The Swedish recycling revolution

Daniel Silberstein's daughter Charlie 'helps out' with the recycling in the kitchen. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/imagebank.sweden.se

Sweden is aiming for a zero waste society. This takes the country’s recycling revolution one step further – from dumping rubbish in landfills, to recycling to reusing.

Everyday sustainability

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.’

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 to help it make circular economy a key part of its policy.

Changing behaviours

At the forefront of this movement is a startup that sprang out of Stockholm’s buzzing design scene. Beteendelabbet, 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.’

In 2017 the Swedish government reformed the tax system so that people could get cheaper repairs on used items, and Swedish clothing giant H&M operates a recycling scheme where customers get a discount upon handing in old clothes. 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.

Sweden has long had a can and bottle deposit system that gives people money back when they recycle – since1984 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.

Swedish rapper Linda Pira in a carnival-inspired campaign for recycling. By Pantamera, the company in charge of the recycling of PET bottles and aluminium cans in Sweden.

Swedish rapper Linda Pira in a carnival-inspired campaign for recycling. By Pantamera, the company in charge of the recycling of PET bottles and aluminium cans in Sweden.

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.

Weine Wiqvist is the head of the national Swedish Waste Management Association: ‘The association works to facilitate circular activity’, he says.

‘This could mean for instance motivating and guiding citizens and consumers to change their behaviour to be more sustainable, but also making the infrastructure available that we need for people to do the necessary sorting for themselves.

‘We need to transform everything from production to consumption and use of products, and then when the products finally end up as waste as well’, Wiqvist says. ‘In a circular economy products are used for longer and in smarter ways.’

The increased threat of climate change has also led Sweden to power everything from buses to apartment heating systems by burning rubbish in low-carbon incinerators and using food waste to make climate-friendly biogas fuel.

Father and daughter Silberstein recycling bottles at the supermarket. You put a bottle in the machine, you get money back.

Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/

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.’

Dominic Hinde

Dominic Hinde is a journalist, writer, translator and media academic based in Edinburgh and working as a lecturer in Digital Media and Communication at Queen Margaret University. His work broadly covers Europe and the environment, with a particular emphasis on Northern Europe and Scandinavia.