation was a major focus of this plan. The plan (MoE, 2002), which identified waste prevention and waste recycling as broad goals, had several specific objectives:

  • Halt the increase in the generation of municipal solid waste per capita (by 2006).

  • Halt the increase in the generation of packaging waste (by 2006).

  • Increase the reuse of sewage sludge in agriculture and degraded land.

Estonia achieved the first and third objectives (Section 3.2). The generation of packaging waste continued to increase, however, despite the introduction of extended producer responsibility (EPR) for this waste stream (Section 4.3).

The main objectives of the second NWMP (MoE, 2008b), which covered 2008-13, were to reduce the amount of waste disposed in landfills, increase the recovery of waste and reduce the hazard level of waste in order to reduce negative impacts on the environment. In pursuing these objectives, the second plan sought to implement the EU “waste hierarchy” – promoting waste prevention, recycling and recovery, and then reducing the amount of waste deposited in landfills. A further broad objective was to decouple environmental impacts from economic growth. The plan contained a number of specific targets, many of which were taken from the EU (Table 4.1): by and large these have been achieved. Estonia has reduced waste sent to landfills and increased waste recovery; with regard to the third objective, however, there is no clear evidence that Estonia has achieved significant reductions in the level of hazard of waste.

Table 4.1. Estonia has met key targets set in the 2008-13 NWMP

Waste stream and treatment

Level in 2005 %

Target for 2013 %


EU objective

Increase in total waste recovered





Non-compliant hazardous and industrial waste landfills brought into compliance

83 (2007)




Non-compliant non-hazardous waste landfills brought into compliance

91 (2007)




Reduction in biodegradable municipal waste to landfills

50-60 (2004)




Increase in the recovery and recycling of packaging waste

Recovery: 41; Recycling: 40

Recovery: 60; Recycling: 55-80



a. Achieved in 2015.

b. Achieved according to data reported.

c. Estonia’s target was more ambitious than the EU target.

The third NWMP plan runs from 2014 to 2020 and contains three strategic objectives. One objective is to increase waste recycling and reuse: here, the NWMP sets out a series of targets (Table 4.2), again linked to those established in EU legislation. Another objective is to reduce environmental risks from waste, including via improvements in monitoring and enforcement: priority areas include completing closure work for 17 remaining landfills and reducing illegal waste disposal.

Table 4.2. The NWMP 2014-20 contains further targets

Selected targets in the NWMP 2014-20

Waste stream and treatment

Level in 2011 %

Target for 2020 %

EU objective

Increase in share of paper, metal, plastic and glass from households reused or recycled




Reduction in biodegradable municipal waste to landfills




Increase in biodegradable municipal waste recycled (composted)




Increase in construction and demolition waste recovered




Increase in the recovery and recycling of packaging waste

Recycling: 56*

Recycling: 60


* Estonia’s national target goes beyond the EU target.

Source: Country submission.

A third broad objective is to promote waste prevention and reduction, as well as to reduce both the level of hazard of waste and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from waste disposal. The NWMP 2014-20 contains Estonia’s Waste Prevention Programme, which sets a broad objective of decoupling economic growth and waste generation and stipulates three targets:

  • Up to 2020, growth in the generation of MSW should remain below half of the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate.

  • Up to 2020, growth in the generation of packaging waste should remain below two-thirds of the GDP growth rate.

  • After 2020, there should be no further increase in the generation of MSW, irrespective of economic growth.

The first NWMP was accompanied by waste management plans at the county and local levels. In 2008, the system was simplified by eliminating county plans. Local plans are still required; they should follow the provisions of the NWMP, focusing on approaches for the collection, sorting and transport of municipal solid waste (EEA, 2013a).

The NWMPs have evolved, with the first one providing general goals, and the second and third setting more quantitative targets. The plans cite policy mechanisms for their implementation, including new regulatory requirements and funding, such as EU funds. Nonetheless, several key policy decisions affecting waste management have been taken outside the plans. For example, the national government increased the waste disposal tax starting in 2005: this action, which was not foreseen in the first NWMP, had important effects on waste treatment investments. In addition, the third NWMP sets out the EU’s 2020 recycling targets for paper, metal, glass and plastic, but does not provide clear policy instruments or a pathway to achieve them (Section 4). As the national plans have not set out detailed mechanisms for their implementation, they do not provide clear guidance for local plans.

Other national policy documents also contain objectives for waste management. Notably, Estonia’s Environmental Strategy 2030, released in 2007, calls for a reduction of total waste to landfills by 30% by 2030; this goal is reiterated in the National Environmental Action Plan for 2007-13.

2.2. Legal framework

Estonia’s 2004 Waste Act is the central piece of legislation governing waste management. The act specifies obligations for the main actors involved in waste management, establishes procedures for waste permits and includes provisions for fines and other penalties. It also establishes EPR for specific waste streams and provides a legal framework for the establishment of producer responsibility organisations (PROs; Section 4.3). This act, moreover, transposes the EU Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC) and its principles. This includes the “proximity principle” (recovery and disposal of mixed municipal waste should occur as close as possible to the source) and the “waste hierarchy” (priority to prevention, then reuse, recycling, other recovery and disposal).

Landfills are governed by the Waste Act and a 2004 Regulation of the Minister of Environment, which transpose the EU’s Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC). Two acts establish the main requirements for packaging waste: the 2004 Packaging Act and the 1996 Packaging Excise Duty Act. The two together transpose the EU Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste (94/62/EC).

Overall, EU legislation sets the framework for waste management policy and legislation in Estonia. As noted in Table 4.1, many of the quantitative targets set in the NWMPs are established in EU law. In some cases, such as the recovery of construction and demolition waste, national targets have gone beyond those set by the EU.

2.3. Resource efficiency and circular economy policy

In 2015, Estonia’s government set an overall target to increase resource productivity by 10% to 0.46 EUR/kg by 2019 (MoE, 2015a). A series of specific objectives has been set in national and sectoral policy documents (Table 4.3). The Estonian Entrepreneurship Growth Strategy 2014-20 defines more efficient use of resources as one of three priority growth areas.

