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Sweden’s Green Garbage System


Sweden has run out of garbage, so they’re looking to import. The country’s leading waste-to-energy program has proven so effective that the country has begun importing over 880,000 annual tons of waste from Norway to help feed their green-fixation. Now, they are even looking to cultivate similar relationships with other European countries.

Sweden’s western neighbour pays Sweden to import their garbage, convert it into energy and have the harmful byproducts of the incinerated waste returned to Norway for disposal. In doing so, Sweden provides energy and heat via a waste product and gets paid for it while Norway is offered a more friendly economic and environmental waste-disposal alternative.

Pretty impressive, no?

Incineration systems have been in place in Sweden since the 1940s. Having expanded during post-war reconstruction, they hit their stride in the ’70s and ’80s when a heavy expansion of waste incineration plants was coupled with increasingly strict emissions standards. Emission numbers have since then fallen by an estimated 90%-95%, solidifying Sweden’s position as a “global leader in recovering the energy in waste.”

Sweden’s waste-to-energy system now manages over two million tons of household waste annually, averaging similar numbers from their industrial sector. That produces heat for over twenty percent of Swedish homes (over 800,000) as well as providing electricity for an additional 250,000 according to a study by Avfall Sverige, the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association. This method “generates as much energy as 1.1 million cubic meters of oil which reduces carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions by 2.2 million tons per years. [That] is as much Co2 as 680,000 petrol-powered cars emit in a year.” Thanks to to this system of the 500 kg of household waste produced by each Swede annually, only four percent is landfilled. That can be compared to the 777 kg of waste produced by the average Canadian household and over 725 kg produced by the average American of which over fifty percent of the latter’s ends up in a landfill.

Nice job Sweden.

The idea that a country has become so efficient with their waste that they have turned trash into an economic commodity, something sought-after and pursued as an enticing import, is extremely commendable and even applause worthy. This method demonstrates a refreshing contrast to the prevalent perspective of waste held throughout much of North America and Europe. This notion of waste as a burden; a sullen responsibility that each of us are tasked with. Fortunately this idea is changing slowly. Germany and Norway have recently joined the ranks of Sweden. Germany is now importing the most waste in Europe, and Norway is touting the most efficient waste-to-energy system importing 45,000 tons of trash from the UK earlier this year.

Europe now houses 420 waste-to-energy plants, with the capacity to produce heat and electricity (through waste) for over 20 million people. But while some countries are catching on, others still lag far behind. Canada, according to the Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition, still “treats less than 3% of its disposed waste using EFW [energy-from-waste] facilities” compared to seven percent in the United States and seventy-five percent in Japan who is the global leader in waste-to-energy initiatives. That is unacceptable, Canada. Though the conditions for waste-to-energy systems, such as in Japan and Northern Europe, may not be as easily replicable or as economically viable in the physically larger continent that is North America, Canada’s waste-management systems need to be dramatically reexamined. This is particularly true considering that Canada was recently ranked 15th, with a C-rating, “among 17 developed nations studied across a host of environmental-efficiency” issues, according to the CBC.

Sweden was ranked third behind Norway and France.

But, this discussion about waste disposal sheds light on what should be the primary issue of waste-to-energy programs. These programs reflect an innovative and commendable alternative energy solution. Sweden should be celebrated for their use of it and the fact that they are so efficient with their waste that they have literally run out of garbage to burn. Regardless, the suggested implications of the success of these programs should remain in focus: they are a short-term solution to a much, much larger problem.


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