Less Than 1% Of Sweden's Trash Ends Up In Landfills

United Nations Photo, 'Landfill in Danbury, Connecticut' via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Humans produce an astonishing amount of trash and we all know it’s not good for the environment. We can shove it away in landfills, but there are numerous environmental problems associated with these ugly rubbish dumps. Greenhouse gases such as methane seep out of them and toxic chemicals, for example from household cleaning products, can pollute both the soil and groundwater. They’re also smelly, noisy, can damage wildlife and are breeding grounds for disease-transmitting vermin.

While recycling has helped cut down on the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, a considerable amount still gets dumped in them all over the world each year. But one country is showing us that it doesn’t have to be that way—Sweden.

Swedish people produce about the same amount of waste per year as other Europeans but, remarkably, less than 1% of household trash ends up in landfills. This is in part due to the 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants that have been set up across the country. These plants incinerate over two million tons of trash annually—almost 50% of the waste produced by the country—and have been in operation for years, according to the Huffington Post.

Of course, Sweden still recycles whatever it can, but anything that can’t be reused or recycled normally ends up at these WTE plants. As the name suggests, the garbage doesn’t go to waste but is used to generate energy. WTE plants contain huge incinerators for the trash. As it’s burnt, steam is produced that spins generator turbines which produce electricity. This is then transferred to transmission lines and distributed across the country by a grid.

Amazingly, WTE plants provide close to a million homes with heating and over a quarter of a million homes with electricity. So not only is it reducing the amount of trash that ends up in landfills, but it also helps to reduce Sweden’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“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,” Göran Skoglund, spokesperson for Öresundskraft, one of the country’s leading energy companies, explains in the short video below. That means that the two million tons of waste incinerated each year produces around 670,000 tons worth of fuel oil energy. Sweden even helps to clean up other countries in the EU by importing their trash and burning it.

But what about the environmental impacts of burning rubbish? The process generates byproducts such as ash that contain dioxins, a class of chemical contaminant. However, over the years Sweden has significantly improved the process and byproducts are cleaned up, meaning that only a tiny amount of dioxins are dispersed into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, because many products contain materials that cannot currently be recycled or incinerated, landfills are still necessary. Reducing the amount of waste we produce altogether would obviously be the best solution, but that is easier said than done. Still, it seems Sweden is making good of a bad situation, and maybe eventually other countries will start to follow suit.

Check out this video to find out more:

Importing garbage for energy is good business for Sweden from Sweden on Vimeo.

[Via Huffington Post]

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