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More than half of the world’s waste — 59% of it, in fact — ends up in landfills. This means that most of the world’s trash eventually ends up releasing toxins that contaminate the soil and groundwater, and emit dangerous greenhouse gases.
But Sweden is setting an example for the rest of the world. Less than 1% of Sweden’s household waste ends up in landfills. Of the 4.4 million tons of household waste produced by the nation every year, 2.2 million are converted into energy by a process called waste-to-energy (WTE).
Before this process starts, home and business owners filter and separate the waste into hazardous wastes and recyclable material, which are then sent to different waste-management systems, like incinerators and recycling, and a small amount to landfills.
The furnaces in WTE plants are loaded with garbage, and then burnt to generate steam which is further used to spin turbines in order to produce electricity.
The waste that is recycled is essentially used as a resource, converted into district heating, electricity, biogas, and biofertilizer.
“When waste sits in landfills, leaking methane gas and other greenhouse gasses, it is obviously not good for the environment,” said Swedish Waste Management communications director Anna-Carin Gripwell.
Swedish law also makes the waste producers responsible for handling all costs related to the collection and recycling or disposing of their products.
In 1975, only 38% of household waste was recycled in Sweden, but now Sweden is aiming towards a zero waste future by 2020. What started in the 70s with strict waste disposal rules has now resulted in a society in which a “waste hierarchy” has been ingrained.
The WTE system isn’t perfect – it can be pricey and is known to release environmental pollutants. But, it is also constantly evolving, supported by new technological inventions that are making it possible for the WTE to reduce the environmental impact.
Sweden’s waste management system has turned it into a global leader, and it recovers more energy from each tonne of waste than any other country, according to Swedish Cleantech.
In fact, the Scandinavian country has become so good at waste management that it imports nearly 800,000 tons of waste from countries like the UK, Norway, Italy, and Ireland to feed its 32 WTE plants.
By not wasting its waste and recycling 99% of it, Sweden is on its way to achieving zero waste, and sustainable energy by 2020.
SIWI is a global organization that believes water is key to the world’s future prosperity, and that together, a water wise world can be achieved. By conducting research, facilitating international water projects and providing platforms for collaboration, we stimulate innovative policies and scientifically-based solutions to water-related challenges and develop expertise on water-related issues such as water cooperation, climate change, and energy.