Sweden: So Clean It's Paid to Import Garbage

Waste-to-energy power plants are big in Europe. In the U.S., not so much.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all this trash could be converted into electricity? (Bloomberg/Getty)
Sep 13, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

If only the United States were so environmentally lucky as to find itself in Sweden's garbage-needy shoes. Recently, the Nordic country has taken to what would be a dream source of government revenue here in America: being paid to use another countries trash.

“When it comes to recycling, Sweden is incredibly successful. Just four percent of household waste in Sweden goes into landfills. The rest winds up either recycled or used as fuel in waste-to-energy power plants,” reports Public Radio International.

“Burning the garbage in the incinerators generates 20 percent of Sweden’s district heating, a system of distributing heat by pumping heated water into pipes through residential and commercial buildings. It also provides electricity for a quarter of a million homes.”

The country’s efforts are in fact so successful that it actually has the capacity to burn more garbage than it has available. This has led to a rather creative solution: “Sweden has recently begun to import about eight hundred thousand tons of trash from the rest of Europe per year to use in its power plants. The majority of the imported waste comes from neighboring Norway because it’s more expensive to burn the trash there and cheaper for the Norwegians to simply export their waste to Sweden.”

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In 2010, The New York Times noted that similar waste-to-energy efforts were occurring in Denmark, where the plants used for converting trash to heat and electricity are, “Far cleaner than conventional incinerators . . . Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago . . . Their use has not only reduced the country’s energy costs and reliance on oil and gas, but also benefited the environment, diminishing the use of landfills and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.”

Here in the U.S., things have played out a little differently due to the deservedly bad rep associated with the industrial-scale incinerators that were built in the 1980s. RenewableEnergyWorld has said, “the specter of trash-derived smoke, laden with heavy metals and toxic dioxins, frequently added up to a public-relations disaster.”

They go on to observe, “But here’s the deal: Europe might not even have incinerators if it had enough room to build giant sacrifice zones—landfills.” And they quote Joseph DeCarolis, an assistant professor of water resources and environmental engineering at North Carolina State University, as noting that, “Unlike Europe, many parts of the United States are not space-constrained . . . If it were, there would be a more serious move here toward waste-to-energy.”

But CNET quotes Anders Damgaard, a post-doctoral fellow at North Carolina State University, as saying, “I think they [Europeans] don’t use air pollution as the main problem because it's under control now. In Europe, especially in the countries that burn waste, there is really no movement against waste-to-energy. The green organizations see it as viable, they know the alternative is burning more fossil fuel, which is just as polluting if not more so.” And not all environmentalists approve of the waste-to-energy approach. CNET reported last October that, “as states look to meet renewable-energy mandates through waste, some environmental groups are pushing back. Last week, the Environmental Integrity Project issued a report arguing against more waste-to-energy plants in Maryland, saying they are polluting and resources would be better spent on recycling. Similarly, a waste-to-energy proposal in New York was opposed by some environmental groups which said that efforts to boost recycling would be more beneficial.”

Do you think the U.S. should be investing in more waste-to-energy plants?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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