As the result of an astonishing ‘recycling revolution’, Sweden has nearly reached ‘zero waste’ levels and imports at least two million tonnes of rubbish from other European countries.

Recycling containers for paper packages are pictured in Hokarangen, south of Stockholm on February 1, 2013.
Recycling containers for paper packages are pictured in Hokarangen, south of Stockholm on February 1, 2013. (Getty Images)

Sweden recycles an astounding 99 percent of locally-produced waste, thanks to the sensitiveness of its citizens to the environment and sophisticated collection techniques. 

It means the country is by far the best in the world when it comes to recycling and reusing waste, having made great progress in its ‘recycling revolution’ over the past two decades. 

The percentage of recycled waste by households has increased from 38 percent in 1975 to at least 99 percent today.

In 2001, 22 percent of rubbish was landfilled in Sweden, however, today the landfilled waste share is only one percent of the total produced.

As the policy of zero waste has seen the country running out of rubbish, Sweden has begun importing waste, with a four-fold increase between 2005 and 2014. Almost 2.3 million tonnes of waste was imported from the UK, Norway, Ireland and other countries in 2016. But unlike regular imports Sweden does not make any payments for receiving other countries’ waste, rather it is paid to do so.

Of the household waste produced in Sweden in 2017, around 15.5 percent was used for biological recycling, 33.8 percent for material recycling and 50.2 percent went to energy recovery.

Landfills are a major contributor to global emissions of the greenhouse gas methane, and burning waste is kinder to the environment, experts say. 

“If you incinerate one tonne of Italian waste in Sweden you get 500kg CO2 equivalent less emissions than if it is dumped in a landfill in Italy. That’s a substantial reduction,” said Johan Sundberg, Energy and Waste Consultant at Profu.

Thanks to innovations of the country’ waste-to-energy programme, burning waste at incineration plants in Sweden supplies heat to more than one million houses in the country.

The recycling process does not end at the burning stage. The remaining ashes constitute 15 percent of the waste volume before burning. Metals in these ashes are recycled again, with the rest used in road construction. Just one percent remains and is deposited in dumps.

Moreover, the smoke from burning the waste is filtered through dry filters and water. And the dry filters are used to refill abandoned mines.

Although it might be better than many other alternatives, the Swedish model does not mean the whole waste disposal process is 100 percent environmentally-friendly, particularly considering that half of all household waste is burnt to produce energy.

Weine Wiqvist, CEO of the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association (Avfall Sverige), explains that reusing materials or products means using less energy to create a product, instead of burning one and making a new one from scratch.

Other critics also point out the fact that the byproduct of burning waste is CO2 and water, albeit non-toxic, the contribution of CO2 emissions to global warming and climate change cannot be ignored.

Developed garbage collection

Sweden has a state-of-the art waste collection system with recycling stations located no more than 300 metres from residential areas. There are also pipelines under roads that vacuum garbage which is sent by households to the stations. 

The waste collection system helps to get rid of the smell of rubbish from neighbourhoods thanks to the use of underground deposits, it also means the rubbish does not occupy any space at street level.

Swedish company, Optibag, owns sophisticated machinery that can separate different coloured bags from each other. The machine sorts these bags automatically, which solves the problem and cost of sorting stations.

The Swedish community is well educated in sorting garbage for recycling and the government has strong strategy for its collection and re-use to supply energy.

In the nordic country, prominent musicians record songs and commercials are televised to encourage people to return used bottles for recycling. Speakers playing music in public waste bins make for a more pleasant recycling experience and in supermarkets, people deposit bottles and cans in exchange for money, in a practice called panta.

Swedes commonly separate all rubbish in their homes and deposit it in separate containers according to type, such as metal, glass, plastic or food.

Then food is used for creating biogas, while glass bottles are reused or melting to produce new glass container. Plastic materials are converted into their raw state and special rubbish trucks collect dangerous chemicals and electric waste, such as broken or old furniture and televisions.

Source: TRT World