Table 4.3. Several policy documents set objectives for resource efficiency and material productivity

Date published


Key objectives


Environmental Strategy 2030

Achieve a low energy and low resource-intensity economy by 2020

Use technology to improve resource efficiency


Development Plan for Enhancing the Use of Biomass and Bio-energy 2007-13

Increase biomass use and bioenergy production, including biogas for transport

Prevent waste

Increase recycling of oil shale waste and demolition waste


National Development Plan for the Use of Oil Shale 2008-15

Enhance efficiency in the extraction and use of oil shale


National Development Plan for the Use of Construction Minerals 2011-20

Enhance efficiency in extraction and use of construction materials

2011 (updated 2014)

National Reform Programme, Estonia 2020

Increase resource efficiency, including via the use of environmental taxes and public funding


National Reform Programme: Action Plan for 2015-20

Map resource efficiency opportunities

Carry out research and development on resource efficiency

Support energy and resource efficiency in companies

Incorporate resource efficiency considerations in public procurement


National Development Plan for the Use of Oil Shale 2016-30

Increase efficiency of oil shale extraction and reduce negative impacts

Increase efficiency of oil shale use and reduce negative impacts

Carry out research and development for oil shale

In addition, Estonia’s Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-20 for the use of EU structural funds includes plans to support resource efficiency in enterprises (Ministry of Finance, 2014). The National Reform Programme “Estonia 2020”: Action Plan for 2014-18 calls for programmes to increase resource efficiency. In response, the Estonian government plans to allocate about EUR 100 million from EU structural funds in the 2014-20 programming period to support energy and resource efficiency in companies. The funding will be used first to train national energy and resource auditors and then to carry out initial and detailed audits in selected companies. First projects are expected to be launched in 2016 and would focus on key sectors with high energy or resource use, including mining, timber, pulp and paper and food processing. If well managed, these investments could play an important role in improving resource efficiency. It will be important to ensure strong monitoring of their progress and results. For the oil shale sector, ongoing research and development into methods to reuse waste from oil shale mining and use could also play an important role in improving resource efficiency.

Estonia thus has an overall quantitative target for resource efficiency and sectoral plans to address the major resource-intensive sectors. Diverse policy documents support the target. In addition, efforts to improve waste recovery and recycling will contribute to this target. In April 2016, the government expressed support for the circular economy package of the European Commission (EC, 2015). However, the notion of circular economy is still very new in Estonia: policy initiatives have only started to prioritise this area specifically. The lack of a comprehensive policy framework for circular economy is a barrier to achieving sustainable use of resources throughout the entire product value chain. An overall policy strategy for material productivity and resource efficiency would strengthen co-ordination of efforts across different sectors.

2.4. Institutional arrangements

Estonia’s Ministry of the Environment (MoE) is the central institution responsible for the policy and regulatory framework for waste management. The ministry elaborates national strategies and plans, and prepares the legislation. It also takes prime responsibility for material management and resource efficiency; a range of government ministries and other bodies work in this area, focusing on specific sectors such as mining and biomass.

Municipal governments organise municipal solid waste collection, transport and treatment in their territories. Municipalities contract waste collection and transport to private companies and oversee their operations. Municipalities prepare waste management plans, either individually or in collaboration with neighbours.

The Environmental Investment Centre (EIC) uses revenue from environmental taxes to fund investment projects, including those for waste management (Chapter 3). The EIC also manages Operational Programmes under the EU Cohesion Policy: these programmes have supported investments in waste management and, in the 2014-20 programming period, in resource efficiency.

The Environmental Inspectorate is the lead body for enforcement of waste legislation, reviewing documents from waste handlers and inspecting waste facilities and waste shipments. Local governments oversee compliance with MSW collection and treatment requirements within their mandate and territories. The Environmental Board issues waste permits and monitors their implementation, and the Environmental Agency collects information and data on waste and waste treatment (Chapter 2).

The private sector plays an important role in waste management. As noted above, municipalities contract private waste management companies for MSW collection and transport. In late 2015, three main private waste companies provided MSW collection and transport services. Private and municipally owned companies have built and own key treatment facilities for MSW, including an incinerator, mechanical-biological treatment (MBT) facilities and landfills. Private companies also own or operate key facilities for hazardous and industrial waste. Other facilities are owned by municipalities, although many are operated by waste companies (both private and municipally owned). Some of Tallinn’s recycling centres are operated by a non-profit organisation set up by the municipal government.

3. Trends in material consumption and waste generation

3.1. Material consumption and resource productivity

In 2015, Estonia’s economy had domestic material consumption (DMC) of 30 tonnes (t) per capita. Between 2000 and 2015, the material productivity (GDP/DMC) of Estonia’s economy decreased by 19 percentage points, as DMC grew faster (104 percentage points) than real GDP (65 points) (Figure 4.1).

Consumption of non-metallic minerals and fossil fuels and their derivatives largely dominates the DMC. Oil shale makes up the lion’s share of the fossil fuels component, although peat and natural gas are also used. The consumption of fossil fuels grew by 30% between 2000 and 2015. The consumption of non-metallic minerals such as sand and gravel accounts for the other major share of DMC: 38% of the total in 2015. Consumption of non-metallic minerals rose by over 200% between 2000 and 2015 due to a boom in private and then public construction projects.

The third largest component of DMC – biomass – represented 19% of the total in 2015. The consumption of biomass rose by 240% from 2000 to 2015, driven in particular by wood used for energy. Consumption of metal ores was under 1% of total DMC in 2015 (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1. Estonia’s material productivity has declined since 2000

The material productivity of Estonia’s economy is among the lowest of OECD member countries, at 0.95 USD/kg in 2015 (Annex 1.C); this is mostly because Estonia relies heavily on domestic oil shale with low energy content.

