Is the Swedish Waste Model a Long-Term Solution to Our Garbage Problem?

By Roman Melzer

When talking about environmental sustainability and green technology, it is usually common to hear how Scandinavian countries are setting the standard for what a healthy relationship with our planet looks like. That is why it comes as no surprise that Sweden has taken headlines by storm in recent years for the success of its waste management system. In an ambitious attempt to eliminate waste being sent to landfills, the country’s recycling rates for household waste reached 99.5% in 2017, meaning just 2.2 kilograms of waste per citizen were landfilled. As if managing its own waste has not been challenging enough, the country is now importing and processing waste from neighbouring countries in an effort to save the environment. How has Sweden been able to achieve such impressive figures and is the Swedish waste model our answer to solving the global garbage problem?

It is no secret that the Swedes have for a long time been leaders in recycling and environmental stewardship. However, a series of policies enacted in the early 2000’s is what helped propel the country to a whole new level of sustainable performance. Between 2000 and 2005, the Swedish government implemented a volume tax on the landfilling of waste and subsequently banned the landfilling of any combustible and compostable material. These policies stimulated investment in recycling, biological treatment and incineration facilities, the latter being the essential and often criticized approach at the heart of Sweden’s waste management revolution.

Incineration facilities, or what Sweden calls energy recovery facilities, are expensive and often state-of-the-art facilities that burn garbage to produce energy. Today there are 34 of them spread across the country, the largest being Högdalenverket near the capital of Stockholm. This facility on its own has the capacity to burn 700,000 tonnes of trash per year, equivalent to about 15% of the country’s total household waste produced in 2017. Sweden’s fleet of energy recovery facilities has grown to such an extent that it now has an overcapacity to burn garbage. As a result, 1,490,000 tonnes of trash were imported in 2017 from neighbouring countries like Norway and the United Kingdom just to keep the facilities operating.

For many, the idea that a country can receive international praise for burning trash is almost inconceivable. For every news article praising Sweden for its sustainable achievements, there are just as many criticizing it for a misleading and dirty approach to waste management. But to truly comprehend the Swedish waste model, one must not forget the context of our modern society. As a species, we are takers from the environment. We consume a significant amount of resources and produce a significant amount of waste in order to enjoy our unprecedented standard of living. Despite the obvious need to change our habits, nothing seems to slow down our ever-increasing desire to consume, nor force us to adequately deal with our waste. The fact that Sweden has actually taken tangible steps to deal with its waste should be seen as more noble than problematic.

To be clear, the Swedish waste model operates around a strict waste hierarchy that focuses on consumption reduction, the reuse of goods and the recycling of reusable materials before anything is sent to the incinerator or landfill. Compared to most of the developed world, the Swedes significantly outperform the rest of us in all of these categories. According to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, 33.8% of the 4,873,000 tonnes of household waste that Sweden produced in 2017 were successfully recycled. This is thanks to the country’s comprehensive and sophisticated recycling system, which relies on citizens, businesses and all levels of government to ensure that all reusable and recyclable materials are diverted back into the economy. A further breakdown of its recycling performance shows that 85% of all bottles and cans, 93% of all glass, 82% of all paper and 47% of all plastics were recycled in 2017. For some added perspective, just 9% of all plastic was recycled in Canada in 2017, a figure which is almost certainly overstated.

In addition to its strong recycling program, Sweden also boasts an effective biological waste treatment program, which is the result of its ban in 2002 on the landfilling of compostable waste. Of all the country’s household waste produced in 2017, 15.5% of it was transformed into products like biofuel for city buses, nutrient-rich soil through composting, or organic fertilizer.

Before diving further into Sweden’s waste hierarchy, it is worthwhile to debunk two of the common myths regarding its environmental performance. First off, if it is not already clear, Sweden’s “recycling” rate did not actually reach 99.5% in 2017, or at least not according to our traditional definition of recycling. Before factoring for energy recovery, 49.3% of household waste had successfully undergone material recycling or biological treatment. From there, an additional 50.2% was then incinerated in energy recovery facilities, bringing us to the 99.5% recycling rate derived in the headlines. This discrepancy is not done on purpose to mislead people but is instead the result of the European Union’s definition of recycling, which includes waste incineration when done in an efficient manner to produce energy.

The second myth revolves around the remaining 0.5% of household waste that was sent to landfill. While this does equate to just 2.2 kilograms of garbage per citizen, the reality is that a country’s total consumption is much more than just households. In addition to the 23,650 tonnes of household waste that were landfilled in 2017, industry contributed another 2,093,610 tonnes, bringing the total to a much larger 2,117,260 tonnes. However, despite these misconceptions, the rest of the world comes nowhere close to matching Sweden’s attention to and performance in responsible waste management.

