The Sweet-ish Swedish Recycling System


On the international stage, Sweden is that cousin who is slightly better than you in every way. That cousin who you simultaneously admire and resent because they seem to have figured out life more than you ever will. As just one of the many things on the long list of ‘things Sweden is doing right’, is their ‘revolutionary’ recycling system. The Swedish recycling system is renowned for its impressive 1 per cent landfill rate, and has recently been pushed into the sustainability spotlight because the country is so free of waste it now needs to import rubbish from other countries to keep its incineration plants going. However, looking critically into the Swedish recycling system shows us that their system may not be as perfect as it seems. 

According to The Swedish Institute, less than 1 per cent of household waste is sent to landfill each year. This spectacular Scandinavian stat sits in stark contrast to Australia, who according to 2006-2007 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, send 48 per cent of generated waste to landfill annually. This difference isn’t just because Swede’s are better at separating their plastic and paper. Sweden’s low landfill rates can be attributed to a combination of sustainable infrastructures and societal behaviours. Ninety-nine per cent of household waste in Sweden is utilised in some way, through either reuse, conventional recycling, or an intriguing recycling alternative in which waste is burnt for energy.

In fact, 50 per cent of Swedish waste is burnt or “transformed” into energy. The waste-to-energy (WTE) process occurs at one of Sweden’s 32 incineration plants to produce relatively clean energy. The smoke emitted from WTE consists of 99.9 per cent non-toxic carbon dioxide and water. While the resultant energy produced goes on to provide approximately 8.5 per cent of Sweden’s electricity, as noted in a 2013 European Environment Agency report. 

“Three tons of waste contains as much energy as one ton of fuel oil … so there is a lot of energy in waste,” said Göran Skoglund, spokesperson Swedish energy company Öresundskraft in The Huffington Post.

While the Swedish system has received ecological praise, it is still subject to debate. Critics of the WTE system raise concerns about the amount of CO2 the process releases into the atmosphere. Such environmental concerns are not ungrounded, with the United States Environmental Protection Agency reporting the amount of carbon dioxide generated by incinerating garbage (2,988 pounds CO2/megawatt hour) is more than burning coal (2,249 pounds CO2/megawatt hour) or natural gas (1,135 pounds CO2/megawatt hour). While Sweden maintains these CO2 emissions are preferable to the detrimental environmental effects of landfill, it is a point of contention. 

Although the ethos underpinning the Swedish approach to waste management is admirable, it is not the virtuously sustainable system it is often portrayed as. Looking at other international models of recycling and waste management, makes clear no such system currently exists. Japan, for example, is considered to have the most complex recycling system in the world, yet also incinerates majority of their waste. Japanese consumers are required, by law, to separate their waste into upwards of 15 sorting categories depending on location. Despite such stringent policy, Waste Atlas reports Japan recycles only 20.8 per cent of their total waste. Sixteen per cent of waste ends up in landfill, while the remaining 63 per cent is incinerated, sometimes for energy but often not. 

In lack of any truly sustainable waste disposal infrastructure, it becomes clear the most sustainably method of waste disposal is to stop generating so much rubbish in the first place. This is an area in which Sweden and Japan both deserve praise. According to the OECD Environmental Data Compendium: 2002, Sweden produces 450kg per person each year and Japan produces 410kg per person. Australia, on the other hand, produces 690kg per person, a figure 1.6 times that of Japan and second only to the united states internationally. This cringe worthy figure speaks volumes about how we as a nation value the earth and perceive our own privileges. But it also, sets the bar for change. 

Clearly, waste management is very complex issue without a simple solution. Turns out sustainability isn’t achieved by with a few chic Scandinavian incineration plants. In light of this, it seems the most insightful thing we can learn from the Swedish recycling system, and the Japanese, is that we as both a society and individuals can’t keep making and buying things that we will eventually throw away because whether these things end up in landfill or the ozone layer, they will negatively impact the planet.