Sweden Is Running Out of Trash: 5 Fast Facts

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Sweden needs trash brought in from other countries to keep its recycling plants running. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Fruggo

Oslo, Sweden — Sweden, the land that brought us the smorgasbord, the Nobel Prize, Vikings, and IKEA, has a problem. The scenic Scandinavian nation with a population of nearly 10 million is running out of garbage. Swedish landfills have been used up. Its trash reserves are exhausted. This sounds like a good problem to have. But the lack of rubbish is forcing the Swedes actually to import trash from other countries. And at least one of these countries resents the situation.

Here are the 5 Fast Facts about Sweden’s strange predicament:

1Sweden’s Recycling Program Is Enviable

This sign on a Swedish food-waste trash can is in multiple languages for maximum recycling compliance. Credit Wikimedia Commons / W. Carter

Sweden has a well-deserved reputation as a beautiful nation. Its fresh air, clean cities, and gorgeous snow-blanked country scenes are legendary. This is because Swedish culture has traditionally involved looking after the environment. Sweden was one of the world’s first countries to levy a hefty tax on fossil fuels. This happened in 1991, and today, the country gets almost half its electricity from renewable energy sources.

For years, Sweden’s outstanding recycling program has set an example for the entire world. Because their government has made “sustainability” a priority, the Swedes are able to recycle more than 1.5 billion bottles and cans yearly. Moreover, Sweden puts out only a paltry thousand pounds or so of garbage per household yearly, and each year since 2011, less than 1 percent of Swedish household waste has wound up in Swedish landfills.

“We feel that we have responsibility to act responsibly in this area and try to reduce our ecological footprint,” says Sweden’s Minister of Finance and Consumption, Per Bolund.

He elaborates,

“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.”

2Sweden Has to Import Garbage to Keep Its Recycling Plants Running

A stunning natural scene on the Sweden-Norway border. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr: Sweden / Josve05a

The Swedish are doing such a great job of recycling that for several years they’ve had to import garbage. Sweden needs trash from other countries to keep its recycling plants running. The Swedes are importing rubbish — 800,000 tons of trash in 2012—from the UK, Norway, Italy, and Ireland to maintain their country’s 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants.

Much of the imported trash comes from Sweden’s neighbor, Norway. This is because in Norway it’s cheaper to export waste to Sweden than to burn it at home. Through the export arrangement, the Norwegians pay the Swedes to take the garbage. The two nations feel the export deal between Norway and Sweden is a win-win — the Norwegians get rid of their garbage, and the Swedes burn the trash to create energy that is converted into electricity and heat.

3Sweden Burns Trash for Energy

Tons of waste are burned each hour, 24 hours a day, at the Sysav waste-to-energy plant in southern Sweden. Credit: Sysav South Scania Waste Company

“The only fuel we use is waste”, says Christian Lowhagen. She’s a spokesperson for Renova, an energy company that operates a WTE plant outside of Goteborg, Sweden. “[Waste] provides one-third of heat for households in this region”, she reports. Throughout Sweden, almost a million homes are now being heated by waste incineration, and trash provides electricity for more than a quarter million homes, according to Avfall Sverige, the nation’s waste-management association.

Catarina Ostlund is a senior advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. She affirms that her country is producing much less burnable waste than it needs, saying, “We have more capacity than the production of waste in Sweden that is usable for incineration”.

“We have the world’s best incineration plants concerning energy efficiency”, Ostlund asserts. “I would say maybe in the future, this waste will be valued even more, so maybe you could sell your waste because there will be a shortage of resources within the world”. Adis Dzebo, energy expert at the Stockholm Environment Institute, agrees. “Sweden has the world’s best network of district heating plants”, Dzebo confirms, “and they’re well-suited for use of garbage”.

4The UK Has Been Sending Its Trash to Sweden to Help Meet Recycling Goals

Uncollected rubbish at a park in central London. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Paul Farmer

Meanwhile across the North Sea from Scandinavia, the UK is another country that exports rubbish to Sweden. Still a member of the European Union (EU) until Brexit takes effect, Great Britain has been aiming at the EU’s target of 50 percent waste recycling by 2020 and 65 percent by 2030.

“We’re not quite at that target yet”, according to English recycling expert Hazel Sheffield. “Recycling in the UK peaked at around 45 per cent of all waste in 2014”, she reports. In the past, to achieve these goals Britain has been sending trash to Sweden. In 2014, most of the 100,000 tons of foreign garbage imported by the Renova WTE company in Goteburg came from Britain.

And in Malmo in southern Sweden, the Sysav energy company imported 135,000 tons of waste from Britain and Norway last year — an increase of 100 percent over the previous year.

5Some Say the UK Should Keep Its Trash at Home

Sheffield laments the fact that Britain is “paying expensive transport costs to send rubbish to be recycled overseas, rather than paying fines to send it to landfill”. But the UK is making progress with its own waste recycling programs. As an alternative to trash export, Britain has begun building more of its own recycling facilities and energy recovery plants with investments of hundreds of millions of pounds sterling. These projects have further benefited the UK by creating jobs.

Angus Evers is a partner at the UK’s Shoosmiths law firm with a special interest in environmental law. He says that when it comes to waste management and recycling, the UK’s approach is too regional. “We need more of a coherent national strategy in England to the collection of recyclable materials, rather than the current approach, whereby it is largely left to individual local authorities to determine their own collection policies”, observes Evers.

He says that, as Britain prepares to exit the EU, a better domestic recycling system should be part the country’s exit strategy: “The materials we currently export represent a huge drain of valuable resources going out of the UK that could be used in the UK economy to make new products and reduce our imports of raw materials”. Evers concludes, “If we have aspirations to be less dependent on Europe, then we need to be more self-sufficient and recycle more”.

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