Sweden is already an environmental leader with its electric roads and plans to be 100% fossil fuel-free by 2050, but they’re not stopping there. The trailblazing Scandinavian nation also diverts 99 percent of its waste from landfills. A significant portion of the nation’s waste is recycled, and a process called waste-to-energy generates electricity from about 50% of the country’s garbage.
Of the Sweden’s 4.4 million tons of household waste produced annually, 2.2 million tons are converted into energy using waste-to-energy (WTE), according to Global Citizen. Garbage that is sorted for WTE plants is burned to produce steam, which is then used to spin turbines and generate electricity. Sweden is so proficient at its waste management practices that it actually imports 800,000 tons of rubbish from nearby countries to its 32 WTE plants.
Related: Sweden plans to import 800,000 tons of garbage each year
The system depends on residents responsibly in handling their trash, which has become more commonplace over the years. Citizens sort their garbage to go to recycling facilities or WTE plants, resulting in the impressive 99 percent diverted waste statistic. Meanwhile, the U.S. sends 55 percent of its waste to landfills each year.
Via Global Citizen
Images via Pixabay (1,2)
Editor’s note: This post was corrected to clarify that 99% of Sweden’s waste is not in fact recycled, as pointed out by Lloyd Alter at Treehugger
Modern Waste to Energy (WTE) facilities have sophisticated technology for removing nearly all particulates from emissions. The electricity they produce is used by consumers, and if that electricity was instead produced by coal facilities, the emissions would be many times higher than anything coming out of WTE plants. In addition, WTE facilities actively remove metals out and recycle them immediately. Landfills are only used because they are cheap. No one mines landfills for recyclables. No one. Even if you ignore the fact you would disrupt the capped and sealed landfills, getting material out would require diesel fuel to run the heavy equipment required, then more fuel to transport the materials, then more energy to separate the materials, then more fuel to transport the useful materials to where they could be used. Then yet more fuel to bring the remaining waste back to a landfill. Once materials go into a landfill they do not come out. The metals that would be recovered by WTE plants do not come out. Much of the methane produced by landfills is emitted into the atmosphere, and all of the liquids that seep out of the landfills has to be dealt with, and is a risk of polluting water sheds. It is one thing to say we should generate less trash as a society. It’s quite another to deny the benefits of WTE vs. landfills.
“Waste-to-energy” is what folks in the industry call *incineration*. This is no better than landfilling, really, given all the plastics that are burned, producing dioxins, as well as liberating massive amounts of mercury (from batteries and bulbs) into the atmosphere as tiny particulates which settle on everything from people to farms. Landfilling is actually a better option (although it might sound counter-intuitive) because it still leaves much of the recyclables intact for later mining and recycling. Incineration destroys them forever. One of the things people simply continue to ignore is that a much larger environmental issue around waste is the need to make more stuff from scratch, rather than whether it gets landfilled or incinerated. The fact that we are not recycling *all* of our waste means that more of whatever it is, from paper and plastic packaging to building materials to concrete, will have to be made again, from new mining, logging and drilling. These activities are one hundred times more destructive than landfills. This debate about landfills or incineration, based on issues of land use or pollution, are a red herring, distracting us from the real problem: demand for raw materials. The best way to reduce that demand is recycling, so that much of the production of stuff can be made from already-existing stuff. For instance, paper made from 100% recycled paper uses about 10% of the energy, water and chemicals as paper made from virgin trees. But the real savings, of course, is the offset in logging. In a nearly-entirely close-loop system, we would only have to come up with 20% of the virgin material to feed the paper economy that we need now (about 18% new fiber and 2% for growth of demand). The new fiber could be made from agricultural residues like wheat straw and sugar cane waste (bagasse), instead of from trees. There would still be some waste from de-inking, and what to do with this has yet to be solved (but using it to criticize recycling is another red herring, as of course, the inks on paper that *isn’t* recycled ends up in the ground or in the air anyway!). So, before we congratulate Sweden on burning trash, let’s consider the whole system and stop falling for the new marketing push by incineration companies that ignores the bigger picture and the horrors of incinerators.
Continuing from the last line of this article.. Meanwhile, the U.S. sends 55 percent of its waste to landfills each year. And what do some of the developing countries do in Asia and South America. They send people to landfills for manual scavenging. Bangladesh and Pakistan send kids for waste segregation and further collection to the landfills. Likewise for India. :(
Sweden wants to encase their nuclear waste in plastic and ship it to Utah!