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99% recycling – that’s the Swedish way

Less than one per cent of Sweden’s household waste ends up in a rubbish dump. The rest is recycled in different ways. In that, Sweden is one of the world leaders.

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Photo: SRV

Towards zero waste

Wouldn’t it be great if no household waste was wasted? If each and every item of refuse was turned into something else – new products, raw materials, gas or at least heat?

Sweden is almost there. More than 99 per cent of all household waste is recycled in one way or another. This means that the country has gone through something of a recycling revolution in the last decades, considering that only 38 per cent of household waste was recycled in 1975 (see chart).

Today, recycling stations are as a rule no more than 300 metres from any residential area. Most Swedes separate all recyclable waste in their homes and deposit it in special containers in their block of flats or drop it off at a recycling station. Few other nations deposit less in rubbish dumps.

Stepping up recycling

Weine Wiqvist, CEO of the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association (Avfall Sverige), still thinks Swedes can do more, considering that about half of all household waste is burnt, that is, turned into energy. He explains that reusing materials or products means using less energy to create a product, than burning one and making another from scratch.

‘We are trying to “move up the refuse ladder”, as we say, from burning to material recycling, by promoting recycling and working with authorities’, he says.

Meanwhile, Swedish households keep separating their newspapers, plastic, metal, glass, electric appliances, light bulbs and batteries. Many municipalities also encourage consumers to separate food waste. And all of this is reused, recycled or composted.

Newspapers are turned into paper mass, bottles are reused or melted into new items, plastic containers become plastic raw material; food is composted and becomes soil or biogas through a complex chemical process. Rubbish trucks are often run on recycled electricity or biogas. Wasted water is purified to the extent of being potable. Special rubbish trucks go around cities and pick up electronics and hazardous waste such as chemicals. Pharmacists accept leftover medicine. Swedes take their larger waste, such as a used TV or broken furniture, to recycling centres on the outskirts of the cities.

At the Gärstadverken in Linköping, waste is turned into energy. The chart shows how much recycling has grown in Sweden over the last decades.

Photo: Åke E:son Lindman

Waste to energy

Let’s take a closer look at the 50 per cent of the household waste that is burnt to produce energy at incineration plants. Waste is a relatively cheap fuel and Sweden has, over time, developed a large capacity and skill in efficient and profitable waste treatment. Sweden even imports 700,000 tonnes of waste from other countries.

The remaining ashes constitute 15 per cent of the weight before burning. From the ashes, metals are separated and recycled, and the rest, such as porcelain and tile, which do not burn, is sifted to extract gravel that is used in road construction. About one per cent still remains and is deposited in rubbish dumps.

The smoke from incineration plants consists of 99.9 per cent non-toxic carbon dioxide and water, but is still filtered through dry filters and water. The dry filters are deposited. The sludge from the dirty filter water is used to refill abandoned mines.

In Sweden, burning waste to produce energy is uncontroversial, but in other countries – like the US – it is a much debated topic.

Doing better

Hans Wrådhe heads the section for waste and chemicals at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket) and considers proposing a higher levy on waste collection.

‘That would increase everybody’s awareness of the problem’, he says.

Together with government agencies and corporations, Wrådhe has developed an action plan for waste prevention, including how to encourage producers to make products that last longer. The agency also considers proposing a tax deduction for some repairs.

‘Government-sponsored ads on how to avoid food waste might also help’, he says. ‘And less toxic substances used in production would mean fewer products that require expensive treatment.’

In this stationary vacuum system, users throw their waste into ordinary inlets, where the bags are stored temporarily. All full inlets are then emptied at regular intervals through a network of underground pipes.

Photo: Envac

Companies joining the effort

Some Swedish companies have voluntarily joined in the struggle. For example, H&M has begun accepting used clothing from customers in exchange for rebate coupons in an initiative called Garment Collecting.

The Optibag company has developed a machine that can separate coloured waste bags from each other. People throw food in a green bag, paper in a red one, and glass or metal in another. Once at the recycling plant, Optibag sorts the bags automatically. This way, waste sorting stations could be eliminated.

The southern Swedish city of Helsingborg even fitted public waste bins with loudspeakers playing pleasant music – all in the name of recycling.

Back to Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association CEO Wiqvist, who thinks perfection in recycling is possible, an idea worth striving for.

‘“Zero waste” – that is our slogan’, he says. ‘We would prefer less waste being generated, and that all the waste that is generated is recycled in some way. Perfection may never happen, but it certainly is a fascinating idea.’

Last updated: 25 March 2014

Jonas Fredén

Jonas Fredén

Jonas Fredén is a freelance journalist. He has worked for Finanstidningen (Finance news), Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s public service radio broadcaster, and the daily Dagens Nyheter.