Sweden has a booming business in garbage, and a serious knack for recycling. As of last year, the country now recycles ninety-nine percent of its waste, with less than one percent of Sweden’s household garbage going into landfills.
For the past several decades, the Scandinavian country has developed a waste management system that prioritizes prevention (reduction, reuse, recycle) and alternative recycling, such as their waste-to-energy program (WTE), over traditional landfilling. The country’s waste reduction strategy has been so successful that Sweden regularly imports 800,000 tonnes of garbage from the UK, Italy, Norway and Ireland to fuel the country’s 32 waste-to-energy plants.
“When waste sits in landfills, leaking methane gas and other greenhouse gases, it is obviously not good for the environment,” explained Anna-Carin Gripwell, Director of Communications at Swedish Waste Management. “Waste to energy is a smart alternative with less environmental impact…[and] exploits a resource that would otherwise be wasted.”
This is how Sweden does things differently. Before shipping garbage to WTE incineration plants, everything is sorted by individuals and businesses, separating the reusable metals, plastics and paper, and other salvageable materials.
Rules introduced in the 1990s require that all producers cover the costs of handling for the recycling or disposal of their products. Plastic bottles and aluminum cans, for example, are regularly returned to Returpack, Sweden’s primary deposit organization, through the financial incentive of a refundable deposit. The rules are intended to encourage companies to produce more ecologically-conscious packaging, to incentivize the return of recyclable materials, and to help alleviate taxpayers of waste management costs.
Waste that isn’t mitigated through regular recycling is then burned in WTE incineration plants for energy.
Over two million tons of trash is incinerated in Sweden every year. At the Filborna plant in Helsingborg, for example, roughly forty percent of households receive their district heating from garbage incineration.
“A good number to remember is that 3 tonnes of waste contains as much energy as one tonne of fuel oil…so there’s a lot of energy in waste,” said Göran Skoglund, Press Officer for Öresundskraft, one of the Sweden’s primary energy companies.
With Swedes being encouraged to produce less waste, garbage imported from neighbouring countries with increasingly strict rules for landfills has created good business opportunities for Sweden. It also helps to reduce the amount of landfill material elsewhere in Europe.
But waste-to-energy is not without controversy. Incineration plants are expensive, critics claim. And once burning garbage becomes a method to produce energy, countries may come to rely on it as a fuel commodity, creating a demand for more garbage instead of less.
Waste-to-energy also comes with its own environmental problems. Although new technologies and emissions standards in Sweden help to reduce the release of carbon and other dioxins into the environment, the process still creates pollutants that require proper disposal—mainly bottom ash, flue gas, and other carcinogenic byproducts.
The process isn’t perfect, Skoglund admits. Ultimately “the world needs to produce less waste,” and efforts to increase the amount of recycled material and reduce the creation new garbage should remain the primary goal. But in the meantime, he suggests, “waste incineration and extracting energy from the waste is a good solution.”