Chart showing the recycled percentages of glass (93%), plastic excl. PET (49%) and paper (75%) in 2019.

Recycling and beyond

Sweden is aiming for zero waste. This means stepping up from recycling to reusing.

It is early morning, and 31-year-old Daniel Silberstein collects his bike from the storeroom in his block of flats, but not before he has separated out his empty cartons and packaging into the containers in the shared basement. It is just some of the two tonnes of rubbish he and his fellow Swedes recycle per person each year.

‘The thing about recycling is that it’s quite mechanical’, he says. ‘It’s basically just this thing you automatically do where you sort your rubbish – just another part of all the consumption we do in our daily lives’, Silberstein says. He lives in a central Stockholm flat with his partner and daughter Charlie.

‘A big part of it is thinking about what kind of environment our daughter is going to have in the future. I am a kid of the 1990s and not recycling is kind of abnormal for us, but for Charlie’s generation it will hopefully go even further. She already thinks it’s fun to push the cartons into the recycling station when I take her.’ 

2025 food waste target

The Swedish Government’s target is for food waste to decrease by 20 weight per cent per person from 2020 to 2025.

Beyond recycling

The problem today is that many vital products are hard to dispose of. A new movement is gaining ground that seeks to ensure everything can be reused somehow.

Circular economy is an approach that involves using products that can be reused completely, a so-called cradle-to-cradle approach. In 2018 the Swedish government even established a special advisory group, Delegationen för cirkulär ekonomi (the delegation for circular economy, link in Swedish), to help make circular economy a key part of government policy.

Changing behaviours

At the forefront of this movement is a startup that sprang out of Stockholm’s buzzing design scene. Beteendelabbet (link in Swedish), Swedish for ‘behaviour lab’, tries to find innovative solutions to sustainable living. Building on Sweden’s industrial design heritage and recruiting from Stockholm’s renowned design schools, the company has its sights set on transforming how Swedes live.

Ida Lemoine is the founder of Beteendelabbet: ‘We think people need services that make it easy to do the right thing’, she says. ‘We need to make it possible for ourselves as consumers to share and reuse all kinds of gadgets, clothes and furniture, and even our workspaces and homes.’

Fashion from forests

Materials are changing. This is a dress made of 100 per cent paper, produced by Smart Textiles at the University of Borås. Photo: Anna Sigge/Smart Textiles/imagebank.sweden.se

A father and his daughter in a kitchen by a drawer with recycling.

Recycling starts in the kitchen for Daniel Silberstein and his daughter. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/imagebank.sweden.se

A man is holding a small child. Together they push a plastic bottle into a machine,

Swedes recycle more than 8 out of 10 cans and bottles. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/imagebank.sweden.se

A big glass cube in a room; inside are machines and people.

H&M's Looop transforms unwanted garments into new fashion. Photo: H&M

A man is pushing a waste bin toward a truck.

An electric bin lorry. Photo: Sofia Sabel/imagebank.sweden.se

Fashion from forests

Materials are changing. This is a dress made of 100 per cent paper, produced by Smart Textiles at the University of Borås. Photo: Anna Sigge/Smart Textiles/imagebank.sweden.se

A father and his daughter in a kitchen by a drawer with recycling.

Recycling starts in the kitchen for Daniel Silberstein and his daughter. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/imagebank.sweden.se

A man is holding a small child. Together they push a plastic bottle into a machine,

Swedes recycle more than 8 out of 10 cans and bottles. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/imagebank.sweden.se

A big glass cube in a room; inside are machines and people.

H&M's Looop transforms unwanted garments into new fashion. Photo: H&M

A man is pushing a waste bin toward a truck.

An electric bin lorry. Photo: Sofia Sabel/imagebank.sweden.se

Fashion from forests

Materials are changing. This is a dress made of 100 per cent paper, produced by Smart Textiles at the University of Borås. Photo: Anna Sigge/Smart Textiles/imagebank.sweden.se

A father and his daughter in a kitchen by a drawer with recycling.

Recycling starts in the kitchen for Daniel Silberstein and his daughter. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/imagebank.sweden.se

A man is holding a small child. Together they push a plastic bottle into a machine,

Swedes recycle more than 8 out of 10 cans and bottles. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/imagebank.sweden.se

A big glass cube in a room; inside are machines and people.

H&M's Looop transforms unwanted garments into new fashion. Photo: H&M

A man is pushing a waste bin toward a truck.

An electric bin lorry. Photo: Sofia Sabel/imagebank.sweden.se

Recycling in Sweden – key figures:

  • 4,839,430 tonnes of household waste was managed in 2020, which equals 467 kilos per person per year.
  • 46% of the household waste was turned into energy in 2020.
  • 84% of bottles and cans were recycled in 2019 – 90% is the government target.
  • 70% of all packaging was recycled.

Sources: Swedish Waste Management Association, Swedish EPA

Repairs, recycling and research

In 2017 the Swedish government reformed the tax system so that people could get cheaper repairs on used items. Since 2020 H&M customers in Stockholm can have their unwanted garments transformed into new pieces of clothing through a garment-to-garment recycling system called Looop. The old garments are cleaned, shredded into fibres and spun into new yarn, which is then knitted into new fashion favourites.

Meanwhile, researchers are working on finding new clothing materials that are less damaging to the environment.

Stepping up from recycling

‘A good starting point is to look at how we can change our habits and everyday behaviour’, Lemoine says. She and her team use the concept of ‘nudging’, making small changes to people’s surrounding and lifestyle to help them live sustainably.

‘The three things consumers can do that will make a huge difference are: to eat less meat, stop throwing stuff away and fly less. If we all do a bit of these three then we’ll be well on our way’, she says.

The pant system

Sweden has long had a can and bottle deposit system that gives people money back when they recycle – since 1984 for aluminium cans, and since 1994 for plastic bottles. Each year Swedes recycle 1.8 billion bottles and cans that would otherwise be thrown away using the so-called pant system. It even has its own verb in Swedish, panta.

Doing the dirty work

Sweden’s reuse revolution would not be possible without those who do the literal dirty work of handling Sweden’s rubbish.

The Swedish Waste Management Association works to facilitate the move towards a circular economy, where products are used for longer and in smarter ways. This includes motivating and guiding citizens and consumers to change their behaviour. But it's also about providing the infrastructure needed for people to do the necessary sorting for themselves.

The increased threat of climate change has also led Sweden to use waste to power everything from buses to apartment heating systems. Rubbish is burnt in low-carbon incinerators and food waste is used to make climate-friendly biogas fuel.

Towards the future

For Daniel Silberstein and Charlie, the future begins at home.

‘Friends shouldn’t throw rubbish on the ground’, Charlie says, and her dad agrees:

‘In the future we’ll look at the old style of recycling the way we look at fossil fuels and landfill sites today. It will all seem crazy.’