Sweden's Recycling Revolution

Nearly sixty percent of the world’s garbage ends up in landfills, and this is projected to double over the next fifteen years. Globally, that is 1.3 billion tonnes of landfill waste annually with a projected increase to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025. Landfills pollute the air through the release of greenhouse gases, especially methane, pollute groundwater by toxic waste, particularly from industrial and household chemicals and electronic waste that leaches into soil and groundwater by penetrating landfill linings, and plastics, which decompose at a very slow rate and contain known toxins.

Strict waste disposal rules were introduced in Sweden in the 1970s when less than forty percent of household waste was recycled. Today, Sweden aims to be waste-free by 2020. The European Union has implemented a ban on landfills in EU countries, and its policies target sixty-five percent recycling by its member states by 2030, which is well above the actual performance of most countries.

Sweden’s Program

Sweden has implemented a cohesive national recycling policy and the national government claims the following:

  • 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 thirty-two plants.

  • Heavy metal emissions have been reduced by 99 percent since 1985, even though Sweden incinerates three times more waste today.

  • Less than one percent of Sweden’s household waste ends up in landfills.

When energy recovery is factored in, where waste is turned into energy by incineration, Sweden claims to recycle nearly 100 percent of household waste.

The Green

Homeowners and business owners’ sort and separate waste into hazardous wastes and recyclable material, which are then sent to different waste-management systems, such as incinerators and recycling, and a small amount to landfills.

Fifty percent of household waste is burned to produce energy at incineration plants. The remaining ashes constitute fifteen percent of the weight prior to 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. Approximately one percent remains and is deposited in garbage dumps.

Smoke from incineration plants consists of ninety-nine percent non-toxic carbon dioxide and water and is still filtered through dry filters and water. The dry filters are deposited and the sludge from the dirty filter water is used to refill abandoned mines.

Waste is a relatively cheap fuel and Sweden has developed a large capacity and skill in efficient and profitable waste treatment. The furnaces in waste-to-energy (WTE) plants are loaded with garbage and then burned to generate steam, which is further used to spin turbines in order to produce electricity. The waste that is recycled is converted into district heating, electricity, biogas, and biofertilizer. Sweden imports millions of tonnes of waste from other countries for incineration.

The Dirty

Within the last decade, EU restrictions on the export of “residual waste” was partially lifted, which meant incinerators that met certain energy efficiency standards could now import waste from abroad. Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark, among others, started to import waste to develop and improve their recycling rates without undermining the viability of their incineration plants.

Sweden considers incineration as recycling, even though incineration is not recycling. Therefore, Sweden does not recycle 99 percent of its waste.

Of the 4.4 million tonnes of household waste produced by the nation every year, 2.2 million are converted into energy by a process called waste-to-energy but converting waste to energy requires a heating and cooling infrastructure, which takes a long time for a municipality to design and develop.

Waste-to-energy creates the disincentive to develop more sustainable waste reduction strategies. In the short term, it provides the appearance of quick and easy success, particularly when confronted with strict standards by the EU, but it not a sustainable long-term solution.

Recycling or reusing materials or products uses less energy to create a new product, than burning one and making another one from scratch. The goal of reducing pollution should focused on the source, by reducing waste at the consumer end and actually recycling and reusing what is created. Over time, less should be ending up in landfills or incinerators.