Sweden is known for the all-time tennis champion Bjorn Borg, their Ikea furniture, the music of ABBA and austere art films from the likes of Ingmar Bergman, but it may soon be known for its incredible recycling programs. Did you know that less than one percent of Sweden’s household garbage ends up in landfills?
Per a recent news story, the Scandinavian country has become so good at managing waste, they have to import garbage from the United Kingdom, Italy, Norway and Ireland to feed the country’s 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, a practice that has been in place for years.
“Waste today is a commodity in a different way than it has been. It’s not only waste, it’s a business,” explained Swedish Waste Management communications director Anna-Carin Gripwell.
Part of the reason Sweden has such little waste is through their (controversial to some) use of incinerating trash and turning it into energy.
“When waste sits in landfills, leaking methane gas and other greenhouse gasses, it is obviously not good for the environment,” Gripwell said of traditional dump sites. So Sweden focused on developing alternatives to reduce the amount of toxins seeping into the ground. At the core of Sweden’s program is its waste-management hierarchy designed to curb environmental harm: prevention (reduce), reuse, recycling, recycling alternatives (energy recovery via WTE plants), and lastly, disposal (landfill). Before garbage can be trucked away to incinerator plants, trash is filtered by home and business owners; organic waste is separated, paper picked from recycling bins, and any objects that can be salvaged and reused pulled aside.
Why burn the waste? To generate steam which spins generator turbines and produces electricity, which is distributed across the country.
“A good number to remember is that three tons of waste contains as much energy as one ton of fuel oil … so there is a lot of energy in waste,” said Göran Skoglund, spokesperson for Öresundskraft, one of the country’s leading energy companies.
Some critics feel that the burning of trash releases more toxins into the air. But Sweden uses a regulated, low-emission process. The incineration process isn’t perfect, but technological advancements and introduction of flue-gas cleaning have reduced airborne dioxins to “very small amounts,” according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.
Sweden is a great example of how waste can be reduced while saving everyone money, and creating jobs.