Interview with circular economy expert

Written by
World Cleanup Day
July 28, 2023

Mayri Tiido is a circular economy entrepreneur from Estonia on a mission to transform the world into a circular model. She's one of the co-founders of Materjalivoog, a marketplace for industrial “leftovers”. She has carried out research on the competencies young people need to become future leaders in a circular world. She is an adult educator with 10+ years of experience, providing training to raise awareness of the circular economy.

As an expert on the circular economy, can you give a few examples that you feel everybody should know about?

Sure, I can give a few examples of things everybody can do to contribute to the circular economy. There’s some very simple things—like if you know a place in your local community where you can get items repaired, such as your shoes, watch, electronics, clothes, tables and chairs, then that’s a great example of the circular economy in action. Often they’re little places run by older people, with little workshops—where they’ve still got the know-how for repair work.

Can we even broaden this out to include our parents and grandparents generations, who are all like little circular economy experts—repairing broken stuff instead of throwing it away?

Exactly. The circular economy as a concept is not a brand new, never thought-of idea. But in a way, it’s bringing back the value to items. Say I have this dress that I like so much that I'm going to wash it properly, I'm going to take care of it, and I'm going to repair it. All these things are what the circular economy is looking for from people. But I think the main difference these days in the discussions on the global scale, is that we’re looking for businesses to join this journey—so that they make us products that are actually repairable, that can be refurbished, and that are actually durable, so they don't just break after the first use.

Are there some companies that are setting a good example in this sense?

There’s one company in Estonia that I am a real fan of. They’re called Foxway, and they collect small used electronics from the Baltics and the Nordics, and then they refurbish them. They take, for example, three different iPhones and make one working one, and then they put it back on the market. These types of solutions are crucial. I find it amazing that they have hundreds of people in their factory working to solve this problem, because iPhones and other electronics are not necessarily made to be repairable—so the way that they have been able to build a business model around it, and create value in those old products, is really positive. Another thing I like about Foxway is that anything they can't use in their refurbished products they recycle properly afterwards. Because that's another thing we don't have in the collective consciousness of the general public: an awareness of how many different metals there are in electronics, and how much cheaper and more reasonable it is to actually take these materials from existing products, rather than going to mine them as virgin resources.

Are companies like this influencing the bigger telecom companies? Is there a trend?

I would say that’s the case, yes. And I believe that consumers are also taking more responsibility for their personal electronics. Just recently, I was talking to 100 high schoolers, and they said that on average they use their smartphones for four years. I was mind-blown! Because the average statistic says that people change them every two years. But actually, even four years is not enough—because if we take the environmental impact of making a smartphone, then to neutralise the environmental impact we should be using it for 25 years! Now I'm not saying we should actually use our smartphones for 25 years, but we should definitely build systems to make sure no reusable material from a smartphone goes to waste.

Electronics is one part of the issue, but I understand there are some new EU laws coming with regards to used clothing. What are your thoughts on this topic?

This is a real challenge. There is currently a huge number of people and universities looking for ways to improve the textiles recycling process—particularly to recycle mixed textiles, such as a mix of polyester and cotton. So this is actually a topic for which there isn’t a clear answer currently, because the research is still in progress. But the best thing to do on an individual level is to only have clothes in your closet that you truly love, that you truly want to wear—and then wear them literally until the end of life. Then okay, maybe they’re going to end up in landfill, but you’ll have worn them so many times. Rather than just barely wearing it, putting it into a clothes sale, and feeling like “Oh I'm such a nice person, somebody bought my old dress”, while still actually contributing to over-consumption. The more we love the things we actually own, and the more we want to repair them and reuse them, the better it is for the circular economy and the environment.

We’ve heard you speak previously about an awesome example of a clever idea for reusing textiles, not just as clothes. Could you tell us more?

Yes, there is a really cool new startup in Estonia, called Low imPACK. They’ve found a way for any kind of textile to be converted into packaging material. Currently they have them in the shape of a box, and they just recently launched an e-commerce reusable packaging system called Tango, here in Estonia. You order something online and instead of a cardboard box or bubble wrap, it comes in this reusable packaging. Then you return it, get your deposit back, and it goes back into circulation for reuse up to 20 times.

So it's like a deposit system, which we’re used to here in Estonia for things like plastic bottles?

Exactly. And I think that this type of deposit system is the way forward. I would love to see these systems expanding to items in supermarkets. Why can't I buy cheese in reusable packaging, for example? Or go and buy shoes and sneakers. Why do we have to have so much cardboard? Sure, on one hand we’ve found ways to recycle cardboard, but at the same time we're still using it just once. And that's an important part of the circular economy—you try to design out single-use, and instead try to make things that are reusable as many times as possible.

As an expert on this topic, when do you feel we’re going to reach this point—when you can actually buy cheese in a reusable packaging? When single-use is over?

Well, I tend to be a very optimistic person! So I would like to say that in, perhaps, seven years or so, we’ll get there. I know we’ve got a lot of expectations about 2035, 2040, 2050—that we're thinking all these things are going to be happening then. But that’s when we have to have already achieved our sustainability goals. So all these little steps need to have already been taken. So I'm hoping that in, let's say, the next 5-7 years we're going to be seeing an explosion of these types of solutions in different markets. Not only in Estonia, but globally—in different European countries, in South American countries, in Asia, etc. But, it does require the citizens to be open to these solutions, to support them in the early stages. And it also requires a little bit of regulation. Or at least, the state and its regulators being brave and deciding that we’re actually going to phase out single-use items, and instead we're going to invest in repair services and all these circular economy initiatives. So it's a collective effort—we can't pinpoint only one culprit, or only one responsible body—it has to come as a collective effort. And the collective is made up of all the individual people, like you and me and everyone else.

What are your main tips for us? What can we do to help speed up the process?

From an individual home-life perspective, please, everybody, sort your bio waste separately. I think that's the main thing; our soils are dying—so let's try to at least give our best in that regard. And then I think what the world really needs is to slow down! Because the more we slow down our life, the more we have a moment to actually pick up our sock with a hole in it, and repair it. You have a moment to sit down and think, “maybe I’ll do my whole week’s shopping from the local market”. You have the time to plan things out—and the more you plan out, the less you’re rushed into this mindless consumption of take-away coffee, take-away food, and all of that. And you have time to appreciate what you have, and realise: “I really like the things that I have, and I want them to be in my life for many years to come.” So slowing down life and living stress-free, that's what I think people should take on as a goal for themselves.  

Thank you so much for your time Mayri, and for this awesome input.

Mayri Tiido, co-founder of Material Flow, is a circular economy expert and entrepreneur from Estonia on a mission to transform the world into a circular model.
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