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“Run out of rubbish”: Sweden’s revolutionary recycling

ByLaura Potier

Jan 25, 2017

Sweden has recently made headlines with bold statements along the lines of “the country has run out of rubbish” – so should we be following their lead? Sweden’s recycling is apparently so effective that for the past six years, the country has had to import rubbish from overseas in order to keep its recycling plants operational, and under one per cent of rubbish was sent to landfills in 2016.

Over half of all household waste is incinerated, supplying homes with heat and electricity. By comparison, the UK sends large amounts of its waste to be recycled overseas in order to avoid the fines involved in sending rubbish to landfills. Rather than re-evaluating their recycling methods, the UK would rather pay high transport costs for rubbish to be dealt with abroad instead. As of 2017, only 44 per cent of UK waste is recycled, whilst the EU target for 2020 has been set at 50 per cent. However, 44 per cent actually presents a fall of one percent in the recycling rate since its peak in 2014.

So, UK recycling efficiency appears to be backtracking. Britain has already poured hundreds of millions of pounds into recycling facilities and energy recovery plants, which have created hundreds of jobs, but have not produced the desired effect. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that the drop in the percentage of waste being recycled is due to austerity-driven budget cuts. Britain’s decision to leave the EU could potentially worsen the situation, as whilst EU countries have set targets for 2020 and are striving for a 65 per cent recycling rate by 2030, the UK may have less of an incentive to keep up with its neighbouring nations.

On the other hand, many factors stand in the way of the UK following Sweden’s footsteps. If the UK were to adopt the Swedish systems, problems could arise. For example, to use recycling for heating – as the Swedes do – district heating and cooling systems are required. Such infrastructure would take considerable time and money to build.

Cultural difference could also account for the disparity in effectiveness of recycling programs. It could be argued that Swedes prioritise their environment more highly than their British counterparts. Sweden’s culture of caring for their environment is visible. For example, they were one of the first countries to place a tax on fossil fuels, which has resulted in half of their electricity being sourced from renewable energy today.

This cultural gap can also be explained in part through the nations’ geographies. Whilst Sweden lacks a wealth of fossil fuels, the UK does not. Furthermore, as a smaller country, Sweeden has fewer options for landfills and is thus forced to look for other ways to cope with waste. Britain’s lack of incentive in finding innovative ways to manage and recycle their waste is therefore understandable, regardless of the significance of its impact on global climate change in having one of the highest per capita emissions in the world. 

However, it can also be said that Sweden’s situation is not perfect. The media seems to be exaggerating when stating that “Sweden recycles 99 per cent of rubbish”; their liberal use of the term ‘recycle’ avoids acknowledging that the incineration of waste is not a form of recycling. The official definition implies the conversion of waste into reusable material, and if one abides by the official definition, then the media hype is misleading.

It’s been argued that Sweden is avoiding true recycling by sending 50 per cent of its waste to be incinerated. Materials like wood fibre can be recycled up to six times before becoming unusable, so if paper is burnt before that point, its recycling potential is left unfulfilled. Incineration also puts out more CO2 per megawatt generated than the burning of coal. Furthermore, it takes less energy to recycle waste than to burn and manufacture a replacement.

However, although Sweden’s methods may not be perfect, it is undeniable that the country is taking great strides in a positive direction. Sweden is limiting its contribution to climate change in many new ways, and although it may not be possible for Britain to undertake these methods immediately, we could well still learn from our Scandinavian neighbour.

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