The Swedish Revolution: Turning 99% of Garbage Into Energy
In fact, the Scandinavian country has become so good at managing waste that it even has to import garbage from the UK, Italy, Norway and Ireland to feed the country’s 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants.
The Swedish Miracle — How Does it Work?
It begins with the three R’s, but goes much further. At the core of Sweden’s program is its waste-management hierarchy designed to curb environmental harm: prevention (reduce), reuse, recycling, recycling alternatives (energy recovery via WTE plants), and lastly, disposal (landfill).
Incinerator plants are at the heart of the program, but before garbage is trucked there, it is first filtered by home and business owners; organic waste is separated, paper picked from recycling bins, and any objects that can be salvaged and reused pulled aside. OK, so nothing much out of the ordinary there.
What makes Sweden different is its use of a somewhat controversial program incinerating over two million tons of trash per year, producing about 670,000 tons worth of fuel oil energy. Pretty useful in Sweden’s cold winters!
WTE plants work by loading furnaces with garbage, burning it to generate steam which is used to spin generator turbines used to produce electricity. That electricity is then transferred to transmission lines and a grid distributes it across the country.
“Waste today is a commodity in a different way than it has been. It’s not only waste, it’s a business,” explained Swedish Waste Management communications director Anna-Carin Gripwell in a statement. “When waste sits in landfills, leaking methane gas and other greenhouse gasses, it is obviously not good for the environment,” she added.
In case you’re wondering, this is not about burning trash in the open air. Instead, Sweden has adopted a regulated, low-emission process for its incineration plants, which means that start-up costs for new plants can get too expensive for some cities.
The incineration process isn’t perfect, but technological advancements and introduction of flue-gas cleaning have reduced airborne dioxins to “very small amounts,” according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.
Check out this video to see how this recycling works:
Making Everyone Responsible — Raising Awareness
How has this small country succeeded in involving all its citizens in the recycling plan?
Sweden’s success in handling garbage didn’t happen overnight.
Starting in the ’70s, Sweden adopted fairly strict rules and regulations when it comes to handling waste, both for households and for cities and companies.
Rules introduced in the 1990s forced companies to take a more eco-aware look at what products they market: by Swedish law, producers are responsible for handling all costs related to collection and recycling or disposal of their products.
How Are Other Countries Handling Garbage?
Japan introduced a Home Appliance Law about ten years ago. It places the responsibility of recycling on everyone from the consumers to the manufacturers. If you need to get rid of a large appliance, you are required to pay a recycling fee. The amount of money depends on the appliance, brand and size of the unit. The cost of recycling a small television, for example, would run you about $19, but a refrigerator could be around $32.
In Italy, Rome has become quite strict regarding the whole recycling issue: if you don’t separate your recycling from your waste and you have a recycling bin within 500 meters from your front door, you can be fined up to 619 Euros, or $833.
In the U.S., San Francisco is the clear leader in the field of zero waste. In 2002, the city made a promise that by 2020 it would eliminate all waste that is neither recycled nor composted; in 2014, they are at the 80 percent mark, which is pretty amazing.
San Francisco’s plan does not involve incinerators; rather, it’s all about mandatory composting, compulsory debris recycling, banning plastic bags and plastic bottles, and mandatory recycling for all its residents.
Other cities in the U.S. are not doing so well: on average across the country, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates only about a third of waste is recycled or composted. In Houston and New York the number is 26 percent, while in San Antonio it drops to 18 percent.
Whether we’re looking at the country of Sweden or the city of San Francisco, the driving force must be to raise people’s awareness of our environment, and the need to protect it. Once we humans start respecting Mother Earth, and taking good care of it, we will all be in much better shape.