Changing Planet

Sweden Needs More Trash

Sweden has always been ahead of its neighbors when it comes to reducing its environmental impact. To make power, the country does something unique: it turns trash into power on a national scale using high-power incinerators. At first glance, it solves two problems: getting rid of trash before it piles up and generating electricity without burning dirty fossil fuels.

But now Sweden is hitting a wall. According to the country’s Environmental Protection Agency, it needs more trash to feet Sweden’s energy habit, and it’s begun importing trash—just over 881,000 tons—from nearby Norway to do it.

It’s an innovative idea that seems to work for everyone. Sweden powers most of its homes and business with a waste product, and gets paid to do so. Norway gets rid of trash it doesn’t have space to bury more cheaply than exporting trash elsewhere (it gets the ashes back after incineration, but those take up much less space). And no one has to dig or drill for energy.

When I heard about the growth of this technology, I immediately thought of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the growing island of the world’s trash kept in constant swirl about 1,000 miles north of Hawaii. Back in 2009, a group of environmentalists and waste managers began trying to tackle the global trash heap, which has turned vast swaths of the Northern Pacific into an ecological dead zone. The Ocean Voyages Institute in Sausalito, California, tried testing ways to clean it up, including incinerating the trash to create energy or even oil.

Unfortunately, the idea that works so well for Sweden isn’t so replicable. Especially not in the geographically inconvenient North Pacific, where even a solid day’s work incinerating trash is quickly eclipsed by exponentially more trash that joins the heap.

But could trash incineration come to the United States at a large-enough scale? Only under the best of conditions, say a few waste managers I talked to. Like Swedish cities, U.S. municipalities would have to invest heavily in pick-up and distribution infrastructure that would essentially marry trash pick-up with energy generation. America’s insatiable appetite for power would also be hard to keep up with. And then there’s the problem of ash, which can be more chemically potent than the raw trash.

Still, even if large countries can’t embrace incineration-to-power technology as impressively as Sweden, the technology continues to grow. Montgomery County, Maryland, has a waste incineration plant. And later this year, the city of Pontotoc, Mississippi, is planning to start turning local waste into liquid fuel. In a region full of agriculture waste, not a bad idea.

  • Norwegian

    Norway ended landfilling july 1.2009. The swedish import of norwegian waste is making a lot of problem for environement in the nordic area. Journalist Dan Stone has done a very bad article, based on no facts. Check facts, man. Read some swedish and norwegian papers or call Waste Manegement Norway or Waste Management Sweden to get info. Swedish consultant ProFu have made documentation that shows oposite results than what Dane Stone describe.

  • Roy Ulvang

    The article describes the utilization of Norwegian waste in Swedish high-power incinerators as a win-win situation; as if Norway avoids landfilling by exporting our waste. Not so. In fact, Norway has a landfill-ban on biodegradeable waste since 2009, and the only thing avoided is full capacity use of Norwegian plants producing renewable heat and power.

  • Roy Ulvang

    The article describes the utilization of Norwegian waste in Swedish high-power incinerators as a win-win situation; as if Norway avoids landfilling by exporting our waste. Not so.
    In fact, Norway has a landfill-ban on biodegradeable waste since 2009, and the only thing avoided is full capacity use of Norwegian plants producing renewable heat and power.

  • Mohammad Kambiz Fatehi

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    I can show you all of the method shits.
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  • Elizabeth

    I’m in question of the emissions produced from the transport of the trash from one place to another. Is it moved by truck, train, barges, etc. ?

  • Elizabeth

    I’m glad Mississippi is doing something of their trash. It’s filthy! They have no deposit/return on their aluminum cans. Driving through, perhaps due to their drug addiction crisis, it looks as though the filthy habits have been transferred several generations. I’m not talking of ag trash-but plastic jugs/containers, paper, glass bottles, and aluminum cans. And yet there is a tourist tax on almost EVERYTHING. Those funds should go towards cleaning up a state tourists would WANT to return to or tackling the drug crisis.

  • Elizabeth

    This same situation, difference in application, is occurring in Michigan. It seems Waste Management and our Legislators have chosen our “Great Lakes State” for a Canadian dump. We use it for the methane production. But the emissions from the hundreds of trucks coming in each day worries me of a horrible side effect.

  • Daniel in Stockholm

    We power most of our homes and industries with nuclear and hydroelectric power plants. Waste is a marginal power source.

  • Henki

    Of course the waste management has not been without hick ups. But the most important reason for Sweden to invest in waste management is to become an industrial leader, so we can sell the technology to other countries.

