Swedes recycle nearly 100 per cent of their household waste – that’s if you include energy recovery, when waste is turned into energy through burning. And to have something to burn, Sweden even imports waste. A true recycling revolution.
Towards zero waste
Wouldn’t it be great if no household waste was wasted? If each and every item of refuse was turned into something else – new products, raw materials, gas or at least heat?
Sweden is almost there. More than 99 per cent of all household waste is recycled in one way or another. This means that the country has gone through something of a recycling revolution in the last decades, considering that only 38 per cent of household waste was recycled in 1975 (see chart).
Today, recycling stations are as a rule no more than 300 metres from any residential area. Most Swedes separate all recyclable waste in their homes and deposit it in special containers in their block of flats or drop it off at a recycling station. Few other nations deposit less in rubbish dumps.
Facts about waste in Sweden
- In 2016 nearly 2.3 million tonnes of household waste was turned into energy through burning, i.e. around half of all household waste.
- In 2015 Sweden imported 2.3 million tonnes of waste from, among others, Norway, the UK and Ireland.
- Sweden has been burning waste for a long time – the first incineration plant was set up in 1904. Today there are 32 plants.
- Heavy metal emissions have been reduced by 99 per cent since 1985, even though Sweden incinerates three times more waste today.
Source: Avfall Sverige
Stepping up recycling
Weine Wiqvist, CEO of the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association (Avfall Sverige), still thinks Swedes can do more, considering that about half of all household waste is burnt, that is, turned into energy. He explains that reusing materials or products means using less energy to create a product, than burning one and making another from scratch.
‘We are trying to “move up the refuse ladder”, as we say, from burning to material recycling, by promoting recycling and working with authorities’, he says.
Meanwhile, Swedish households keep separating their newspapers, plastic, metal, glass, electric appliances, light bulbs and batteries. Many municipalities also encourage consumers to separate food waste. And all of this is reused, recycled or composted.
Newspapers are turned into paper mass, bottles are reused or melted into new items, plastic containers become plastic raw material; food is composted and becomes soil or biogas through a complex chemical process. Rubbish trucks are often run on recycled electricity or biogas. Wasted water is purified to the extent of being potable. Special rubbish trucks go around cities and pick up electronics and hazardous waste such as chemicals. Pharmacists accept leftover medicine. Swedes take their larger waste, such as a used TV or broken furniture, to recycling centres on the outskirts of the cities.
At the Gärstadverken in Linköping, waste is turned into energy. The chart shows how much recycling has grown in Sweden over the last decades.
Photo: Åke E:son Lindman
Waste to energy
Let’s take a closer look at the 50 per cent of the household waste that is burnt to produce energy at incineration plants. Waste is a relatively cheap fuel and Sweden has, over time, developed a large capacity and skill in efficient and profitable waste treatment. In 2014, Sweden even imported 2.7 million tonnes of waste from other countries.
The remaining ashes constitute 15 per cent of the weight before burning. From the ashes, metals are separated and recycled, and the rest, such as porcelain and tile, which do not burn, is sifted to extract gravel that is used in road construction. About one per cent still remains and is deposited in rubbish dumps.
The smoke from incineration plants consists of 99.9 per cent non-toxic carbon dioxide and water, but is still filtered through dry filters and water. The dry filters are deposited. The sludge from the dirty filter water is used to refill abandoned mines.
In Sweden, burning waste to produce energy is uncontroversial, but in other countries – like the US – it is a much debated topic.
Hans Wrådhe at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket) considers proposing a higher levy on waste collection.
‘That would increase everybody’s awareness of the problem’, he says.
Together with government agencies and corporations, Wrådhe has developed an action plan for waste prevention, including how to encourage producers to make products that last longer. The agency also considers proposing a tax deduction for some repairs.
‘Government-sponsored ads on how to avoid food waste might also help’, he says. ‘And less toxic substances used in production would mean fewer products that require expensive treatment.’
On Swedish TV, sandwiched between other commercials, the Pantamera videos try to encourage people to return used bottles to grocery stores – ‘panta mera’ means recycle more.
In this stationary vacuum system, users throw their waste into ordinary inlets, where the bags are stored temporarily. All full inlets are then emptied at regular intervals through a network of underground pipes.
Companies joining the effort
Some Swedish companies have voluntarily joined in the struggle. For example, H&M has begun accepting used clothing from customers in exchange for rebate coupons in an initiative called Garment Collecting.
The Optibag company has developed a machine that can separate coloured waste bags from each other. People throw food in a green bag, paper in a red one, and glass or metal in another. Once at the recycling plant, Optibag sorts the bags automatically. This way, waste sorting stations could be eliminated.
The southern Swedish city of Helsingborg even fitted public waste bins with loudspeakers playing pleasant music – all in the name of recycling.
Back to Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association CEO Wiqvist, who thinks perfection in recycling is possible, an idea worth striving for.
‘“Zero waste” – that is our slogan’, he says. ‘We would prefer less waste being generated, and that all the waste that is generated is recycled in some way. Perfection may never happen, but it certainly is a fascinating idea.’
Last updated: 19 September 2018
Jonas Fredén is a freelance journalist. He has worked for Finanstidningen (Finance news), Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s public service radio broadcaster, and the daily Dagens Nyheter.