3.2. Waste generation and treatment

In 2014, Estonia generated about 22 million t of waste. Mining and quarrying (36% of the total), energy (33%) and manufacturing (20%) are the macro-sectors that produce the largest amount of total waste (Figure 4.2).

Waste from mining, refining and combustion of oil shale dominates total waste generation, accounting for about 83% of Estonia’s total primary waste in 2012 (MoE, 2015a). The mining of oil shale represents the lion’s share of mining and quarrying waste, while ash from its combustion is by far the largest component of energy production waste. Moreover, the great majority of manufacturing waste comes from the refining of oil shale into oil products.

Figure 4.2. Mining and energy production generate most waste, hazardous waste generation grows

Hazardous waste

A large share of primary waste is classified as hazardous: 9.2 million t in 2012, or 42% of primary waste. Estonia’s hazardous waste generation per capita is the highest in the EU, 35 times above average (Eurostat, 2016). The combustion and refining of oil shale account for more than 90% of hazardous waste. In 2012, the power sector produced just over two-thirds of the total, about 6.2 million t, comprised almost entirely of the ash from the combustion of oil shale. Petroleum refining produced almost one-third of total hazardous waste, 2.8 million t, almost entirely due to the refining of oil shale (Eurostat, 2016). The generation of hazardous waste increased from 2006 to 2012, mainly due to higher levels of oil shale refining.

Other sectors accounted for only 157 000 t of hazardous waste in 2012 (Eurostat, 2016). The services sector provided the largest share (39%), followed by the waste sector (18%), in particular ash from waste combustion at the Kunda cement plant (Figure 4.3).

Figure 4.3. Services and waste management generate most hazardous waste outside the oil shale sector, 2012

Municipal solid waste

From 2005 to 2014, the level of MSW generated in Estonia fell by 33%, from 435 kg/capita to 357 kg/capita (OECD, 2016). The level of MSW generated has decoupled from GDP, which rose by 15% over the same period. Nonetheless, from 2012 to 2014, the level of MSW generation increased.

Estonia has significantly transformed the treatment of MSW in recent years: amounts sent to landfills decreased drastically, mainly diverted to the new incinerator in Iru, near Tallinn. While at least 74% of MSW treated1 was sent to landfills for disposal in 2005, that share fell to 7% in 2014. In the meantime, the share of waste incinerated with energy recovery reached 52%, and that of waste recycled and composted amounted to 29% and 5%, respectively; the remainder was used for backfilling (filling excavated areas with mineral waste, such as sand and stones) (Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4. Estonia has transformed municipal waste treatment in recent years

Estonia used to report packaging waste separately from MSW, which gave the impression of a lower total MSW generated compared to other OECD member countries; with the modification in reporting in 2011, however, data are not fully comparable across the review period. Overall, the collection of statistics on MSW has improved: for example, incoming waste is now weighed at most landfills.

Construction and demolition waste

The generation of construction and demolition waste increased sharply from 2004 to 2006. After falling in 2008-10 in the wake of the economic crisis, it has since risen with the implementation of EU-funded construction projects (Figure 4.5). In 2013, Estonia recovered 87% of construction and demolition waste (compared to the EU target of 70% for 2020 and the national target of 75% for 2020), using it mainly in road construction.

Figure 4.5. A high share of construction and demolition waste is recovered

3.3. Greenhouse gas emissions

In 2014, the waste sector accounted for less than 2% of all GHG emissions (ESTEA, 2014; MoE, 2016, 2015a). Emissions from the waste sector fell by more than 40% between 2000 and 2014 (see Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.6. Greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector declined from 2000 to 2013

Emissions from landfills account for the lion’s share of the total sector emissions – 89% in 2014. Landfill GHG emissions have fallen since 2000, as Estonia has invested in methane recovery from landfills, while the share of waste going to landfills has fallen drastically. Estonia has increased biological treatment of waste (i.e. composting), and related GHG emissions grew eight-fold between 2000 and 2014; nonetheless, biological treatment accounted for only 10% of GHG emissions from the waste sector in 2014. Emissions of greenhouse gases from incineration and open burning of waste fell by around 50% between 2000 and 2014, despite Estonia’s increased incineration capacity: this appears to be due to the decline in open burning of waste. In 2014, incineration and open burning of waste accounted for only 1% of total GHG emissions from the waste sector. On the basis of current policies, the MoE projects that GHG emissions from the waste sector will fall by an additional 53% between 2013 and 2030 (MoE, 2015b).

4. Performance in managing municipal solid waste

Since 2005, Estonia has seen major changes in MSW management: collection has increased, while landfilling has been drastically reduced. As a result, Estonia has already met its 2020 target to reduce the level of biodegradable MSW going to landfills. EPR systems have supported MSW management. Estonia nonetheless faces major challenges to ensure more stable MSW collection, increase separate collection and recycling, and ensure that EPR systems work more effectively to support national and EU objectives.

4.1. MSW collection

Major progress

Under the system introduced in 2005, municipalities contract out waste collection and transport to private companies. At present, fees for households are relatively low: an average of EUR 4-6 per month. The frequency of collection can vary greatly: from more than once a week in large cities to a minimum of once every four weeks in small towns. In rural areas, collection can even be once every three months. Nonetheless, waste collection has clearly improved over the review period: the MoE estimates that waste was not collected from about 20% of households in the early years of this century; by 2015, this rate had fallen to under 5%.

In 2008, Estonia required municipalities to provide for separate collection of paper and cardboard, garden waste and hazardous waste from households and small businesses. Using EU funds, as well as domestic resources provided by the EIC, municipalities have built about 100 waste collection points across the country for recyclables, garden and park waste, household hazardous waste and large-volume recyclable municipal waste such as waste electrical and electronic equipment. The collection points are operated by local governments. Some include composting facilities for garden and park waste. As a result, separate collection has steadily increased, in particular in urban areas. Tallinn’s scheme for recyclable waste has gone further, providing containers for recyclable waste near residential buildings. As a result, in 2012 Tallinn reached a separate collection rate of 53% of all MSW, the third highest among EU capital cities: 85% of glass and 74% of paper waste were collected (BiPRO, 2016).

