Kai Realo is one of Estonia’s most esteemed leaders, having held top positions in several companies and organizations. Today, she is driving the noble transition to a circular economy, leading the environmental and circular economy company Ragn-Sells Estonia.
The topic of sustainability became more prominent in Kai Realo‘s consciousness about a decade ago when she worked as the CEO of a motor fuel retailer, Circle K, and there was still a myth circulating that oil would soon run out. “At first, it was an interesting theory. The market also saw the emergence of the first products, which in turn created the next dilemma – even if we solve the fuel problem, using food for fuel (producing bioethanol from crops and diesel from palm oil) disrupts biodiversity and threatens both nature and people’s livelihoods in certain countries,” explains Realo, and elaborates further: “The initial topics were highly controversial. It was challenging to find the right balance considering various aspects. It could happen that while you try to solve a problem from one end, you end up causing harm in the process.”
Why is it so difficult for people to maintain sustainable habits?
I believe it stems from psychological factors and it also has to do with ones upbringing. Maintaining habits is statistically the most challenging in so-called post-Soviet countries. Even in Estonia, we have only had a relatively short period of time since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of the middle class. People feel that life is delightfully enjoyable, and everything that was once inaccessible can now be consumed abundantly. It’s as if we have just blown out the candles on the cake, but someone at the party says, “Give me that cake now, I’ll use it for something else.” In recent years, the standard of living in Estonia has reached a level where we may complain, but when looking around at old capitalist countries, even a poor person in our country lives more securely than, for example, in England. A very poor person in London is much worse off than in Estonia.
On the other hand, someone needs to be a leader in promoting sustainable habits. The state plays a significant role in shaping public opinion or societal attitudes, but in our case, no political party has taken that responsibility upon themselves. In other countries, attitude changes have been brought about by green parties or similar movements. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, it has not succeeded in Estonia, and I don’t have an answer as to why.
If everyone diligently sorted their waste, would it help save the planet?
There are two sides to this issue – manufacturers also need to contribute, sorting alone is not enough. We should pressure manufacturers to design and package their products with sustainability in mind. They should stop overpackaging, for example. Many packages today are made of composite materials, which are a mixture of multiple materials and unfortunately cannot be easily recycled.
Currently, the European Union is preparing a directive called Critical Raw Materials. Many of these raw materials can already be obtained from waste in Europe. RagnSells also has projects where various chemical substances can be extracted from waste, but only if it’s a single-type waste. The problem with traditional mixed municipal waste is that it cannot even be sent for incineration, which would still be tolerable as it produces hot water and heating.
Which countries are the most advanced in organizing their waste management?
The most progressive countries in terms of waste management are the Scandinavian countries. They have been quite cautious and have put a lot of thought into integrating waste sorting into people’s lives without causing congestion with garbage bins in homes. The Nordic countries have included a clause in all their projects stating that buildings must have underground containers or separate rooms for waste management.
Surprisingly, Costa Rica stood out for its environmental efforts. I was amazed to see how they approach waste prevention and even encourage tourists to sort their waste. For example, there are bottles hanging from trash cans indicating where each type of bottle should be disposed of. In none of the national parks did I see any printed materials; instead, there were large billboards instructing visitors to take a photo with their mobile phones to access the park map. Additionally, there is Wi-Fi available everywhere. The sustainability efforts of the people there stem from a deep love for their land and nature. Interestingly, an Estonian’s environmental consciousness often ends after expressing an opinion about forests.
What is the future of sorting waste?
The future of waste sorting lies in material quality. When materials are recycled, they need to be relatively homogeneous and have a certain level of purity. Loose or contaminated materials are typically used for the production of chemical compounds. Currently, the most effective way to obtain high-quality materials is through separate collection of organic waste, household waste, packaging, and paper at home.
Innovation will focus more on creating space for sorting in households and making it as convenient as possible for people. It could be integrated into the entrance area, utility room, or something that goes along with the kitchen. However, it should be a standardized solution to ensure convenient sorting even in smaller spaces.
Another aspect is how sorted waste reaches collection centers. We need multi-compartment trucks with large containers where 3-4 different types of waste can be compressed, as transporting air is not cost-effective. However, the existing compactors are energy-intensive. The current batteries are so poor that they are drained after a single compaction cycle.
What will happen to those massive garbage patches in the oceans?
It always astounds me that we haven’t been able to collect that garbage yet. It’s not an easy or cheap task, but given today’s measures, we should still strive to accomplish it.
Certainly, with current technologies, the plastic in those areas can be sorted and converted into oil and chemicals using pyrolysis methods. If we fantasize a bit, perhaps in a few years, someone will realize that it’s a great treasure. Then, instead of catching fish from the ocean, the focus will be on collecting plastic to extract its chemical components.
Ocean plastic is already being used to make various products. For example, my daughter exclusively wears Adidas Parley shoes because they are made from marine plastic and come with a compelling story.
It is strange that the solutions seem to be available...
Technological advancements are happening rapidly, but it inevitably takes time for them to reach the masses. We now have the ability to extract value from complex waste materials. For example, using sewage sludge, which used to be applied to fields as fertilizer, is now considered risky. It contains microplastics, antibiotics, narcotics, and other substances. It should not be used on agricultural land where food for people is grown. With new technology, it can be dried, incinerated, and the minerals can be extracted.
What is the future of our planet?
Here in Estonia, we will start experiencing more extreme weather conditions, with periods of intense cold followed by intense heat. In other parts of the world, there will be places where it becomes impossible to live due to lack of water, clean water, or excessive heat. We will witness an increasing number of climate refugees, and this will sober up countries that are not yet fully committed to environmental issues because Europe cannot accommodate all refugees.
Estonians should consider that if they don’t act for the sake of nature, they should do it for the future existence of Estonia as a livable country. So that our population doesn’t suddenly become four or five times larger just because the grass is still green and the sky is still blue here.
We need to overcome the attitude of saying, “Oh, look at all the things we have to do.” Often, those who sigh and complain don’t do anything at all. We need to start with small things. Sorting waste, for example, has a significant impact. Life doesn’t have to be completely restricted; we need to start with small things that don’t require much effort. This postpones more difficult decisions that we will eventually have to face.
Interviewer: Kerttu Kongas