Sweden’s Waste-To-Energy Program Threatens the Future of Recycling

Acknowledging the flaws of waste-to-energy programs before hailing them the next miracle for climate change progress, is vitally important to the environmental debate.


In the last decade, Sweden has become widely known as a world leader for sustainability and recycling methods. Since 2014, a number of reports have emerged online claiming that Sweden recycled as much as 99 percent of their waste. While the premise of the message is admirable, unfortunately, the truth behind the claim is somewhat distorted.

The Nordic country, which has a population of about 9.6 million (2013), recycles 1.5 billion bottles and cans annually. While the Swedish government’s mission to prioritize sustainability should be emulated worldwide, global emissions could potentially increase if their methods were duplicated by other nations.

The stream of articles regarding Sweden’s incredible recycling efforts has followed a report by the Huffington Post that stated the country recycles as much as 99 percent of its waste. According to the reports, the country was able to achieve this by participating in a waste-to-energy (WTE) program.

The energy from these plants is produced by burning garbage in a furnace. The newly-produced gas from this process is then used to spin generator turbines, which produces electricity. “The only fuel we use is waste,” says Christian Löwhagen, a spokesman for Renova, the local government-owned energy company operating the plant. “It provides one-third of heat for households in this region.

Today, Sweden has a total of 32 WTE plants located around the country. These waste-to-energy plants heat around 950,000 homes, while also providing electricity for 260,000 homes across the country, according to statistics from Avfall Sverige, Sweden’s national waste-management association.

Reports in the media have claimed that Sweden’s recycling method has become so effective, the country was forced to import waste from neighboring countries. In reality, Sweden recycles just 47 percent of their waste, leaving the remaining 52 percent to be used to generate energy.

“When waste sits in landfills, leaking methane gas and other greenhouse gases, it is obviously not good for the environment,” Swedish Waste Management communications director Anna-Carin Gripwell explained in a statement.

We feel that we have a responsibility to act responsibly in this area and try to reduce our ecological footprint,” states Per Bolund, Swedish Finance and Consumption Minister in a video for AJ+. “The consumers are really showing that the want to make a difference and what we’re trying to do from the government’s side is to help them act, making it easier to behave in a sustainable way.”

In comparison, Americans recycle 34 percent of all the waste they create, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, despite appearances, waste-to-energy programs are not, in reality, an environmentally friendly solution to the current energy crisis.

According to the EPA, quoted in Slate, waste-to-energy plants emit more CO2 per megawatt generated than burning coal. Incinerating garbage releases 2,988 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. In comparison, coal releases 2,249 pounds/megawatt hour and natural gas releases 1,135 pounds/megawatt hour.

Despite this unfavorable comparison, waste-to-energy is considered by many to be a cleaner alternative to coal because around two thirds of the emissions of CO2 are treated like biomass and considered carbon neutral.

Image: Flickr, PROAlan Levine (CC BY 2.0)

However, the long-term environmental concerns associated with this method are not solely centered around the unfavorable amount of CO2 released into the Earth’s atmosphere. As highlighted in a report published by Tree Hugger, the ease of waste-to-energy programs could stunt the development of recycling in the country.

In addition, as the method offers a quick and profitable solution to the waste issue, many materials that have great recycling potential – including paper, food and wood – would, instead, be simply incinerated.

While the waste-to-energy program in Sweden is certainly a revolutionary and highly successful method of waste disposal – only 1 percent of waste in the country ends up in landfills – it is also important to acknowledge its underlying flaws. It is only once we accept these challenges that we can work towards developing alternative sustainable energy solutions that have a minimal carbon footprint.

Image: Flickr, Alan Levine (CC BY 2.0)

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  1. With all due respect to your group, you haven’t published the correct info here. I have personally visited these plants and what they do is that they capture the gas emissions from the chimneys and very little greenhouse gases are released to the atmosphere, making it much less emission than leaving the garbage in wastelands. Not sure what’s been the purpose behind your mentioned report of Tree Hugger!
    Let’s support clean energies.


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