A few municipalities have started separate collection of biodegradable waste. In Tallinn, this was done for apartment buildings and commercial establishments such as restaurants and food shops, which resulted in a third of such waste collected separately in 2012 (BiPRO, 2016). In some other parts of the country, there is separate collection for the commercial sector.

Improving management

The system has experienced several management issues that must be addressed for Estonia to meet key objectives such as the 2020 targets for recycling.

First, the legal and institutional framework has changed several times, in particular concerning the relationship between municipalities and private waste operators. The 2002 NWMP foresaw a strong municipal role in waste management. While private companies always played a role in MSW collection, the law was changed in 2011 so that municipalities could no longer organise waste collection “in-house” via municipal offices or municipally owned companies. Under the system in place in early 2016, municipalities organised tenders, while households paid waste companies directly.

The uncertainty continues. Waste companies have challenged municipalities that organise separate tenders for MSW collection and treatment. A 2015 court case established that municipalities “own” municipal solid waste and thus have a right to organise separate tenders; this ruling, moreover, indicates that municipalities have a “duty of care” for MSW as in many other OECD member countries. As a result of this ruling, the city of Tallinn has sought to receive household collection fees. However, the coalition programme of the current government, agreed in April 2015, calls for a further legal change: to eliminate tenders and instead require each household to contract directly with a waste collection company, largely eliminating municipalities’ role in waste management. Experience in other OECD member countries has shown limitations of a “side-by-side” collection system, whereby multiple companies work in the same areas (Box 4.1).

Box 4.1. Comparing costs of “side-by-side” and other MSW collection approaches

Poland has recently ended a “side-by-side” system (referred to in Estonia as a “free market” system), where each household chose a waste collection company. It has instead put in place an arrangement whereby municipalities organise open tenders to choose a single collection company for each waste area. One reason for the change in Poland was that the old system did not ensure the collection of all MSW. Ireland continues to use a “side-by-side” system: here too, ensuring full coverage has been an issue, and further government enforcement efforts are planned to ensure full collection. In both Ireland and Poland, this system caused increased levels of traffic congestion, noise and air pollution, particularly in urban areas.

OECD analysis indicates that “side-by-side” systems typically lead to higher overall costs compared to a competitively chosen single supplier; they also require strong government oversight. At the same time, non-competitive systems, where a government-owned company has a monopoly to collect household waste, also lead to higher costs.

Source: EC (2016b); OECD (2015b, 2013, 2010).

A second problem is that market and legal factors hinder competition for municipal contracts. Legal disputes have often held up public contract awards (SEI, 2014). Notably, when a court challenge overturns a tender decision, no collection company is designated for the area (in contrast, in many other OECD member countries such as the Netherlands, the former contract holder would continue to perform its duties). As a result, losing bidders have an incentive to launch court challenges. Tallinn, for example, has seen a number of challenges to its tender awards in recent years: as a result, in early 2016, 5 of Tallinn’s 13 districts did not have waste collection contracts in place. When no contract is in place due to court challenges, households and businesses must choose their own waste transport companies. While apartment buildings and large organisations need these services, individual homes and small enterprises could avoid their obligation to hire a waste collection service; reportedly, some mixed waste is disposed of in public bins to collect recyclable waste.

A third problem is that many municipalities (even some larger ones) lack the institutional capacity to organise tenders and oversee contracts, and – more generally – to manage MSW issues effectively. Many of Estonia’s municipalities are quite small, with population spread over large rural areas: they lack financial resources and technical expertise (Chapter 2). In particular, municipalities do not receive a share of waste collection fees. Although municipalities receive a share of revenues from the waste disposal tax (see below), this revenue source has greatly fallen since less MSW is sent to landfills. In contrast, only three main companies bid for waste collection contracts (BiPro, 2013); they have greater technical and organisational capacity than most of the municipalities issuing the contracts.

Small municipalities can pool their resources and issue joint contracts: this is only done on a voluntary basis as common waste districts for rural areas have not been established (SEI, 2014). Co-operation among local authorities has not, however, developed as intended (EEA, 2013a).

The Waste Act limits service areas for waste collection and transport to 30 000 inhabitants. For the city of Tallinn, in particular, multiple areas are required. While the maximum limit can help maintain competition among Estonia’s few private waste companies, it increases the administrative cost of tendering waste contracts. In contrast, many OECD member countries have created much larger waste management areas, which are commonly set in legislation (Box 4.2): these districts can ensure the capacity for the oversight of waste management lacking in small municipalities. Moreover, larger waste areas should reduce the costs of waste collection in small municipalities by providing economies of scale (Bel and Mur, 2009; OECD, 2013).2 The creation of larger waste districts could be considered in Estonia’s ongoing policy discussions on the reorganisation of local government, including the possible amalgamation of small municipalities.

Box 4.2. Examples of large MSW management districts

Several OECD member countries in Europe have created inter-municipal areas that pool administrative capacity for MSW management.

In Belgium, for example, the approximately 300 municipalities of the region of Flanders (population 6.4 million) are grouped into 27 inter-municipal associations that organise waste collection. In Finland, 39 inter-municipal associations have taken over waste management functions from local governments.

In Italy, waste planning is carried out by the regions, which are divided into waste areas that co-ordinate MSW collection and treatment plants. The Veneto region, for example, with a population of 4.9 million, has 12 waste areas. The administrative costs of the committees overseeing these areas are financed in part by the regional budget.

Source: EEA (2013b, 2013c); Interafval (2016); Eurostat (2016).

Local government needs adequate financing for waste management functions, including tendering, overseeing contracts and supporting enforcement. Some OECD member countries finance these functions mainly through general government revenues, as in the case of the Veneto region, noted in Box 4.2. In Poland’s reform of MSW management, local governments now set and collect fees: the revenues are used both to pay contracted waste companies and oversee their work. This method, however, creates an initial risk that fees are set below costs for political reasons (OECD, 2015b). As an alternative mechanism, local waste authorities could receive a small charge per household on Estonia’s existing system of local collection fees paid to private waste companies.

