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At the Junior Chamber International (JCI) World Congress „Clean World Day“

JCI maailmakongress Tallinnas.
JCI World Congress in Tallinn.
© Väino Pool


Dear participants of JCI World Congress, dear activists and changemakers!

Whose responsibility is a clean world?

With goals like this: simple and broad at the same time – clean world –, it’s easy to point fingers. And indeed, we can see a lot of pointing fingers. Justified demands from the civil society towards businesses and governments to act.
And responses (also understandable from a certain point of view): we only do what you as consumers and voters ask us to do.

But we all know that pointing fingers is not a useful strategy when we are facing the greatest challenges humans have ever faced, climate change and environmental degradation. Our planet is suffering from s disease called Man. Human. Homo sapiens.

Of course, it starts with each one of us, from the choices we make in our daily lives. Especially when we talk about consumers who actually do have a choice. Not all have, but in the rich world, we do. Your congress sets a wonderful example.

Surplus food for dinners that are served from second-hand tableware, donated by people who didn’t need it at their homes. As far as I know, this tableware will be used to start a social enterprise after the congress that will continue lending it for next events here in Estonia.

You were encouraged to bring along your own refillable water bottles and coffee cups, to avoid bringing unnecessary gifts and anything made from single-use plastic, to use your devices for taking notes. All the information was given in digital format, without the need to pack it in yet another conference bag. And I believe it hasn’t made the event less enjoyable?

When we dedicate ourselves to changing a habit or learning something new – in this case living a life with as little waste as possible – it does quite naturally become an interesting and rewarding journey.

Especially as we don’t expect an individual to go through a very dramatic change all at once – you are here in the warm room and had to change your habits by 5 percent. But this is the right way to do it, no one can set the world record on the first day of training. Friendly peer pressure and support is the best incentive to start on this road and remain on track.

However, there are limitations to consumer responsibility. When we, according to our best knowledge, buy a product labelled “bio-degradable” or “compostable”, and put it in the compost after use, only to find out years later that it’s still there as it was because it needs very special conditions to decompose ... can we still be held responsible? It is surely not plausible to expect each individual to become an expert in chemistry, to have a thorough understanding of all small prints and to see through greenwash attempts.

Or is it fair to say that it is only consumers’ responsibility that 8 million tons of plastic leak into the world’s oceans every year? Being a coastline country, dealing with this issue was one of our priorities during Estonia’s leadership at the United Nations Environment Assembly. I have to admit, the final agreement which we achieved was less than we aspire to, but it was still decided to reduce single-use plastic products significantly by 2030.

Thus, we need to speak not only about consumer but also about producer responsibility. Indeed, as a response to growing demand from the public, we have seen several commitments targeted for reducing waste. Sadly, many of these turn out to be false, unsatisfactory promises.

For example, switching disposable packaging from plastic to paper as an environmentally sustainable material does not address the impact the pulp and paper industry has to the environment, including climate change and biodiversity.

The move towards more plant-based plastic has its own problems. There is yet no standardized definition of “bioplastic”, thus it may mean a range of things and can easily become a form of greenwashing, without being friendlier to the Earth than conventional fossil-based plastic.

Even recycling, perhaps the most promoted advice of action, is not the solution it is often claimed to be. Numerous exposés have demonstrated that recycling systems have failed to deliver on the promise to both recover enough material to reduce demand for virgin plastic or to ensure proper disposal, objectives that are unachievable due to the inherent difficulties posed by the nature of plastics, the mixtures of plastics and the enormous amounts produced.

We know that a lot of plastic waste collected in the Western world ends up being exported to the lower income countries where its ultimate fate is unknown. Even when recycled domestically, much of the plastic is actually “downgraded” and reprocessed into products that are not further recyclable, thus not helping much.

Thus, we need other, more workable solutions around the world for turning off the tap. Solutions that focus on reusing, reducing the need for disposable packaging. And I am convinced that our scientists and producers together can come up with these solutions. Estonian experience in another field gives us an example here, and this leads us to the responsibility of governments.

Before today, you had two days focusing on digital innovation, thus you are already familiar with the story how Estonia became the first fully digital society in the world. It didn’t happen by smart state investments into the tech products created by local scientific community. While starting this transformation, we belonged to the class of  lover middle-income countries. It is absolutely fair to say we just didn’t have resources for such an approach as governments.

So how did we become a digital society who´s able to provide the rest of the world with an example on technological transformation, catalysing the whole EU towards digital development?

The answer is smart and innovative creation of the legal space combined with the deep trust and cooperation between private and public sector. Not investing as a state, but creating legally permissive state for private ideas to fly and to test and try new technologies.

Not going alone but in comprehensive partnership with private sector. Setting incentives for the markets to develop Estonian living standards, without the state spending based on national debt. We scanned the horizon for new technologies and tried to see, how these could benefit the economy and the society, allowing us to be first in on a grand scale, therefore getting paid for our societal experiments in using new technologies, rather than paying for ready-made solutions.

This is also how it is in the climate issue. Governments’ responsibility is setting clear standards – such as that we want to have our energy sector CO2 neutral by 2050 –, be strict about them and then let the markets do the work and deliver green revolution. The free market where everybody can invest in new and environment-friendly solutions based on market conditions. When the subsidies and exceptions come in, it becomes much trickier and we may lose valuable time.

Therefore the role and responsibility of civil society is also very clear here, and well understood for you. Initiatives such as World Cleanup, in which JCI has been a major partner, are fundamental in combating waste blindness, and mobilizing people behind the cause.

Together with JCI members, there are young Estonian environment activists in the audience today. I am happy and proud of you. Your commitment hasn’t come easy. It’s embarrassing how some adults instead of support have rather ridiculed you, but I know it won’t stop you from continuing your work towards a clean world and the way you do it is for us, the decision-makers a clear signal, a clear public demand to make sure that we create legal space which will promote market-based clean solutions. Both in waste management and also in the energy sector and other sectors where we need to transform. Politicians do what voters ask if you ask loud enough and then we have to be smart enough to make sure that we don`t try to do it alone, even when we have the full support of the people we should not invest in this sector. We should create legal space and make sure that technology and innovation is created based on free competition.

This is how we achieved digital Estonia and I am quite sure that this way we are also able to achieve clean and green Estonia.

Thank you!