The sensible Swedes burn a lot of their garbage. Why can’t we?
By Daniel Gross from Slate.com
Sweden, from which I’ve recently returned, is impressively functional, efficient, and rational. The air is clean; the ferries run on time. I spent a few days on the island of Gotland attending Almedalen, the weeklong festival of ideas where all the political parties gather together to mingle and debate. The super-fast train that whisks travelers from Arlanda Airport to Stockholm Central Train Station takes a mere 20 minutes and is powered by renewable energy. Despite its proximity to coal-rich Poland and Russia, Sweden doesn’t use any of the dirty black stuff to create energy. In fact, the country’s electricity supply is largely emission-free, with 44 percent derived from hydro, 40.5 percent nuclear, some wind, and less than 1 percent coming from coal.
The country is so efficient and smart that, as one Swedish person casually acknowledged to me, “We only put 1 percent of our garbage in landfills.”
That is true. The Swedes generate a decent amount of garbage, just like everybody else—465 kilograms per capita of waste in 2010, or about 1,070 pounds per person. Aggressive recycling programs that hoover up about 50 percent of the country’s waste have helped radically reduce the amount of junk going to landfills—that 1 percent figure is down from 22 percent of the total in 2001. Shockingly, though, Sweden burns just as much garbage as it recycles, as noted in a 2013 European Environment Agency report (PDF). In 2012, Sweden incinerated 2.27 million tons of household waste at the country’s 32 waste-to-energy plants. Waste-to-energy, or WTE, is responsible for about 8.5 percent of the country’s electricity.
Sweden, a progressive, carbon-obsessed country, has clearly made its peace with burning garbage. So if the Swedes burn half their garbage to create heat and electricity, why can’t Americans? After all, we’re a much more prodigious producer of trash at 251 million tons a year, which comes out to 0.38 pounds per day per person, or nearly 1,600 pounds per year per person. While we recover about 34.5 percent of our trash through a combination of recycling and composting, Americans send a huge chunk of the gross national detritus—54 percent—to landfills, where it just lies there and decomposes. In the U.S., we only burn about 12 percent of our garbage.