Shopping center Ülemiste joins cafés in the fight against single-use packaging


Single-use plastic packaging has attracted increasing attention both in Estonia and in the rest of the world, and more environmentally friendly alternatives are being actively sought. One such solution has been provided by Ringo, which recently launched its pilot project at the Ülemiste Centre.

The way Ringo works is simple: instead of reprocessing or throwing away the packaging, it extends its life by washing and reusing it. Consumers can choose special reusable packaging in the café, pay a small deposit for it and get the deposit back when they return the packaging to Ringo’s collection box. According to Kertu Punger, Head of Marketing at Ringo, the aim at this stage is to see how prepared consumers are to go along with such a solution and what could be improved.

How did Ringo’s idea start exactly?

Ringo grew out of a company called Bepco, which has been producing, renting and washing food transport containers for nearly a decade. Last year, for example, the company washed 11 million boxes in circulation. Bepco’s customers were becoming increasingly interested in food packaging solutions and the company’s own managers were finding that packaging waste was being generated in huge quantities at home and thought that something needed to be done about it. This is where the idea started, and it has developed to where we are now with Ringo – at the launch of the pilot project.

Why did you start your pilot project at the Ülemiste Centre?

The Ülemiste Centre and the Campus are naturally very active and innovative, and there are many businesses and people who care about this issue. Our choice of location was also based on the fact that businesses in the area see a problem with packaging waste and want to find solutions. We proposed the idea to the Ülemiste Centre, and the management of the Ülemiste Centre was immediately on board.

Currently, four food outlets have joined us in the Ülemiste Centre: Wrap & Roll, Blender, Ice Cafe, and R-Kiosk. The centre currently has a total of three collection bins where reusable packaging can be returned.

What problem is Ringo trying to solve exactly?

Today, bins overflowing with packaging do not generally indicate cutting back on cleaning services, but an increase in consumption. In turn, the situation during the pandemic, where it was not possible to eat food on site, has led to an explosion in the use of takeaway packaging. Even though, as life gets back to normal, we want to settle back in the comfy armchair of our favourite café and sip coffee from a ceramic cup, there is a new habit of ordering everything on the run.

In Estonia, an average of 200,000 disposable cups are thrown away every day. On average, a single restaurant sells more than 1,000 single-use takeaway boxes per week. This is packaging that is only used once, but leaves a big ecological footprint throughout its supply chain. In the wider context, Europe is one of the most plastic-consuming regions, with 40% of plastic used for packaging, and less than 30% of this recycled. 

Lightweight and floating plastics also frequently end up in the oceans, estimated at around nine million tonnes per year. Plastics and the toxic particles they contain bioaccumulate in fish and seafood, and thereby also enter the human food chain. There is also growing concern about the leakage of harmful chemicals from plastic packaging into food, drinks and the environment, which will also have an effect on our health in the long term. The more plastic that can be recycled, the less it needs to be produced, and the less waste it generates.

Collecting and washing packaging is also a cost in itself. So why should we wash and reuse it, instead of recycling?

Today, clean and sorted packaging is still being recycled, but if, for example, other rubbish or dirty packaging gets into a packaging container, it will most likely become municipal waste and cannot be recycled.

Conventional plastic packaging is also difficult to recycle because it contains too many materials at once. We only deal with certain types of plastic packaging, and we collect these separately and in a colour-coded manner, to make recycling as easy as possible when the packaging itself becomes depreciated. In other words, we wash the packaging until it gets worn out, and when it can no longer be used, we recycle it ourselves.

What are the main concerns of packaging circulation in Estonia?

We believe that one of the main concerns is that the packaging circulation is currently too complicated and inconvenient for people. We need simple solutions where, similarly to a bottle bank, you can return your packaging at any corner. The system needs to be simple enough and the network large enough to make packaging circulation actually work. Only then can the habit of actually reusing packaging start to take root.

What can the state do to improve the situation and prevent potential problems?

There is no doubt that the state can do a lot and motivate people to use less disposable packaging. Eesti Pandipakend’s experience with bottles shows that the creation of a deposit system is an effective motivator for people – 9 out of 10 bottles purchased end up at the sorting centre, and this is a good example of how the state has managed to change people’s attitudes. It is also no longer easy to find bottles lying around on the street or in nature, as they are collected and redeemed for cash.

The European Commission has created a directive requiring Member States to change the way they use single-use plastic packaging, with the aim of phasing it out and making it more environmentally friendly. Although Estonia failed to comply with the directive by the deadline of 3 July, it is still on the agenda and the proposed amendments will be presented to the Riigikogu in the autumn. Adopting these changes would be an important step towards a greener future.

What is Ringo’s near future and where do you plan to go?

By the end of this year, we expect to have 200 collection boxes across Estonia. Therefore, the plan is to set up a large network of drop-off boxes as soon as possible, right up to apartment blocks and backyards, so that people can recycle our packaging close to home.

With the vast majority of people in Estonia cooking at home rather than buying food from cafés and restaurants, our next ambition for the future is reusable food packaging. Today, people are virtually obliged to consume single-use plastic because there are few options for buying food from the grocery store without packaging or re-packaging.

Making this option easier and more widely available would make it possible to reduce packaging waste significantly. We believe that if reusing is easy and convenient enough, the number of people willing to go along with the idea of reuse will also increase.

Comment by Tiia Nõmm, Head of Marketing at the Ülemiste Centre:

For years, the Ülemiste Centre has supported forward-looking activities that create a sense of security for visitors and help reduce the centre’s ecological footprint. For example, in partnership with the innovative company R8 Technologies, we have reduced CO2 emissions by 500 tonnes and saved more than EUR 60,000 in a short time.

In addition, we help the Estonian Fund for Nature to stand up for the conservation and sustainable management of Estonian forests and work together with the Re-Use Centre (Uuskasutuskeskus) to ensure that clean, unbroken and usable items do not end up in landfills but find their way to a new owner. For this purpose, the centre has a Re-Use Centre locker where visitors can bring items (such as clothes, shoes or toys).

With the Ülemiste Centre, we want to contribute to the development of environmentally conscious consumption habits and lifestyles. Ringo’s green mindset is in line with the centre’s objectives, which is why we fully support their initiative to reduce packaging waste and use alternative solutions to single-use plastic packaging.

Link to the original article: