Sweden’s Strange Problem: Not Enough Trash

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Today, generating waste is almost unavoidable. Plastic packaging envelops everything we buy — even produce! The U.S. produces millions of tons of trash each year, of which more than half is sent to a landfill. As waste piles up in landfills, toxic chemicals contaminate the planet. But what if this epidemic of too much trash could be stopped? Sweden has found a way. In fact, they’ve reversed it.

Transforming Trash

Sweden generates a decent amount of waste each year, but manages to send only 1 percent — yes, that’s a 1 — to the landfill. The country is closer to zero-waste than ever before, largely thanks to a practice that converts household trash to energy. The process is called “waste-to-energy,” or WTE.

Thirty-two WTE plants exist throughout Sweden. At these plants, trash is burned to produce steam, which spins generator turbines to generate energy that is then transmitted throughout the country. This energy provides heat and electricity to Swedish homes, schools and businesses. In one city, energy from one WTE plant is responsible for a whopping 40 percent of the city’s heat.

The Sweden Trash Problem

While WTE plants are working to suck up trash and spit out energy, recycling plants are working even harder to keep trash away from landfills. Recycling is a big deal in Sweden — nearly half of household waste is recycled there. Throughout the past few decades, Sweden’s government has developed a system of rules and regulations to reduce, reuse and recycle efficiently. Their outstanding recycling programs allow residents to easily recycle almost anything, from old newspapers to broken computers.

Who knew that efficient recycling could be cause for dilemma? Sweden has actually gotten so good at recycling that they now have a trash shortage. Because the country is recycling so much of its waste, there’s not enough to satisfy the country’s heating and electricity needs. To mitigate this, Sweden is importing trash from other countries like Norway, the UK, Italy and Ireland to be transformed to the needed energy through WTE. Due to the lack of recycling programs in many European countries, this is quite the win-win.

Landfills vs. Waste-to-Energy

Incinerating trash is an accepted practice in Sweden, but it’s a controversial issue among environmentalists in the U.S. People often question its emissions and their effect on air quality.

WTE plants don’t simply put an open flame to trash — the clean combustion occurs under carefully controlled conditions and, fortunately, there are strict limitations to what and how much they can emit. Plants use multiple filters and scrubbers to clean their emissions before releasing them, resulting in relatively low levels of air pollution.

Though their toxic emissions are low, WTE plants do release high levels of carbon dioxide. While nontoxic, CO2 is still a powerful greenhouse gas that is perhaps the No. 1 contributor to climate change. When you look at the numbers alone, WTE is a more carbon-intensive method of electricity generation than coal and natural gas.

Unlike Sweden, the U.S. relies heavily on landfills for waste management. Like in WTE, waste that decomposes in a landfill releases a potent greenhouse gas — this one being methane. Methane accounts for 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than the infamous CO2.

Nonetheless, many experts believe the WTE method has enough benefits to compensate for its drawbacks. For example, WTE processes may be producing CO2, but the biomass used in WTE would be producing CO2 as it decomposed anyway due to the natural carbon cycle. And, compared to other energy production methods like burning fossil fuels, WTE deals with solid waste first-hand while managing to be comparatively green.

Here is a past Earth911 story that compares the two waste management practices.

WTE plants contribute a very small amount of energy to the U.S. and accounted for less than 1 percent of the nation’s total generated electricity in 2015. The incineration of waste is still a divisive and controversial issue in the U.S. Knowing a few pros and cons of both landfills and WTE plants, should the U.S. follow in Sweden’s footsteps to zero-waste?

Read more about waste-to-energy vs. other practices in the article “Is Burning Trash Bad?”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.
Lauren Murphy