  • Anders

    Well, it all boils down to economics… My Norwegian friends here are correct that it would be better if Norway burnt their own trash and benefited from it themselves. Also to avoid the transportation between Norway and Sweden would of course be beneficial to the environment.

    However, Sweden is more dependent on the “trash burning” than Norway is. Also Norwegian companies are making more money selling the trash to Sweden than burning it themselves. The problem here is that Sweden has a large dependency on the waste incineration but only from an economical stand-point. The cheapest way to produce electricity and heat for community heat-plants are by burning waste!

    Most of Sweden’s electricity actually comes from hydro-plants and nuclear power plants (water about 45%, nuclear 40% and wind about 4%) and not really from burning waste as you might think from reading the article…
    Since we in Sweden are recycling in such a high frequency there is not enough trash to get the incinerators burning att 100%, meaning the power companies have to rely on more expensive alternatives for electricity and heat.
    The best economical solution for them is then to by trash and burn it since that is the cheapest way of producing the electricity.
    I doubt they really put much thought into environmental issues, or rather I think they put the stock price ahead of any environmental concerns… Difference here is that the economical and environmental benefits happen to be the same (which of course is very good).

  • Dana Cashwell

    My question is about the carbon emissions from the incinerators. Are they sacrificing air quality for less trash?

  • Tomas

    Sweden imports trash from Italy. The maffia has dominated and wrecked the waste management industry so to cope they are paying Sweden big bucks to get rid of the waste.

    Read more in the state controlled Swedish radio (use google translate):

  • john

    I really liked the article until it said, “it needs more trash to FEET Sweden’s energy habit.” then I quit reading. If we want skeptics to take us seriously we have to be perfect. Keep up the good work, but you made environmentalist and National Geographic look foolish by not proofreading your article.

  • Storm

    Amazing but rather than put the ash into the ground turn it to stones or diamonds. this place will do it for the remains of a loved one. lets do it with the left over ashes and have everything pretty

  • Josiah

    Something I’d like to clear up in the article. When you talked about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch you made it sound like an actual island or trash that is visible to the eye. This is not the case. The amount of trash in the GPGP is huge, yes, but it cannot be seen. There is a lot of trash, but when you’re in the patch you can only see open water. Most of the trash is broken down into tiny pieces of plastic almost invisible unless you look closely enough.

    To get a more informed and better idea of the GPGP take a look at the short video series that Vice did on it. Most of the people of the Vice crew had the same misconceptions about the garbage patch that were washed away with something much worse when they actually got out there to film it.

  • Mercedes Brugh

    I fail to see how vaporizing used products to gain a fraction of the energy that went into producing them, makes any sense at all. It is obvious to me that recycling creates far more jobs and conserves far more energy.

  • Sarreq Teryx

    I live in Phila, PA. we were supposed to get one of these about 12 or s years ago, the outcry from the less than informed public ended any inkling of it happening. the main concerns were over the false perception of the odor a plant like this would produce.

  • Child

    I am a student doing research for a project, and I stumbled upon this idea. I would like to say it’s a good idea.

  • Michael

    All trash should be recycled and all power should be made with Fast Breeder Reactors.

  • Rolf Häsänen

    Sweden is actually contemplating buying garbage from EU countries with worst waste management systems to help them manage their waste while exporting knowhow about efficient waste management.

    More about the garbage to Energy conversation in link below.

  • Swiggity swag, what’s in the bag!

    Swiggity swag, what’s in the bag!

  • Shobha

    Turning garbage to ashes…
    Isn’t ash more harmful than recyclable garbage?
    (Just a modest thought)

  • Billy

    Mercedes, the stuff they are burning is non-recyclable refuse, they recycle anything that is able to be recycled. If you knew anything about Europe, you’d know they recycle more and much more efficiently than anywhere here in the States.

  • Jon Lane

    I realise this article is quite old now, but its only just come to my attention, and I felt the need to offer another perspective on the matter.

    I live in a small town in the southwest of England, 20 miles away from where an EfW incinerator has been given permission by the local council. This is not a scheme I am in support of on principle – the amount of energy being generated is only going to helpl power the nearby military docklands, and provide nothing to the local economy. In addition, the local councils who are pledged to use the incinerator are also bound to provide a certain level of waste in order that the incinerator can run, and are liable to be fined if they breach their contract with MVV and fail to provide enough waste. Therefore, this is an active disincentive to improve recycling.