The motive behind burning garbage is twofold. First, landfills are much more than just an eye sore. Not only do they take up a significant amount of land, but they also release potent emissions like methane as waste decays and leach toxins that can pollute waterways and surrounding habitats. Secondly, garbage has a lot of energy potential. The New York Times reports that the energy in 4 tonnes of garbage is equivalent to about 1.6 tonnes of coal or 1 tonne of oil. Swedish energy recovery facilities take advantage of this energy potential through a process called combined heat and power production (CHP). Burning garbage is used to heat water that can either be pumped through a sophisticated district heating network to heat nearby homes, or can be used to turn steam turbines to produce electricity. In 2017, energy recovery facilities provided district heating for about 1,250,000 Swedish apartments and electricity for another 680,000. This required the incineration of 6,150,150 tonnes of garbage sourced from households, industry and garbage imports.

While energy recovery is an effective way to both reduce landfill waste and turn this unproductive waste into energy, it does have its drawbacks. Once all toxic fumes are filtered and scrubbed, the carbon emissions released from burning garbage are much heavier than contemporary types of fuel. Energy recovery releases 1,358 kilograms of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced, as opposed to 1,022 kilograms for coal and 516 kilograms for natural gas. However, because decaying garbage and landfills also release emissions, scientists estimate that only about a third of the carbon emissions produced from energy recovery can be attributed to the process itself. The other two thirds would occur naturally, albeit over a much longer period of time.

Aside from emissions, about 20% of the original weight of the burned trash is left over in the form of slag residue and flue gas. Slag residue is the incombustible portion of the garbage consisting of materials like metal, glass and gravel. Much of this can be sorted and recycled, while the unusable portion is sent to landfill. Flue gas is the toxic sludge that remains after the fumes from the burning garbage have been scrubbed and cleaned, which also must be sent to landfill. There is much concern over whether the scrubbing process is actually able to remove 100% of toxic emissions, meaning these facilities might be pumping more than just CO2 and steam into the atmosphere.

Despite some misleading information on Sweden’s environmental performance and the drawbacks associated with waste incineration, it is clear that the Swedes have built a very effective system at both reducing waste and diversifying their energy mix. Across many developed nations, debates are now taking place on whether investment in energy recovery facilities is an appropriate way to deal with their own waste issues. While energy recovery certainly has a role to play in responsible waste management, many argue that a focus on developing waste incineration capacity takes away the incentive to develop a truly circular economy. In other words, should waste management be heading in the direction of long-term resource destruction or resource preservation?

The topic of waste management has grabbed further global attention following China’s sudden ban on waste imports in 2018, which nearly crippled the recycling industries of many developed nations. For many decades, China’s demand for raw materials to produce cheap goods has been so significant that it literally became the centre of the recycling universe. From 1988 to 2016, China imported about 56 million tonnes of scrap plastic, valued at more than US$81 billion. Statistics Canada figures show that in 2016, 41% of all recycled goods in Canada were exported for processing in other countries, with China and Hong Kong accounting for about half of all exports. In the United Kingdom, total exports were closer to 60%.

Having such a steady buyer of scrap material meant that the development of recycling infrastructure at home was almost completely sidelined, further magnifying the detrimental impact of China’s waste ban. As a result, a significant amount of recycling grade material is now being sent to landfill, municipal recycling programs are cutting the spectrum of the materials they accept and the costs of running such programs are rising exponentially. The residual rates at some Canadian sorting facilities, which represent the amount of recycling that must be sent to landfill, have risen from 10% to almost 40%. That is what happens when demand for your waste disintegrates overnight and you do not have the capacity to process it yourself. In the US, the struggle is similar, with dozens of cities sending truckloads of sorted recyclable material directly to landfill because there is no market to sell it and inventory is at capacity. Even products selling at a negative value often cannot find buyers because there is simply not enough global processing capacity to replace that of China.

While China’s waste ban has sent recycling programs into crisis the world over, the reason for the ban has exposed a system with much deeper structural problems. In fact, recycling may not have ever been what we thought it was. China’s ban, a project it calls National Sword, was a response to the reality that much of the imported material was never actually being recycled, instead polluting the environment and contributing to health problems. Processors essentially mined what they wanted of the imported material and left the portion they deemed contaminated or invaluable to burn in open air or to sit and rot. Plenty of videos and photographs even show child labour being used to sort through the acres of scrap material, revealing a reality stark in comparison to the positive impact we think we are making when we recycle.

With the disturbing truth behind our dysfunctional recycling systems exposed, it is time for Canada and other developed countries to take responsibility for their own waste. As the Swedish waste model has shown, the use of energy recovery has tremendous potential as a long-term component of a responsible and sustainable waste management system. However, it is critical that incineration be used as a compliment, not a substitute, to recycling infrastructure. Like Sweden, our focus must be on a top-down approach to waste management; starting with reducing consumption or the waste associated with it, followed by developing effective recycling and biological treatment systems and infrastructure, and finally using innovative incineration facilities to produce energy with the residual waste. In the long-term, reliance on energy recovery facilities should decline as we strive for a more efficient re-circulation of resources through our economy, preserving resources as opposed to destroying them. If the past is any indication of what is to come, then surely Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia will provide the guidance we all need in developing a more sustainable way of doing things.

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