Models of Sustainability: Sweden Runs Out of Garbage

Unloading garbage

Unloading garbage

By: Amanda Froelich,

True Activist.

Imagine a world where pollution is a non-issue, cities are pristine, healthy environments to live in, and little to no entanglements from discarded trash injures wildlife or clogs the oceans. In Sweden, this is almost a reality, yet it’s causing a paradoxical predicament for the recycle-happy country that relies on waste to heat and provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes.

The Scandinavian nation of more than 9.5 million citizens has run out of garbage; while this is a positive – almost enviable – predicament for a country to be facing, Sweden now has to search for rubbish outside of its borders to generate its waste-to-energy incineration program. It’s namely Norway officials who are now shipping in 80,000 tons of refuse annually to fuel the country with outside waste.

The population’s remarkable pertinacious recycling habits are inspiration for other garbage-bloated countries where the idea of empty landfills is scarce. In fact, only 4 percent of all waste in Sweden is land-filled, a big win for the future of sustainable living. By using its two million tons of waste as energy and scrapping for more outside of its borders, this country is shown in international comparisons to be the global leader in recovering energy in waste. Go Sweden.

Public Radio International has the whole story. This (albeit short-term) solution is even highly beneficial for the Scandinavian country; Norway pays Sweden to take its excess waste, Sweden burns it for heat and electricity, and the ashes remaining from the incineration process, filled with highly polluting dioxins, are returned back to Norway and land filled.

Catarina Ostland, senior advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, suggests that Norway may not be the perfect partner for the trash import-export scheme, however. “I hope that instead we will get the waste from Italy or from Romania or Bulgaria, or the Baltic countries because they landfill a lot in these countries” she tells PRI. “They don’t have any incineration plants or recycling plants, so they need to find a solution for their waste”.

There’s definitely something to be said about being ‘green’. Regardless of its sourcing, hopefully Sweden’s impeccable job of reducing its carbon footprint may serve as an example to other areas of the world that have more than enough trash to utilize and put to sustainable use.


Sweden Waste-Energy Sustainability

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145 Responses to "Models of Sustainability: Sweden Runs Out of Garbage"

  1. Erik van Lennep  November 15, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    “not there yet…” This is somehow moving in the right direction, yet somehow close to losing the path. Yes, it’s good that these materials are not being land-filled in bulk, but they are being land-filled as highly concentrated and toxic residues. And not where they have been burned, but shipped “out of sight, out of mind” . There is something about this that reminds me of the USA and the EU shipping radioactive wastes to African countries for disposal (and sometimes reappearing there as road surfacing!) . How clean we Swedes are! Just look, all of our energy residues are in another country. Almost saintly!

    Another issue: energy plants like this have municipal or national contracts,guaranteeing them a minimal flow of waste to burn (thus their need for more waste may not be purely associated with electricity demand). They can, when all else is done well, serve as a stop-gap measure, both for energy production and waste reduction, but they also create a dependency which diverts materials from recycling, reuse, remanufacturing…and improvements in materials, design and processes. They obscure the more important issues and opportunities we need to advance to become more sustainable and more resilient.

    As well, this is the most drastic form of down-cycling. It’s a one way street, a death march for materials which required fossil fuels, rare minerals, human labor, cash inputs, natural resources, large hydropower generation which destroys forests and biodiversity….you get the idea. The best use for plastic, is new plastic. Once manufactured, the petroleum, chemicals and energy have already been spent. What a waste to not reuse them rather than go through the entire process afresh.

    The jobs of the future will increasingly include design and innovation and cleaner manufacture, yet diverting materials to incineration, and distracting policy from requiring more careful selection of materials,is delaying what needs to be done, and denying new generations of students the industry support for advancing cleaner design, cleaner supply chains, and a host of innovations yet to be imagined.

    So, are we getting somewhere, or are we being delusional?


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