The Truth Behind Sweden’s Recycling Program

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Since Huffington Post ran an article two years ago on Sweden’s 99 percent efficient recycling program, many environmentalists and green energy advocates have used them as an example of sound energy and waste management. While the country boasts that it needs to import garbage from its neighbors in order to keep its own plants running, things aren’t always as great as they’re made out to be.

Before delving deeper into this analysis of Sweden’s recycling program, it’s important to note that our Scandinavian friends have made great efforts to minimize waste in their country. While the Swedes recycle roughly 1.5 billion bottles and cans a year across its population just under 10 million, it only produces about 1,106 pounds of waste on average per year, per person. Though slightly over half a ton might seem like a lot, Americans waste (directly or indirectly through ineffective production and recycling processes) about a million pounds of waste per year, per person. Of that, only two percent of the overall waste stream is effectively recycled; ashamedly, though we comprise 5 percent of the world’s population, we produce 30 percent of its trash.

Most notable of Sweden’s green reforms is its waste-to-energy (WTE) program, where 32 specialized power plants incinerate waste that cannot be recycled into steam. The steam, in turn, spins generator turbines which then create electricity that’s distributed among commercial, residential, and industrial areas. In order to keep costs down as well as the amount of garbage actually burned, the recycling process first starts with everyday people. At home or at work, trash is presorted by material such as food scraps and biodegradables for compost, as well as glass, metal, and plastic for salvage or reprocessing. With their knack for separating waste, this leaves too little garbage for their own incinerators putting Sweden in the unique position to import garbage from other countries.

“We feel that we have a responsibility to act responsibly in this area and try to reduce our ecological footprint,” Swedish Finance and Consumption Minister Per Bolund said in an interview with AJ+. “The consumers are really showing that they want to make a difference and what we’re trying to do from the government’s side is to help them act, making it easier to behave in a sustainable way.” Aside from taking a more proactive approach in how they dispose of things, the Swedish government is increasingly incentivizing people to repair and/or resell goods such as bicycles, shoes, and clothing.

These incentives come in the form of lessened taxes for goods that can be repaired or have second lives, with greater taxes on goods that won’t be able to be repaired. Though you might not be capable with a wrench or sewing needle, this opens up plenty of business opportunities for those who do. Not only is this savvy entrepreneurialism, it keeps otherwise usable merchandise out of the landfills and encourages people to fix things rather than just dispose of them outright.

Despite all of these good things, however, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Green Semantics

The counterargument to Sweden’s recycling program is less about what it’s doing and more about the terms it uses to describe these activities. With great pride showcased on an official government website, the whole “99 percent of waste is recycled” slogan backed with sensational videos isn’t the most honest:

Environmental watchdog site TreeHugger notes that term “recycling” here is a bit of a stretch, with the number closer to about 50 percent rather than 99. “Sweden incinerate[s] about 50 percent of their waste to make heat and energy. And even in their own website, they admit this is not the best approach, that it is not really recycling, and that it takes less energy to actually recycle and reuse than it does to burn and manufacture a replacement from scratch.”

Here in the United States, recycling is defined as “using waste as material to manufacture a new product.” Incineration, by contrast, is called transformation; pyrolysis, distillation, and biological conversion outside of composting falls into this category which, by and large, is quite different from recycling.

Though Sweden’s WTE program does a great job of keeping toxins from waste seeping into the ground, it’s more than just steam that comes out of the smokestacks of its incinerators. While they boast that the output is just “99.9 percent non-toxic carbon dioxide and water,” carbon dioxide isn’t as friendly a molecule as it’s led to believe, given its pivotal role as a greenhouse gas. Slate even mentions an EPA report that burning coal is even preferable to that of incinerating garbage:

“The EPA reports that incinerating garbage releases 2,988 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. That compares unfavorably with coal (2,249 pounds/megawatt hour) and natural gas (1,135 pounds/megawatt hour). But most of the stuff burned in the WTE processes–such as paper, food, wood, and other stuff created of biomass–would have released the CO2 embedded in it over time, as ‘part of the Earth’s natural carbon cycle.’”

What’s important to note in that last sentence is that biomass waste would release CO2 a lot slower over time in a way that the environment was meant to handle. Such is the law of decomposition, much like what happens in forests as dead trees and animals decay over the course of weeks and months — or even as long as decades. Burning it releases that carbon dioxide all at once in one fell swoop, not allowing the environment to handle that influx at the pace it needs.

Tom Szaky, another TreeHugger contributor, argues that WTE also disincentivizes waste reduction strategies: “It may work better in the short term with strict pollution standards and as a last-resort for waste disposal, but it does not offer us a sustainable long-term solution. Preserving material (through recycling and reuse) already in circulation is a key component of sustainable development. Burning finite resources may not be the best approach down the line.”

Where Sweden might brag that it needs to import garbage from its neighbors in order to burn for electricity (roughly 700,000 tons of it), the Nordic country will be in a sore spot as other countries bring down their waste output in favor of other green and recycling initiatives. In this case, the less waste there is to burn, the less fuel Sweden has for its furnaces to power the country.

“Incineration is expensive and inefficient,” says environmental scientist David Suzuki who has started his own foundation to combat climate change. “Once we start the practice, we come to rely on waste as a fuel commodity, and it’s tough to go back to more environmentally sound methods of dealing with it. As has been seen in Sweden and Germany, improving efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle can actually result in shortages of waste ‘fuel.'”

Good intentions aside, it all comes back to the importance of the term recycling. “It’s a complicated issue,” Suzuki continues. “We need to find ways to manage waste and to generate energy without relying on diminishing and increasingly expensive supplies of polluting fossil fuels. Sending trash to landfills is clearly not the best solution. But we have better options than landfills and incineration, starting with reducing the amount of waste we produce. Through education and regulation, we can reduce obvious sources and divert more compostable, recyclable, and reusable materials away from the dump. It’s simply wasteful to incinerate it.”

Eyes on the Horizon

So what lessons can we take from Sweden’s recycling program? Again, despite its good intentions, the Scandinavian country still has a ways to go to truly live up to its 99 percent recycling reputation. And no matter how you cut it, they — along with many other developed countries — are worlds better than the United States when it comes to recycling and keeping waste out of landfills.

With that in mind, there are a few issues that need solving:

  • In what ways can we apply what works in Sweden and other leading green countries to our own?
  • What business opportunities lie in recycling, upcycling, and repairing broken goods otherwise thrown away?
    • If you’re good with electronics, why not refurbish and repair broken ones?
    • If you can sew, why not offer to repair and stitch up worn clothing or buy up clothing waste and recycle it into brand new pieces?
    • If you’re good with welding and mechanics, why not work with metal salvage, whether it’s bicycle repair, metal sculpting, or metallurgy, melting old metal down and turning it into something new (this mini metal backyard forge comes to mind)?
  • How can we generate energy that’s less reliant on combustion that emits harmful gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? As businesspeople? As everyday people at home?
  • How can we train people to throw less away and recycle more? How do we incentivize municipal services to help enforce these efforts and implement them efficiently?

Like Suzuki and others said, this truly is a complicated issue. But just as our Swedish neighbors from across the pond have shown us, change starts one person at a time. How do you intend on helping the fight for a greener planet?


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