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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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