Stronger public management of waste issues is also needed for co-ordination with EPR schemes, as well as to provide effective information to the public on waste management and to strengthen awareness of waste requirements and of recycling methods (Section 4.3).

A further issue concerns minimum collection levels. The Waste Act allows local governments to pick up waste in high-density areas only once every 4 weeks – and only once every 12 weeks where composting of biological waste is in place. While infrequent pick-up could reduce collection costs for households, the minimum collection period should be reviewed: OECD Europe countries typically have at least weekly pick-up of solid waste, and some have daily pick-up in urban areas (Hogg et al., 2012).

Finally, while the quality of waste data has improved significantly over the review period, further efforts will be needed to support current policy goals. For example, further work is needed to identify the amount of MSW not collected, estimated by independent studies at close to 5%. Better data are also needed on the composition of MSW going to MBT plants. The MBT facility at Tallinn’s municipal landfill only assesses waste composition once a year: more frequent analyses will be required to properly estimate the amount of packaging waste in mixed waste streams.

4.2. Investments in waste treatment

Since 2005, MSW treatment has been transformed. In 2005, about three-quarters of MSW was sent to about 150 small landfills that did not meet EU standards. By 2015, the last 17 old landfills had been closed to meet one of the key objectives of the NWMP 2014-20. Five new landfills meeting EU requirements have been built: these are publicly owned (except for one, in Uikala, which has combined municipal and private ownership).

Treatment facilities providing an alternative to landfilling have been built without government support. Private waste companies provided most of the EUR 130 million to build Estonia’s five MBT facilities. These plants produce refuse-derived fuel (RDF), which is burned in a cement plant in Kunda. The small share of residual waste is sent to landfills. Although these plants could also separate materials such as paper and plastic for recycling, in early 2016 they had little incentive to do so.

In 2013, Eesti Energia, the state-owned power company, opened a municipal waste incinerator at Iru, near Tallinn. About half of the construction cost of this facility, which produces both heat and power, was financed by a EUR 50 million loan from the European Investment Bank, with the company providing the remainder (EIB, 2015).

The role of the waste disposal tax

An important policy measure, the waste disposal tax (also referred to as the landfill tax), made alternative forms of treatment competitive with landfilling. This tax is part of the broader pollution tax system governed by the Environmental Charges Act3 (Chapter 3) and is imposed on waste disposed in landfills. The waste disposal tax is paid together with landfill operators’ gate (service) fee for non-hazardous waste. In 2005, Estonia’s government started to increase the national waste disposal tax, which previously had been at very low levels. In 2006, the tax for MSW was set at EUR 7.30 per tonne and rose to reach almost EUR 30 per tonne in 2015 (Figure 4.7). Municipalities receive 75% of the revenues from the waste disposal tax; in the past, this provided a key source of funding for waste collection and management. The tax provided an incentive for investments in MBT plants and incineration, which meant the amount of waste sent to landfills decreased by 95% over 2000-14. This has led to a shortfall in municipal budgets for waste management.

Figure 4.7. Waste disposal taxes for MSW have risen steadily


Investment decisions since 2005 have created an overcapacity in MSW treatment facilities. Other factors have also contributed to overcapacity: notably, total MSW generation, once projected to rise, has decreased since 2000 and in particular since the start of the economic crisis in 2008. As a result, the MBT facilities and the incineration plant compete for a declining quantity of domestic mixed waste. Since 2010, Estonia’s imports of MSW have increased steadily, particularly those of mixed waste from Ireland and Finland for incineration (Figure 4.8). With the low level of MSW going to landfills, not all are needed: in 2016, one of the five landfills is expected to close. Estonia exports some types of MSW, as seen in Figure 4.8, in particular paper and cardboard for recycling. Indeed, while the use of recycling capacity in neighbouring countries may be an efficient solution, Estonia should consider whether further domestic capacity is needed in coming years to meet recycling targets.

Figure 4.8. Estonia’s imports of municipal solid waste have increased sharply

Estonia’s treatment overcapacity, the high level of incineration (including both the incinerator and the cement plant that burns RDF produced by the MBT facilities) and the low levels of separate collection mean that Estonia will face a great challenge in achieving the 2020 recycling targets. These targets, set in EU legislation, are also transposed into the national legislation and included in the NWMP 2014-20.

In the longer term, the European Commission has proposed higher targets in its circular economy package: 60% of MSW recycled in 2025 and 65% in 2030 (EC, 2015). Moreover, Estonia’s waste prevention plan seeks to reduce the generation of MSW; the country’s ageing population may also contribute to lower MSW levels.

The government and the waste industry thus need to identify instruments and strategies to increase recycling, while addressing capacity issues. One option would be a tax on domestic mixed waste sent to incineration and to MBT plants, which would encourage separate collection and recycling (Hogg et al., 2014). A portion of the tax on MBT plants could be reduced based on how much they separate recyclable material. In addition, EPR schemes could be given incentives to purchase packaging material in mixed waste that is separated by MBT plants (Section 4.3). Estonia should also assess its MSW overcapacity issues in discussion with actors and governments in neighbouring countries. For example, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have recently invested EU funds in MBT and other MSW facilities (EC, 2016a): there is a risk that overcapacity will be an issue for the entire Baltic Sea region.

4.3. Extended producer responsibility

In EPR systems, “a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle” (OECD, 2001), and thus to its end-of-life environmental impact. To meet EPR requirements set out in several pieces of EU and Estonian legislation, producers often join producer responsibility organisations (PROs), which collect, recover and recycle their waste.

