You may have recently come across headlines outlining Sweden’s tendency to import waste from other countries. The news had struck me as odd the first time I read it: why would a country that’s known for being sustainable and progress-oriented IMPORT waste? Is it that they have more space for landfills? I was thoroughly confused and mildly incensed, and thus began my investigation into the matter.
As counter-intuitive as the headlines seemed at first glance, it appears that Sweden is a leading expert on household recycling and biofuels. Effectively, the country’s recycling program is one of the greatest in the world, with over 99% of all household waste being recycled in some way or another – an increase of about 60% from 1975. The majority of household papers and plastics are reused and recycled, and Swedish law mandates that recycling stations are to be no more than 300m away from residential areas, making recycling of waste just as convenient as landfill disposal to the every-day consumer. As for food waste, it is composted and becomes soil, or biofuel, through tailored chemical processes.
In biofuel development, Sweden also has the leading edge, with about half of all food waste going towards energy-production. As opposed to traditional fossil fuels, biofuels limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in various ways, most notably in the upstream processes of fossil fuel extraction, refinement and eventual import. Waste is a relatively cheaper fuel and, through incineration, the Swedes have increased their capacity and developed greater efficiency in converting it into a viable source of energy – enough to power municipal hospitals and garbage trucks. In 2014, the country imported 2.7 million tones of waste to supply its power demands – thus the striking headlines!
Of course, the incineration factor holds a certain amount of inherent controversy. By its very nature, will waste combustion release toxic chemicals and add greenhouse gases to our atmosphere? The Swedes have a solution for this also: the smoke from incineration plants consists of 99.9% non-toxic carbon dioxide and water, and is further filtered through dry filters and water. The dry filters are then deposited, and the sludge from the filter water is used to refill abandoned mines. Effectively, every aspect of the recycling process is as waste-reducing as possible.
The Swedish waste recycling system has been holding strong for years, and is seen as a model program for countries across the globe. In 2014, the South Korean city of Ulsan recruited a Swedish company, Scandinavian Biogas Fuels, to facilitate their transition to using biogas. The city’s end goal is to use biogas to power their buildings and vehicles, rather than letting waste run off into the ocean and generating methane, which has ~30x greater deleterious effects on our atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
As of today, Sweden upholds its role as a world-leader in sustainability and waste-reduction. Action plans are in place to encourage producers to make longer-lasting, more durable products, as well as giving tax deductions for repairing broken items instead of disposing of them. Moreover, Swedish companies are jumping on-board to limit their waste; for example, Sweden-based clothing retailer H&M has begun a “Garment Collecting” initiative, accepting used clothing in exchange for rebate coupons in local stores.
The country’s progressive methods are something to be valued and encouraged across the world, and though we may never attain 100% perfect recycling, it is something worth striving towards in the efforts to keep our planet green and happy.