Sweden’s Backward Waste Problem

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It probably won’t surprise many that Sweden is good at recycling. While Americans recycle only 24 percent of their household waste, in Sweden almost 99 percent of all waste is reused and only around 1 percent ends up in landfills. According to Avfall Sverige, Sweden’s waste management company, virtually every gram of the half ton of household waste that every Swede produces each year is recycled.

This is usually thought of as a good thing, but it has brought an unexpected consequence: Sweden now recycles so much of its own waste that it no longer has enough to burn for the incinerator plants that provide a significant portion of the country’s energy. The strange result is that while most of the world is being buried under its own waste, Sweden is actually importing it.

In Sweden, 50 percent of all household waste is used to produce energy. This amounts to over 2 million tons of household waste, burned every year in Avfall Sverige’s waste-to-energy plants. Currently, 32 plants across Sweden consume rubbish that cannot be reused, providing 250,000 households with electricity and 810,000 with heating, meaning that nearly 20 percent of all Swedish homes are kept warm by waste. As a result, Sweden is the current global leader in waste-to-energy technology.

Faced with such demand and less and less waste at home, Avfall Sverige has had to turn to outside sources for its garbage. In 2014, the company imported over 1.4 million tons of waste, almost three-quarters of the amount it gets from Sweden’s own households. Most of this comes from Norway, Ireland and Great Britain, which pay Sweden for freeing them of their garbage mountains.

Avfall Sverige says that its plants not only help dispose of Sweden’s waste but also reduce the country’s carbon emissions. According to the company, energy production from waste can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2.2 million tons annually, which is as much CO2 as 680,000 petrol-run cars emit on average per year.

But not everyone agrees that the plants are so green. Critics doubt their efficiency, saying the carbon dioxide released during the energy production process is disproportionate to the actual usable energy produced.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives argues that waste-to-energy plants even “contribute to climate change by emitting more carbon dioxide than the oil industries.” Some critics also worry that using waste as fuel undermines efforts at reducing wastage in the first place, as well as the recycling process in the long run, because it makes waste a valuable resource.

Avfall Sverige disputes these arguments. “Waste-to-energy is an environmental, financial, safe and stable contribution to the country’s energy supply,” says Ingegerd Svantesson, a company spokesman.

More immediately, though, Sweden’s waste energy plants may be more at risk from other countries copying their example. Norway and Great Britain are both on their way to building their own waste-to-energy plants; Swedish company Ramboll is advising the former on building new facilities.

If these countries start reusing their own waste, the Swedes, weirdly enough, might be almost too green for their own good.

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