Packaging waste

Producers, who became responsible for packaging waste in 2002, can join one of three PROs that focus on general packaging: Green Dot Estonia, Estonian PackCycling or TVO. Companies that do not join one of these PROs must pay a charge for their packaging (as do PRO members when packaging targets are not met). The three PROs have greatly increased the collection and recycling of packaging waste (they export collected packaging for recycling due to lack of national capacity). All three PROs reportedly recovered 78% of the packaging waste put on the market and sent 58% for recycling: they thus met targets set in the EU and national legislation (Table 4.4).

A key issue for these three PROs, particularly in terms of meeting future packaging waste targets, is to increase their collection of “primary” (i.e. post-consumer) packaging waste. Based on samples taken in 2012-13, packaging waste constituted 28.5% of mixed municipal waste (SEI, 2013), a high share that indicates separate collection could be further improved.

Collecting higher levels of primary packaging waste will require closer co-operation with municipalities. PROs collaborate with municipalities by providing collection containers for municipal civic amenity sites, supermarkets and other retail locations. The national government does not, however, set specific requirements for PRO agreements with municipalities. As a result, these agreements vary in their approach (BiPro, 2013). Moreover, smaller municipalities in particular lack capacity to negotiate effectively with PROs and to oversee their work (NAO, 2010).

In 2005, Estonia established a deposit-refund system for glass, metal and plastic beverage containers (both refillable and non-refillable). Eesti Pandipakend (Estonian Deposit Packaging) was established to run this system as an EPR scheme. All customers pay a deposit of EUR 0.10 on containers (regardless of size); retailers collect used containers and refund their deposit (R4R, 2014).

In 2013, 330 million beverage containers covered by the deposit-refund system were placed on the market. The return rates for both PET and glass bottles were close to 90% in 2013, while for metal cans they were 64%: the system thus met its 2013 targets (Figure 4.9). Eesti Pandipakend works efficiently, with high collection and recycling rates; the reuse of glass containers is close to 40% (R4R, 2014).

Figure 4.9. The deposit-refund system met its 2013 targets

Other EPR systems

In addition to packaging waste, Estonia has required EPR for five other types of “products of concern” (as defined in the Waste Act, Article 26): waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), used end-of-life vehicles and their parts, used tyres, waste agricultural plastic, and batteries and accumulators. PROs have been set up for three of these product types. Table 4.4 provides an overview of these schemes and their main quantitative targets, set in Estonian policy and legislation and in EU legislation. They have played a key role in terms of increasing the recovery and recycling of key waste streams. As for packaging waste, most appear to have met recent targets.

Table 4.4. Estonia has six extended producer responsibility systems

Waste stream

Number of PROs

Targets in national policy or legislation (EE) and EU legislation (EU)


Packaging waste

Three for general packaging waste and one for deposit-refund beverage containers

2013: 60% recovery and 55% recycling levels (EU)

2020: 60% recycling (EU)

2013: 77.6% recovery and 58% recycling

Batteries and accumulators


Minimum collection rate for portable batteries and accumulators (EU):

2012: 25%

2016: 45%

Minimum collection rate for motor vehicle batteries and accumulators (EE):

2012: 75%

2016: 90%

Minimum recycling rate, from 2011 (EU):

75% for nickel-cadmium batteries and accumulators

65% for lead-acid batteries and accumulators

50% for other batteries and accumulators

End landfilling and incineration of industrial and automotive batteries and accumulators

2013 collection rates for batteries and accumulators:

Portable: 40%

Motor vehicle: 380%b

2013 recycling levels for batteries and accumulators:

Lead-acid: 94%

Nickel-cadmium: 80%

Others: 51%

Waste electrical and electronic equipment


Minimum WEEE collection amounts (EU):

2011: 4 kg/end-user/year collection rate for WEEE from households

2014: 5 kg/end-user/year collection rate for WEEE from households

Minimum WEEE collection rates (compared to the average weight of EEE placed on the market in the previous three years) (EU and EEa):

2016: 45%

2017: 52%

2018: 59%

2019: 65%

2013 collection rate:

3.5 kg/person

28% of weight placed on the market in the previous three years

End-of-life vehicles

No PRO: vehicle importers subject to EPR

2006: 85% minimal recovery and 80% recycling of the mass of end-of-life vehicles admitted to dismantling stations (EU)

2015: 95% recovery and 85% recycling (EU)

2013 reuse and recovery rate: 86%

End-of-life tyres


Recycled or recover (EU) all waste tyres

2011-13: 39% recycled/recovered

Plastic used in agriculture

No PRO: companies subject to EPR

Collect at least 70% of the volume placed on the market in the previous year; 50% of collected plastic should be recycled; non-recycled plastic should be recovered (including energy recovery via incineration) (EE)


Note: EU = targets set under EU legislation; EE = targets set under national legislation or policy documents.

a. For minimum WEEE collection rates: 2016 and 2019 rates set under EU legislation; 2017 and 2018 rates set in Estonian legislation (Government Regulation No 65 of 20.04.2009).

b. The collection rate is measured against sales for the previous year.

Source: ESTEA (2015).

While at least seven other European countries have some form of collection scheme for agricultural plastic (APE Europe, 2016), Estonia is one of the few to have an EPR system for it since 2013. About 10 000 t of plastic are used per year, including plastic film for hay rolls and temporary greenhouses. One reason for creating an EPR scheme for this waste stream was to reduce burning of plastic waste. In addition, PROs for packaging waste sometimes gathered this waste: this activity distorted data on packaging waste and created a legal question whether farmers should be subject to EPR requirements.

No PRO has been created for this waste stream. In early 2016, about 10 suppliers of plastic for agriculture were active in the country: each contracted with a waste management company to collect plastic waste. In some cases, the plastic is collected directly from farms (whose size has been growing due to consolidation of land since collective farms were privatised to pre-Soviet owners). Households and other small users of plastic for agriculture have been able to take their waste to municipal civic amenity sites. As of early 2016, results of this EPR system were not available.

