Wacky science: Sweden gets trashy

Wouldn’t it be nice to not have enough trash? That’s a burden most of us would jump at the chance to bear. As it turns out, that’s exactly the problem Sweden has run into.

After beginning a very successful trash incineration program in the 1940s, the hip Nordic country has now found itself lacking enough trash to power the incinerators, and plans to import around 800,000 tons of trash a year from other countries.

Catarina Ostlund, Senior Advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, explained the issue.

“We have more capacity [to burn trash] than the production of waste in Sweden and that is usable for incineration,” she said.

Trash is stacking up all around in Sweden. Graphic by Steve Furtado.

Waste incineration powers 250,000 homes and provides up to a fifth of the country’s district heating, and manages the country’s waste so that only 4 percent of household trash ends up in a landfill.

That’s a stark contrast to the U.S., where 250 million tons of trash were generated in 2010, only 34 percent of which was recycled.

Sweden is setting an example the world should start following, because as things currently stand, 70 percent of deep sea Arctic creatures are harrowed by waste like beer bottles and plastic bags.

Luckily for those critters, however, Sweden hopes to import trash from countries that don’t have incineration plants or recycling programs. Possible future partners include Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic countries.

The current beneficiary of the program is Norway, which is actually paying Sweden to take trash off its hands. Despite the fee, the country ends up saving money by going this route rather than disposing of the trash itself.

The trash program isn’t all roses, however — ashes of the waste byproduct can house dioxins and heavy metals harmful to the environment, and need to be landfilled. The current solution is to export the ashes generated from foreign trash back to the countries the trash originally came from, where they will be deposited in landfills.

The project has become a lot more green since emissions standards were tightened in the 1980s, however. It seems Sweden is capable of safeguarding the environment and keeping things clean at the same time.

Ostlund envisions a slightly different future, though, where countries can actually sell their trash for profit.

“I would say maybe in the future, this waste will be valued even more so maybe you could sell your waste because there will be a shortage of resources within the world,” she said.

But until that time comes, we’re going to have to buckle down and recycle and reuse as much as we can, because not even Sweden can handle everyone’s trash.