Sweden Has Changed the Garbage Game

December 22nd 2016

Ethan Simon

Sweden is proving that a "garbage fire" isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Using a combination of recycling and incineration, Sweden has developed one of the most effective waste management systems in the world. According to The Independent, in each of the past five years, Swedish households have sent less than 1 percent of their waste to a landfill.

In fact, Swedish waste management has been so effective that the country’s waste plants have actually run into a small snag — they’re out of trash.

Now, Sweden is asking other countries to ship their excess waste to their plants, just to keep the plants open, and keep the plant workers employed. In a video produced by the Swedish government, Director of Communications for Swedish Waste Management Anna Carin-Gripwall said “Waste today is a commodity. Garbage comes to Sweden from all over Europe; the UK, Norway, Ireland, Italy, and others all send their excess waste to Sweden."

A Bulldozer Traverses a Massive Landfill

But to be clear, Sweden’s significantly lower landfill rates are not due to vastly superior recycling techniques. Or, at least, it depends on what you consider recycling.

Sweden’s recycling rate is a respectable 49.8 percent. It’s high, but not too high. Certainly it’s much better than the United States’ pitiful 34. 6 percent rate. But it is not significantly higher than the rates of other European nations—the UK, for example has a recycling rate of 44.6 percent. Germany’s is even higher, hovering somewhere around 65 percent.

So what gives?

If their recycling isn’t much better than rest of Europe’s, how does Sweden manage to landfill only 1 percent of its waste?

Mostly, the difference is that Sweden incinerates a much larger percentage of its trash than other nations. But instead of sending the waste out the chimney, Swedish plants use the heat created by incineration to generate energy. This energy is used to heat Swedish homes through the grueling Scandinavian winters.

There can be a lot of energy in trash.

3 tons of waste contains as much energy as one ton of fuel. Is it recycling? Maybe not, but it does seem to be putting the waste to a better use than simply dumping it in a landfill.

However, the system is not without its flaws.

Critics of Swedish incineration techniques argue that it is less efficient than real recycling. A piece of paper, for example, can be recycled five or six times before it cannot be recycled anymore. And of course, at that point, it can still be burned. Therefore, burning paper before it has reached the end of its lifespan is far less "green" than the old-fashioned recycling process. The same logic holds true for other recyclable substances.

It’s also true that incineration—like the incineration of other fossil fuels— creates emissions . While waste-to-energy plants have become cleaner in recent years, burning garbage releases some pretty nasty chemicals—trace amounts of toxic things like mercury and dioxins.

Proponents of te Swedish system are quick to note that the government regulates those chemicals very strictly, and Swedish waste-to-energy plants are firmly in compliance with government regulations.

Then there's carbon dioxide—burning one ton of garbage emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as burning half a ton of coal. On the one hand, we do burn coal for energy already—so if garbage is twice as clean, that would be an improvement. On the other hand, coal is hardly a good benchmark for clean energy.

A Smokestack Rises Above Stockholm

But proponents of the Swedish system argue that when confronted with the alternative—landfills—incineration makes much more sense. Landfills aren't exactly squeaky clean either. In fact they represent the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the US. Yes, garbage creates emissions just by sitting there.

Proponents also argue that incineration isn’t necessarily at odds with recycling—that both can be valuable tools in combating humanity's garbage problem.

So what about here?

It remains to be seen whether Sweden's recycling methods will be exported to the United States. Right now there are only 84 waste-to-energy plants in the United States, and efforts to build new ones are often met with community backlash. On the other hand, right now the United States sends 54 percent of its waste to landfills. As landfill area becomes more scare, particularly in the population-dense Northeast, we'll have to find a solution to our trash problem. Maybe incineration can be a piece of the puzzle.

Click here to watch ATTN:'s video about Sweden's approach to garbage.