Strengthening EPR systems

Estonia’s EPR systems face several organisational issues to ensure that future waste targets are met and to guarantee the long-term viability of the systems themselves. For many systems, the accuracy of reported data is an ongoing concern, an issue exacerbated by competition among multiple PROs. An agreed mechanism to balance the level of waste produced and waste collected among PROs is not in place, leading to disputes and court cases. Several EPR schemes face “waste leakage”, where valuable waste products escape the system. A share of durable goods such as refrigerators, which should be covered by the PROs for WEEE, is recycled by scrap metal dealers. The issue of free riders has also been reported, for example, for end-of-life tyres: small importers selling via the Internet do not contribute to either PRO for this sector.

Another problem is the difficulty in setting appropriate fee rates when PROs compete for members or when disposal options change. For example, shredded end-of-life tyres were, until recently, used in the closure of MSW landfills to create a layer for collection of methane and other waste gases (this use was classified as recovery, as the EU prohibits disposal of end-of-life tyres in landfills). Now that the landfill closure work has been largely completed, this option is no longer viable; most alternatives, such as incineration, are more expensive. As a result, end-of-life tyres have accumulated in large storage sites awaiting disposal, thus posing an environmental risk.

Problems such as data accuracy, waste leakage, free riders and PRO fee rates are common challenges for EPR systems (OECD, 2014). In Estonia, government oversight and enforcement have not been sufficiently strong to address these problems. Several initiatives could strengthen EPR systems to ensure their better functioning and the achievement of national and EU waste targets:

  • Audit requirements. In 2014, to improve data quality, the MoE required independent audits of companies participating in packaging waste PROs. Auditing is expected to improve data accuracy and could be extended to PROs in other waste streams. In 2015, the MoE raised the minimum level of packaging put on the market that would trigger an audit to reduce excessive compliance costs for small and medium-sized enterprises.

  • Activity licence. The MoE issues an activity licence to packaging waste PROs. This requirement could be extended to other EPR schemes to ensure they are carrying out their roles effectively as representative bodies for waste producers and as agents supporting the achievement of national targets.

  • Clearer definition of PRO roles in relation to municipalities and other government bodies. This is needed particularly to strengthen collection for streams such as packaging waste, including via further efforts to raise public awareness on recycling (Box 4.3).

  • A clearinghouse mechanism to ensure a level playing field among competing PROs. Such a mechanism would address potential issues among the organisations: for example, balancing the fees paid by members against the level of waste collected. In some OECD member countries, the government takes this role. Estonia already has an independent clearinghouse mechanism, created as part of the Register of Products of Concern. However, it needs evaluation and further development with stronger enforcement. Estonia could benefit from best practices in other OECD member countries, such as Denmark, where an independent clearinghouse was created (Box 4.4). The Chamber of Commerce could also undertake this role. Specific functions of a clearinghouse can vary. They may include maintaining a common register of producers; overseeing data reporting to ensure quality; balancing material and financial flows among PROs; verifying compliance with requirements and identifying free riders; and ensuring a level playing field among PROs operating for the same waste stream.

  • Mechanisms to ensure financial sustainability. The experience of tyre PROs, whose treatment costs have increased, underlines the need to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of these systems. One approach could be to require PROs to purchase insurance against future costs, as in Sweden (BIO Intelligence Service, 2014).

  • Economic instruments to reduce generation of packaging waste and strengthen its collection. Estonia could consider a tax on all packaging not covered by the deposit-refund system to encourage waste reduction (Hogg et al., 2014). In addition, PROs for packaging waste could be required to count packaging material going to MBTs towards their quotas and to purchase packaging material separated by these facilities.

Box 4.3. Projects and programmes to raise public awareness

Estonia has taken several actions at both the national and local levels to raise public awareness on waste issues, including separate collection. Estonia’s Environmental Board promotes environmental education programmes in schools: waste management is one of the topics. An independently organised annual day of community group activities, “Let’s do it! My Estonia”, includes actions to clean up litter and illegal waste. Municipalities and the MoE have worked with PROs to provide public information to promote recycling. As a result, public awareness has reportedly improved, and illegal dumping and littering have decreased in recent years.

Further initiatives are being prepared. For example, the Waste Prevention Programme foresees public awareness activities as a mechanism to reduce waste and encourage recycling and reuse.

Nonetheless, public awareness still appears to be insufficient: for example, waste separation is low in some areas, and separated waste can contain high shares of misplaced and non-recyclable items. Estonia needs to devote greater efforts to campaigns related to waste issues. In particular, further efforts are needed to reach current policy goals for recycling, as well as for waste prevention. In several European OECD member countries, including the Netherlands, PROs play an important role in helping raise public awareness on separate collection and recycling. Avenues to strengthen their role in Estonia should be explored.

Source: BiPro (2013); EB (2015); Teemeära (2015).

Box 4.4. Denmark: An independent clearinghouse for EPR systems

In Denmark, DPA-system is an independent, non-profit organisation that provides a clearinghouse for three EPR systems: for WEEE, end-of-life batteries and end-of-life vehicles. The members of its board are appointed by the Minister of Environment from the main PROs and industrial sectors concerned. The organisation maintains a common register of producers, sets fees and receives reports.

Source: BIO Intelligence Service (2014); DPA-system (2015).

5. Performance in managing mining and industrial waste

The mining, combustion and processing of oil shale account for the great majority of total waste generation in Estonia and for about 98% of hazardous waste. Since the beginning of the oil shale industry, over 400 million t of waste have been dumped into landfills and waste storage facilities. Waste management areas occupy over 27 km2 in Ida-Viru county alone. Since 2005, the volume of waste streams related to oil shale has increased. Government policies and investments have sought to increase recovery of these types of waste and to address the legacy of poorly managed waste sites. Further initiatives are needed to improve the management of oil shale waste, as well as other types of hazardous waste. Oil shale mining and processing waste is further discussed in Chapter 5.

5.1. Hazardous waste outside the oil shale sector

As mentioned in Section 3.2, the largest share of hazardous waste generated outside oil shale use comes from the service sector. This includes asbestos in cement, called Eternit, removed from public buildings. In accordance with EU rules, this waste is sent to municipal and other non-hazardous landfills. The government has maintained the waste disposal tax for asbestos at low levels (under EUR 1 per tonne in 2015) to encourage its disposal.

