Sweden is Recycling so Much That the Country's Running Out of Trash

Reducing, reusing, and recycling is a way of life in this Scandinavian country.

Jan 29, 2020
Special Collections: REDUCE REUSE RECYCLE

Sweden is a model society in many ways. Long known for their cradle to grave approach to welfare, universal healthcare, and education it follows that people look towards a healthy work-life balance. It's also no wonder that the Swedish approach to recycling takes that same kind of approach.

In fact, Swedish recycling is so efficient, that they ran out of trash. The recycling rate in Sweden is almost 99 percent and has been for many years. The country is getting so close to zero waste that they have to import garbage from neighboring countries.

Recycling is required by law and trash and recyclables are sorted at home or by businesses before it goes to a recycling center; unlike many curbside recycling programs in the US where recyclables are collected in one bin. There is a system of seven categories for sorting household refuse and there is curbside or recycling stations within 300 meters of all residential areas according to Sweden.se, the national website.

There has been a can and bottle deposit system in place since 1984 for cans and 1994 for plastic bottles. Every year, Swedes recycle 1.8 billion bottles that would have gone into landfills and waterways.

"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, told How Stuff Works

"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," Gaffney said.

But not all of the countries trash is recycled. Sweden uses alternatives that include incinerating garbage to make electricity instead of using fossil fuels like oil or coal and to heat 1.2 million homes. According to How Stuff Works, close to half of household trash is sent to one of the country's 33 waste-to-heat plants. Sweden is importing trash from other countries to keep these incinerators running.

Sweden is also a world leader in converting food waste into eco-friendly biogas. The country has made food waste collection mandatory beginning in 2021, according to the Swedish Waste management Association. There is a dedicated food waste biogas plant located in Skellefteå at the Tuvan municipal wastewater treatment plant. Now biogas is used to run public busses and to heat apartment buildings.

The country now wants to tackle those remaining items that cannot be recycled by using a cradle-to-grave or circular economy approach according to Sweden.se. This means that products can be reused and only recycled when absolutely necessary. The Swedish government established an advisory group to make this a part of its environmental policy.

This will not work effectively unless people can be taught to change their behavior. One way the government is doing that is by reforming its tax code so that people could get cheaper repairs or buy things used. The large Swedish clothing retailer H&M operates a recycling program that gives customer's discounts when they bring back old clothing.

The ReTuna Återbruksgalleria mall in Eskilstuna only sells recycled, upcycled and sustainable products like used bicycles, furniture and clothing.

Ida Lemoine, the founder of Beteendelabbet (Swedish for Behavior lab) that finds innovative solutions to sustainable living said, "A good starting point is to look at how we can change our habits and everyday behavior."

"The three things consumers can do that will make a huge difference are: to eat less meat, stop throwing stuff away and fly less. If we all do a bit of these three then we’ll be well on our way, Lemoine, said.

Sweden is a world leader in trying to rein in climate change by doing all the right stuff. Mandatory recycling and the plans to switch to a circular economy will go a long way in reducing the country's carbon footprint and will help rein in global warming. The rest of the world should follow in their footsteps.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.
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