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Waste Not
Why Sweden Is Taking Its Neighbors’ Trash

Sweden has long been well ahead of the curve in terms of activating on sustainability initiatives, particularly when it comes to energy: In 1991, it became one of the first countries to impose a heavy tax on fossil fuels, and in 2012, it reached its 2020 goal to source 50 percent of its electricity from renewables (as of 2016, it had risen to 52 percent – the highest in the EU - with a goal of 100 percent by 2040).

Sweden is also miles ahead when it comes to waste management … so much so that it is now importing trash from other countries to keep its incineration plants going.

The national “Miljönär-vänlig” (“Millionaire-Friendly”) campaign helped illustrate the many benefits of repairing, sharing and reusing, along with recycling. The communication has worked well enough that less than one percent of Swedish household waste was sent to landfill last year or any year since 2011.

As Gripwall explained to WastEcoSmart: “The motto we chose, ‘Miljönär-vänlig ("miljönär" is a play on the words "environment" and "millionaire") – Get rich by making, borrowing and recycling,’ conveys the message that you can save the environment as well as money by being eco-friendly."

“Avfall Sverige produced the campaign and it is free for all our members to use,” Gripwall told Sustainable Brands in a recent interview. “We reach our target groups through personal meetings, PR, debate articles, PR and also commercials in digital channels. Our members work the same way, but on a local level, and use print media, also.”

“Our core target group is national politicians, authorities, media, decision-makers. All municipalities and municipal waste companies are members of Avfall Sverige. Their target groups are the same as ours, but on a local level and – the most important target group - the inhabitants.”

What were some of the factors that led to Sweden’s early move towards sustainability?

“Regulation, communication and a beautiful nature that everyone has access to,” she said. “The Swedish people are very aware and conscious about the nature and climate and have been for many years and like being outdoors. Maybe that is why we have been able to reach people with our communication. But the single most important factor is early regulation from the government.”

Now, 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants throughout Sweden incinerate over two million tons of trash (roughly 50 percent of the country’s waste) annually. The energy produced goes into a national heating network to heat homes through freezing Swedish winters. Sweden is the world leader in energy generated from garbage.

As Gripwall told The Independent, Sweden uses energy produced from waste as a substitute for fossil fuel, as opposed to most of southern Europe, where “it just goes out the chimney.”

“Sweden is a cold country and we need energy to heat our houses and also for electricity,” Gripwall told SB. “We have a well-built district heating system and today, 300,000 households get electricity and more than one million households get their heating from this, instead of from imported oil, coal, etc.”

As Göran Skoglund, spokesperson for Öresundskraft, one of Sweden’s leading energy companies, explains, “A good number to remember is that three tons of waste contains as much energy as one ton of fuel oil… so there is a lot of energy in waste.”

But doesn’t incineration create greenhouse gas emissions? And as The Independent pointed out, wood fiber is viable for up to six uses - burning paper before then eliminates the potential for true recycling and increases use of virgin materials. If maximizing resources is the true goal, isn’t incineration vs recycling ultimately a waste?

“We work according to the waste hierarchy. We do not treat the waste by incineration rather than recycling,” Gripwall said. “The amount of waste is, unfortunately, growing, and the amount going to recycling is growing more than incineration. We made a study of this recently, to see if waste-to-energy ‘takes’ material from recycling, and it is not the case. Also, the emissions are monitored closely and are well below limit values.”

If the country’s efforts to maximize its resources, combined with the Swedes’ inherent appreciation of their role in preserving nature, seem to have worked too well in some ways, that tension will likely ease as it works its way toward its 100 percent renewable energy goal.

In the meantime, Gripwall said, “We are hopeful and work hard on issues around waste management - not only the collection and treatment, but where the biggest environmental benefit is to be found, namely in decreasing the amount of waste, through more sustainable consumption and production. I think the awareness around these issues is steadily increasing.”