Sweden has run out of trash. In fact, it has become such an expert at managing its own waste that it has to import garbage from neighboring countries to keep its 32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants running—2.7 million metric tons in 2014. Less than one percent of its trash ends up in landfills. In the United States, that percentage is 54.
So what is Sweden doing that we aren’t? And should we follow their lead?
About half of Sweden’s waste is conventionally recycled or composted. The United States lags far behind at around 34 percent—where it has stubbornly hovered for about a decade. This doesn’t put the United States at the bottom of the world’s recyclers. Chile and Turkey, for instance, only recycle one percent of their waste. But it also doesn’t put the U.S. at the top. Germany recycles or composts 65 percent of its waste. Korea is at 59 percent.
Sweden is striving to get that number even higher, with an intensive governmental communications push. “Swedish people are quite keen on being out in nature and they are aware of what we need to do on nature and environmental issues. We worked on communications for a long time to make people aware not to throw things outdoors so that we can recycle and reuse,” said Anna-Carin Gripwall, director of communications at the Swedish Waste Management’s recycling association.
The remaining half of Sweden’s household waste is burnt for energy, which is less energy-efficient than reusing or recycling it—though Sweden is working on shifting that balance. Weine Wiqvist, CEO of the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association, says that Sweden is “trying to ‘move up the refuse ladder,’ as we say, from burning to material recycling, by promoting recycling and working with authorities.”
Out of this waste, about 15 percent remains in ashes. From the ashes, materials are separated out and recycled. Some of it used to make gravel for road construction. The