2012-10-23

Co.Exist

Sweden Needs More Trash, Because It Has Turned All It's Got Into Energy

What happens when a recycling plan is too successful? Sweden does such a good job recycling and turning its waste to energy that it has started importing trash from its neighbors.

Americans, in general, are bad at recycling. In 2010, U.S. residents recycled 34% of their waste--an embarrassing amount compared to European countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, where people recycle almost all of their waste. In Sweden, people are so diligent about recycling that just 4% of all trash ends up in landfills, It’s a heartening statistic, but it has led to a problem for the country--there’s not enough garbage to power the country’s large waste-to-energy program. Sweden’s solution: import trash.

Sweden’s waste incineration program, which began in the 1940s, treats over 2 million tons of waste each year, heats 810,000 homes, and provides electricity for 250,000 homes, all from burning trash. It’s not enough, according to a report from Public Radio International. There’s too much waste incineration capacity and not enough garbage to fill it.

So Sweden, most likely to the delight of its neighbors, started importing 800,000 tons of trash annually from surrounding countries. PRI explains:

In the arrangement, Norway pays Sweden to take the waste off their hands and Sweden also gets electricity and heat. But dioxins in the ashes of the waste byproduct are a serious environmental pollutant. Ostlund explained that there are also heavy metals captured within the ash that need to be landfilled. Those ashes are then exported to Norway.

Sweden gets to keep all the good stuff (in this case, the trash), while the toxic byproducts get sent back to Norway. It sounds like a raw deal, but Norway is apparently pleased with it--burning waste is more expensive for the country than just exporting the garbage.

There are other countries in Europe that could also use some help from Sweden. Naples, Italy, produces more garbage per square meter than anywhere else in the world. That, combined with the strong Mafia presence in the area (it’s never good when the mob is involved in handling waste), has led to a trash crisis. It’s not surprising, then, that Italy is one of the countries that may export trash to Sweden in the future. One day, perhaps Italy, Norway, and other countries will realize that they’re actually giving away a precious energy resource. Until then, Sweden is happy to be the garbage man of Europe.

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13 Comments

  • JRT256

    Garbage seems like too valuable a resource to simply burn.  It could be used to generate Methane first that could be used as fuel instead.  This is more efficient because it deals with the water in the garbage.  The process can also recycle fertilizer   Then what was left could be pyrolyzed or depolymerized as the first step in producing synthetic fuel.  The slag that is left also has uses.  Or, could be refined as a source of metals and other materials. 

  • Andystardog

    Trash itself, especially food waste and wet/humid products
    do not burn. The furnace has to be fuelled by gas or oil in order to reach a
    decent temperature to burn all trash and generate high pressure steam to produce
    electricity.
    But the most pressing issue is the production of Dioxin.

    Dioxin is normally produced by burning plastics in widows
    temperatures between 400 and 700C. Newest furnaces, burning at over 1000C do
    produce much less Dioxine. Inorganic chlorides are then incorporated into ash.

    The situation in Naples
    is complex. Firstly organised crime is very interested in the management or
    mis-management of trash. Secondly, nobody really wants a large incinerator next
    door. Sweden is a very large
    country, much larger than Italy
    but with a total population less than double the population of Campania region. Naples province has a density of 2624 inh/Km2 whilst Sweden
    is 21 inh/Km2. The environmental impact of Dioxin release per capita in Sweden is
    negligible.

    Naples has been sending trash
    to Germany
    for years now, but I think that the only sustainable solution is to use less
    and recycle more.  

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  • Jessee1

    So is nobody but me curious about what happens to the enormous amount of carbon dioxide as well as other hazardous waste that is produced by incinerating all this trash? I know a lot of other countries have good ideas now and again, but incinerating trash was a practice quit hundreds of years ago due to its inefficiency and pollution. If anything they should adopt a policy like the US where environmental impact is balanced with financial efficacy.

  • Phi

    If you would have read the report about this program, you can see that this emission doesn't add up to the CO2 pollution if you wouldn't have used waste to energy. Using this energy instead of oil, reduces the pollution. I do agree that any pollution is bad, but in this case, it's doesn't make it worse.

  • Alan Carl Brown

    I wonder what happens with all that recycled plastic.

    Ikea, do you know anything about that?

  • Jeremy Cook

    That's really cool, however I wonder what the side effects are?  Certainly there is some reason (pollution? inefficiency?) that we don't do it in the US?

  • Johan

     Well you have to get the people to sort their garbage. In Sweden a very big percentage of the population take this seriously.

  • Denis Du Bois

    Denmark is one country that isn't exporting its waste to Sweden. Last year I produced a public radio special called "Sustaindinavia!"
    about waste-to-energy plants in Copenhagen, Denmark. While I'm in favor of reduce-reuse-recycle,I realize we'll never totally eliminate waste. Walking through Amagerforbrænding made me realize that there's an elegant solution for most of the stuff we send to landfills. Copenhagen gets 1/4th of its heat from burning trash. Several American cities have district heating and could do the same thing. Here's the podcast of the radio program --
    http://energypriorities.com/20... 
     

  • Reenersg

    While at the surface this is cool. Sweden conquering the trash
    mountain is chill. However, is anyone calling into question that
    Swedan's new appetite for trash just might justify our disposable,
    consumer-driven mentality. I mean if my neighbor says he will take my
    garbage, there is no longer a limit to the stuff that I can collect,
    cherish for a moment, and then throw away.

    Recycling and the "land-fill" focus might be one of the biggest
    hurdles we face to promoting a reduce society. "If I can donate my
    perfectly good small TV and do good for the environment, then it is okay
    that I purchased a new large TV that I will want replaced in two years
    anyway!" I mean does anyone want to stop and ask why Italy and Norway
    have "trash crises". Maybe we have too much stuff.

    All I am saying is, if you really care for the environment, hold the
    applause for Swedan. And put done that iPad mini. The version you
    currently have is way better than my 11 lb. desktop PC.
     

  • Reenersg

    While at the surface this is cool. Sweden conquering the trash mountain is chill. However, is anyone calling into question that Swedan's new appetite for trash just might justify our disposable, consumer-driven mentality. I mean if my neighbor says he will take my garbage, there is no longer a limit to the stuff that I can collect, cherish for a moment, and then throw away.

    Recycling and the "land-fill focus" might be one of the biggest hurdles we fast to promoting a reduce society. "If I can donate my perfectly good small TV and do good for the environment, then it is okay that I purchased a new large TV that I will want replaced in two years anyway!" I mean does anyone want to stop and ask why Italy and Norway have "trash crises". Maybe we have too much stuff.

    All I am saying is, if you really care for the environment, hold the applause for Swedan. And put done that iPad mini. The version you currently have is way better than my 11 lb. desktop PC.