Swedish 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. This is a glimpse into Swedish recycling.
‘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.
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 advisory group for circular economy, link in Swedish), to help make circular economy a key part of government policy.
Changing Swedish recycling behaviour
At the forefront of this movement is a startup that sprang out of Stockholm’s buzzing design scene. Beteendelabbet (link in Swedish), Swedish for ‘the 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.’
Recycling in Sweden – key figures:
- 4,600,000 tonnes of household waste was managed in 2020, which equals 449 kilos per person per year.
- 54% of household waste and similar waste was turned into energy in 2020.
- 86% of PET bottles and 87% of aluminium cans in the deposit system were recycled in 2020 – the national target is 90% for both.
- 61% of all packaging material was recycled in 2020 – the target is 65%.
Source: Swedish EPA
Swedish recycling, repairs 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. In this system H&M cleans the old garments, then shreds them into fibres and spins them 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 from Beteendelabbet 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 more than 2 billion bottles and cans 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 people use products 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 turned into climate-friendly biogas fuel.
Towards the future of Swedish recycling
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.’