The future of trash?

I have been fascinated with the issue of trash for a long time. I’ve been raised in Germany where every household has a number of different colored trash bins (green, blue, yellow, grey) where you have to recycle your waste daily. Germany also has the ‘Green Dot’ system that quite successfully changed the landscape of recycling. The jist of it is that you should buy your products that sport the green dot logo on the packaging, since this means that the manufacturer is assisting in financing the recycling of the packaging. Many german grocery chains also place a glass bottle recycling machine into their stores: you can return your used glass bottles there for value coupons (=cash) that you can redeem in the market. Why would you throw away a glass bottle if you can return it for cash? You wouldn’t.

Some of the nordic countries built really interesting businesses around trash. Swedish people produce about the same amount of waste per year as other Europeans but, remarkably, less than 1% of household trash ends up in landfills.

Swedes recycle nearly 100 per cent of their household waste!

In Sweden, recycling stations are as a rule no more than 300 metres from any residential area. Most Swedes separate all recyclable waste in their homes and deposit it in special containers in their block of flats or drop it off at a recycling station.

  • Newspapers are turned into paper mass,
  • bottles are reused or melted into new items,
  • plastic containers become plastic raw material;
  • food is composted and becomes soil or biogas through a complex chemical process.
  • Rubbish trucks are often run on recycled electricity or biogas.
  • Wasted water is purified to the extent of being potable.
  • Special rubbish trucks go around cities and pick up electronics and hazardous waste such as chemicals.
  • Pharmacists accept leftover medicine.
  • Swedes take their larger waste, such as a used TV or broken furniture, to recycling centres on the outskirts of the cities. 

50 per cent of the household waste is actually burnt to produce energy at incineration plants. Waste is a relatively cheap fuel and Sweden has, over time, developed a large capacity and skill in efficient and profitable waste treatment.

“Sweden has the world’s best network of district heating plants” — essentially large ovens that use a variety of fuels to generate heat, which is then transported to consumers’ homes through a network of underground pipes — “and they’re well-suited for use of garbage,” says Adis Dzebo, an energy expert at the Stockholm Environment Institute. 

Across Sweden, 950,000 homes are heated by trash; this lowly resource also provides electricity for 260,000 homes across the country, according to statistics from Avfall Sverige, Sweden’s national waste-management association.

The remaining ashes constitute 15 per cent of the weight before burning. From the ashes, metals are separated and recycled, and the rest, such as porcelain and tile, which do not burn, is sifted to extract gravel that is used in road construction. About one per cent still remains and is deposited in rubbish dumps.

The smoke from incineration plants consists of 99.9 per cent non-toxic carbon dioxide and water, but is still filtered through dry filters and water. The dry filters are deposited. The sludge from the dirty filter water is used to refill abandoned mines.

Swedes also happen to be some of the most outdoorsy, active and healthy people on the planet. Coincidence?


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