Hazardous waste generated by the waste sector includes ash from the combustion of RDF and hazardous waste in the Kunda cement plant: the ash is disposed in a company landfill. Ash from the Iru incinerator, which is also classified as hazardous, is sent to Finland for disposal. Slag from the recycling of lead-acid batteries is sent to hazardous waste landfills.

Although the government has spent about EUR 10 million on the establishment and operation of three hazardous waste collection centres, only the centre in Tartu has managed to guarantee adequate treatment over the years. Only 25-35% of the actual capacity of the Vaivara and Tallinn centres has been used. The Tartu and Tallinn centres have now been sold to private operators.

Estonia has one landfill at Vaivara for hazardous waste other than from oil shale. This landfill reopened in April 2016 after being closed for four years due to delays with establishing a contract with a private operator. It has been equipped with a new leachate treatment plant.

The privately owned cement plant in Kunda incinerates several types of hazardous waste in addition to RDF. In 2000, when the plant opened, the MoE reached a voluntary agreement with its operator, supporting its role in waste management, in particular for the incineration of hazardous waste. In March 2015, this voluntary agreement was renewed: the MoE declared it would help the cement plant find opportunities for the recovery of clinker dust and that CO2 from waste incineration would not be taxed; the plant agreed to continue hazardous waste incineration. In early 2015, however, the Eastern Baltic region had an overcapacity in cement production facilities, due to the economic downturn. As the plant has played a key role in hazardous waste treatment, it would be valuable for the government to work with hazardous waste generators on contingency planning in case of its closure.

The National Audit Office (NAO, 2015b) highlighted several shortcomings regarding government oversight of hazardous waste permits and reporting. Data quality is an important concern: reporting on hazardous waste contains “significant amounts of incorrect data”: for example, balances of waste stockpiles did not match from one year to another. Moreover, information systems for waste permits and reporting are not integrated, hindering checks of data accuracy.

5.2. Shipments of hazardous waste

Since 2001, Estonia’s imports of hazardous waste have grown steadily (Figure 4.10): about 90% of imports have been lead-acid batteries, arriving in particular from Finland, Latvia and Lithuania for treatment at a facility in Sillamäe. Among other shipments, Estonia has also received waste oils from these nearby countries, as well as WEEE from Finland and Norway.

Figure 4.10. Estonia’s imports of hazardous waste have grown since 2001

Estonia’s exports of hazardous waste have varied over the years. The largest exports by volume have been shipments of treated wood, such as railroad sleepers, sent to Sweden for disposal. Other exports have included WEEE containing hazardous materials, such as refrigerators and fluorescent lamps: these have been sent to Baltic countries, including Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden.

Estonia has strengthened its inspections of hazardous waste shipments over the review period. Notably, the Probo Koala case prompted greater attention to enforcement in this area (Box 4.5).

Box 4.5. The Probo Koala case raised awareness of waste shipment enforcement in Estonia

The 2006 Probo Koala case, which highlighted gaps in the enforcement of hazardous waste shipment rules in the Netherlands, was also a prominent case in Estonia. The Probo Koala, a tanker operated by a Dutch company, Trafigura, delivered waste sludge to a local company in Côte d’Ivoire. The sludge was dumped at night in public areas in Abidjan, creating respiratory illnesses and reportedly causing several deaths.

The ship stopped in Paldiski, Estonia, on both its outbound voyage to West Africa (to pick up oil products for delivery to Nigeria) and on its return to Europe, by which time it had become prominent in global news. At Paldiski, Estonian authorities temporarily held the ship. Before it was allowed to leave Estonia, hazardous substances were pumped out of the ship at the port of Sillamäe, and hazardous waste was taken to the Vaivara waste management centre, where the oil and sediments were separated from water. The oil waste was taken to the Kunda cement plant for incineration.

Source: OECD (2015a); Trafigura (2015).

Recommendations on waste and materials management
  • Establish a stable, long-term institutional framework that can ensure the achievement of European requirements and targets for MSW management, including by strengthening the institutional role and financial and technical capacities of local authorities to oversee MSW management more effectively; consider establishing inter-municipal entities for this purpose.

  • Consider the introduction of economic instruments such as a tax on domestic mixed waste and possibly an incineration tax to better support recycling targets, which would create incentives for separate collection at source, for mechanical-biological treatment facilities to separate materials for recycling, and for waste companies to send all recyclable waste to recycling facilities.

  • Strengthen the role of PROs in supporting the achievement of waste management goals, including those for recycling, by establishing a stronger framework for co-operation between PROs and government bodies responsible for MSW management; encourage PROs to raise public awareness of benefits of separate collection and recycling, and ensure sufficient infrastructure for the separate collection of recyclable waste at the local level.

  • Take steps to implement an independent clearinghouse mechanism to oversee the multiple PROs to help ensure their long-term viability, as well as the accuracy and transparency of their reporting; extend government accreditation and auditing requirements, now in place for packaging waste PROs, to the other EPR schemes.

  • Further strengthen data gathering and information systems for waste management in such key areas as packaging waste, hazardous waste and the monitoring of potential impacts of existing and former waste sites.

  • Continue to explore options to improve material productivity, including by enhanced research and development on oil shale use and its waste products, drawing on EU initiatives for a circular economy; ensure the effective use and monitoring of planned investments of EU funds in resource efficiency.


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← 1. Amounts treated reflect waste actually treated that year, and do not match amounts generated because of temporary storage.

← 2. Research in OECD member countries suggests that economies of scale are achieved when waste collection areas reach 10 000 inhabitants; some studies indicate this occurs at 50 000 inhabitants (OECD, 2013).

← 3. Estonia’s Environmental Charges Act refers to pollution taxes as “charges”, but the OECD defines them as taxes, and they are referred to as such in this report.