    There is also the matter of the waste product from the incineration – the bottom ash. Not only is this waste material potentially hazardous (there is no way to state this definitively one way or the other, since the composition of the incinerated waste cannot be standardised). This waste then has to be stored in a way not dissimilar to landfill. The companies running the incinerator claim that this is only a temporary situation, until the ash can be used as aggregate in building projects: however, there is no proven market for this aggregate in the UK, nor have the few projects that have used such an aggregate proven that it is a suitable alternative to more traditional materials.

    In the interest of full disclosure, MVV applied for planning permission to build their IBA waste storage facility here in the town where I live. The site they wish to use is less than 100 metres from the nearest residence, as well as within 500 metres of the local park and school. The additional noise pollution from the lorries coming to the site, as well as the physical presence of the vehicles themselves, will change the local landscape completely, and will have untold consequences on local health issues. In addition, the site is host to the largest colony of Greater Horseshoe Bats in Europe, and the industrial activity in the site would wreak havoc on their livelihood as well. There are also unknown factors regarding leachate into the local water table, or the effect of the waste storage on other local flora and fauna, including otters in the nearby river (which flows last the site entrance). The local council turned down the planning permission, but MVV have chosen to appeal to a public enquiry, which took place last month. During that enquiry, it became clear that the company has no interest in local health, wildlife, ecology, or anything other than their bottom line. This is not about environmentalism, other than a complete disregard for it. Nor is waste incineration “recycling” in any meaningful sense – it is simply displaced landfill masquerading as “green” energy.

  • Per Nilsson

    For a good insight and understanding of how we handle waste in Sweden please read the link below.…/Rapporter/SWM_2013.pdf

  • Phil

    Recovery is the 4th best option. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover. The plants need to be Combined Heat and Power, providing hot water for district heating or for Process water. The incinerator also has to be run to minimise emissions rather than maximum power output. They also burn quite a bit of gas, because some batches do not otherwise reach a safe burning temperature.

    With these considerations, burning waste is one of many solutions we need to be persuing.

  • Dennis

    …i know this is old and what not but if someone runs across this comment take this into consideration …mushrooms will eat anything and turn it into energy for their selves and anything that is pairing with them …this can be said about nuclear waste so why not dump the ashe in a “landfill” that is full of mushrooms spores and let them go to town. As for the smog these incinerators put out …they could invest in heavy duty carbon filters also known as charcoal filters.

  • Martino Pavese

    This article is a complete TRASH, I’m sorry to say it and I can’t figure how it can come on a website like this.
    European Union is working to prevent CO2 emissions and material destruction since the nineties and you wrote a thing like this in 2013?
    The only people left supporting incineration are companies building this kind of plants and, of course, local politicians who get paid.
    Shame on you.

  • Heidi Souder

    Everyone who is freaking out about how incinerating trash is killing the environment needs to do some research on biomass energy and closed carbon loops. Yeah.

  • Jeff Anderson

    They do exactly that in Ames Iowa 10% of the city’s power comes from trash

  • Dahlia Vandoria

    In the 1980’s I worked on several waste-to-energy projects in Oregon. Though a transfer plant and incinerator were built in the Willamette Valley and another built in Eastern Oregon, they were rabidly opposed by environmentalists who supposed the plants would emit lethal amounts of cancer-causing dioxins into the air and every one on the west coast would die of lung disease and cancer, and birth defects would be the only result of human reproductive process. All of these plants were scrapped in favor of coal-fired energy. The smoke stack of the Keizer plant still stands above what became a garbage transfer station. The Boardman plant was converted to coal or natural gas.

  • Pal Martensson

    I was expecting a more serious article when we talk about inncineration and the “smart Swedish way”. Pls Mr Stone do your homework, studie the trash problem and you will find that Swedens way i completley wrong direction. Learn more about it att ZWIA.ORG. Make a new article that celebrate smart thinking and good behaviour when it come to trash. There is only one way and that i Zero Waste!

  • Paige

    Interesting concept to deal with a number of problems, you’re looking at reduction of waste, ash being more compact, and energy generation saving on oil and gas. It’s interesting how both Norway and Sweden are rapidly becoming some of the world’s leaders in innovative energy generation, there are a lot of things we could learn from these two countries.

  • ck

    When you burn anything, you release CO2, so this doesn’t really solve any sort of climate problems. The juxtaposition with dirty coal or natural gas is a half truth, since burning trash also releases CO2 and toxins. Bacterial and fungal biodegradation combined with a goal of zero waste is a goal worthy of every country.

  • Boggan Alseryd

    Here in Sweden we still have problems with waste, heavy metals wich exits in the ash is still a problem, and no one wants their back yard to be a designated storage area for all that waste ash.

  • 919862216050

    for more trash you can contact with me.

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