As far as having an environmentally friendly reputation, you couldn't do much better than Sweden. After all, it's the country that brought us plogging, the fitness craze in which runners carry along trash bags and pick up refuse along their routes, and a place where environmental researchers teamed up with a brewery to create a beer, PU:REST, that's brewed with purified wastewater, to help convince consumers of the virtues of recycled H2O. And you've probably read numerous stories on the internet proclaiming that the Swedes are so fastidious about recycling that they're actually running out of garbage to use as fuel in their waste-to-energy plants, and are forced to import other countries' trash. (That's not exactly the case, as we'll get into later.)
But hype aside, Sweden does a pretty impressive job of keeping its municipal solid waste — i.e., household garbage — out of landfills. In the U.S., nearly 53 percent of the stuff we discard in the trash ends up being buried. The Swedes, in comparison, only put only 31,000 tons (28,122 metric tons) — less than seven-tenths of 1 percent — of their 4.7 million tons (4.26 million metric tons) of municipal solid waste into the ground in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. That's according to a report by Avfall Sverige, an association that represents both the public and private waste management and recycling sectors in Sweden.
Recycling is a big deal in Sweden, where it's required by law. Most people dutifully separate their household refuse and either put it by the curbside for pickup or drop it off at recycling stations, which are generally within 1,000 feet (300 meters) of every residential area in the country, according to Sweden.se, the official national website.
"Recycling (almost) everything is now a social norm in Sweden," Owen Gaffney, a global sustainability analyst and communicator at Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth, explains in an email. "Local authorities make it easy. Once these norms are embedded in your thinking it actually feels cognitively uncomfortable when you visit another country and can't find easy ways to recycle. I get recycle anxiety."
A little more than half of Sweden's household waste is recycled, composted or processed through anaerobic digestion, according to Avfall Sverige's report. That's considerably better than the 34.6 percent that Americans recycle or compost.
Waste to Energy
The remainder — close to half of Sweden's household trash — is burned in the nation's 33 waste-to-energy, or WTE, plants. Those facilities provide heat to 1.2 million Swedish households and electricity for another 800,000, according to Anna-Carin Gripwall, Avfall Sverige's director of communications.
"We live in a cold country so we need the heating," Gripwall explains in a Skype interview.
The heat from burning garbage can be used effectively in Sweden because half of the nation's buildings now rely on district heating, in which they're warmed by a common heating plant instead of running their own boilers or furnaces, as this article from Euroheat & Power explains. In one Swedish city, Gothenburg, burning waste heats 27 percent of the city, according to this 2011 case study from C40.org.
WTE plants have been a subject of controversy in the U.S., as this Feb. 27, 2018, article from The Conversation details, because of concern over toxic emissions and carbon dioxide. "Burning trash is not a form of recycling," the article's author, Ana Baptista, chair of the Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management Program at the New School, writes in an email.
A 2017 report by British-based environmental consultancy Eunomia and Resource Media, which didn't count waste-to-energy as recycling either, ranked Sweden just 12th in the world in recycling, behind countries such as the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
But in Sweden, environmental activist Gaffney sees WTE as having more upsides. "It is not a perfect solution," he explains. "Toxic chemicals are now very low due to stringent regulations. Carbon dioxide emissions though are an issue. But are they worse or better than fossil fuels? Much biomass waste will soon release greenhouse gases anyway as it decomposes, and this is part of the natural carbon cycle. When you do the calculation, emissions from burning waste are similar to natural gas." (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has come to that conclusion.)
Waste From Other Countries
Sweden does burn trash from other countries, but Gripwall points out, the Swedes actually get paid for that service. (In 2014, the country reportedly received $800 million to dispose of 2.3 million tons (2.08 million metric tons) of other countries' waste, according to Swedish news site SvD Näringsliv.) Alternatively, that waste could be replaced with other materials, she says. Because Sweden has already invested in high-tech incinerators and district heating, "it's easier for other countries to export their waste to us."
But ultimately, Sweden wants to reduce the amount of waste that it generates in the first place. In 2015, Avfall Sverige launched an ongoing campaign to encourage people to consume more carefully and throw less away. "We don't say to people that they should consume less, because that is not our mission, and people also would not listen," Gripwall explains. "So we talk about sustainable consumption. Think about how you consume. What you buy. Buy things that last. And maybe you can share items that you don't use as often."
In particular, the organization is trying to reduce food waste — not by focusing on its environmental effects, but by reminding consumers that they're wasting a lot of cash. "In Sweden, we throw away every fourth or fifth grocery bag we buy, because we buy too much or we store it the wrong way," Gripwall says. "And that is money down the drain, really. That is something people understand. When you go to the grocery shop, make a list. Look into the fridge before you shop so you know what you already have. That is very easy to communicate."