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Sweden's recycling system is so effective the country has to import garbage

Simon Leufstedt

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The effectiveness of the Swedish recycling and garbage system has been making the news recently. Here's one story about it: Sweden imports waste from European neighbors to fuel waste-to-energy program

I am not sure what to think of this really, an effective garbage system is good but...

The 96% recycle rate that this blog post talks about sounds amazing (the official number is actually 98,6%!). But it's not a completely honest number. All the waste that is sent to one of these incinerators to be burned is also counted as recycled waste in the statistics. So plastic that could have been recycled and reused is instead being burned up to create heat or electricity. I wouldn't call that recycling, but maybe that's just me. And just like the above mentioned blog post says, these incinerators creates a highly toxic environmental waste.

But the more serious problem with Sweden's focus on garbage incinerators is that we are making us dependent on waste by overbuilding and thinking that this is a long-term energy source.

There is a real risk that these incinerators will do more harm than good for the environment as they will make us more prone to just burn the waste instead of reusing and recycling the waste. They can also take away important investments for better and more effective renewable energy sources. We can already see this happening right now with Sweden having to import garbage's from other countries in Europe to keep their incinerators running.

And then we have this problem with consumption. The Swedish waste system has made it possible for us to continue increasing our consumption levels without having to see the immediate negative effects of them. But as our consumption levels increase so does the strain we put on the environment and climate. So instead of building more incinerators we should focus on the three R's instead: reduce, reuse, and recycle. We need to reduce our consumption levels so that we produce less waste.

So no, I don't really think we have it figured out. In 2010 we had 30 incinerators that burned waste to create heat and electricity in Sweden. I don't have the exact number of incinerators in Sweden today, but every self-respecting municipality is building one these days. I live in a rather small municipality, with only around 60000 citizens, but this summer we started building a second and much larger incinerator for 750 million SEK. It's worth noting though that this incinerator will mostly burn waste products from the forest industry in the region.


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