Waste Management and Recycling in Sweden
Sweden is among the most progressive nations on the planet, especially with respect to environmentalism. Recycling is perhaps the most direct and pervasive cultural element of Swedish environmentalism, although it is not the only one.
Environmentalism in Sweden took a major turn in 1975 when the Swedish government passed a bill called “The Recovery and Management of Waste,” which ordered the government to pay 50% of the cost of recycling domestic waste. Between 1972 and 1982, 15-20 water treatment plants were constructed for water separation and composting. Today, more than 50% of the paper used and discarded in Sweden is sold to paper mills and reused. The material that cannot be recycled is often incinerated instead, meaning that it is burned in an incinerator. The incineration of this material produces quite a bit of heat. 93% of this heat is used by Swedes for direct heating, although that only represents 5% of the total heat used by Swedes annually. Despite all these ways in which materials are recycled and conserved, obstacles still exist and must be overcome. The most difficult issue several decades ago was finding ways to use some of the residues left behind after recycling, such as iron, compost, and refuse-derived fuel; however, modern technology has changed all that.
As I have mentioned in previous entries, biogas has been used in Swedish transportation since 2005. According to Energigas Serge (which translates to “Energy Gas Sweden”) biogas is formed via anaerobic digestion. The anaerobic digestion (digestion without oxygen) of organic material such as fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, carried out by certain microorganisms, results in the production of methane and carbon dioxide. The most important ‘element’ in biogas is methane, which is used to produce heat and electricity. I am particularly interested in biogas because of its similarity to natural gas. Last semester I learned about natural gas in my tectonics class. Unlike the process by which methane is produced to make biogas, thermogenic (natural methane) gas is created within the earth’s depths when immense pressure and temperature are applied to organic matter called ‘kerogen.’ Biogas and natural gas can be used for the same purposes because they share nearly identical molecular compositions. However, unlike natural gas which takes many years to form, biogas can be produced in a month or two. Not only does this mean that we have a consistent and environmentally-friendly source of natural gas which does not deplete earth’s supply, but also that we have taken a major leap in the direction of sustainability!
Biogas production is mostly organized and operated by governmental organizations, but in Sweden, individuals are given the opportunity to take environmentalism into their own hands. For every glass bottle or metal can that a person buys, he or she is taxed one extra Swedish Crown (SEK). This tax is meant to persuade people to recycle their used containers. There are places all over town to which a person can bring his or her empty cans or bottles and be refunded the 1 SEK extra that they paid for each. Although 1 SEK is only about $0.15 this system really works! People commonly fill up bags of empty cans and bottles and bring them to the nearest ICA (grocery store) to get some extra ‘walking around money.’ In fact, I had a friend last semester named Chelsea, who was an exchange student from Washington. She bought a used bike when she got here and the chain kept falling off before it eventually broke. With almost no money of her own, two of our Swedish friends, Linus and Aksel, agreed to help her out. The twins (Linus and Aksel) walked around Uppsala one day and filled two giant trash bags with discarded cans and bottles. They then took the empty cans to ICA Folkes, which is right next to my house, and got about 700 SEK for all of them. With that money they bought Chelsea a brand new bike chain and even had some money left over!
I believe that the opportunity for people to profit from sustainability is in part why Sweden is so clean and environmentally-friendly. Students often need money, which is why it is not uncommon to see them walking around, picking up cans to exchange for SEK. For those individuals who choose not to return their empty cans and bottles, trash cans and recycling bins can be found quite easily; particularly near student halls. For instance, where I live, in Rackarbergsgatan, there are trash and recycling sheds located outside of every building. The keys which open the doors to the buildings open the trash/recycling sheds as well, making them very convenient and widely utilized. Uppsala University hosts an interdisciplinary sustainability center (CEMUS) which collaborates with SLU, its neighboring agricultural university, on a frequent basis. In fact, my friend Carl is running it this year and has seen to it that every residence hall and university building has a CEMUS poster hanging in its entrance.
In the case of Sweden, I believe that convenience has great deal to do with the quality of national and individual environmentalism. It is often easier to find a recycling bin than a trash can and biogas buses are more commonly used than diesel buses. The government endorses green energy sources, so individuals do not need to spend as much time stressing about where their energy is coming from. As I just mentioned, nearly every grocery store has an ‘empty-container receptacle’ in the entrance, making the whole process even simpler and more well-known.
The government seems to exhaust all possible media for sustainability, such as its upcoming “Earth Hour.” The Ministry of the Environment is a department of the Swedish government which is participating in a worldwide effort to raise awareness about environmentalism. The Earth Hour is a movement organized by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) in which participants will turn off all of their lights for an hour on March 23rd between 8:30 and 9:30pm. Whether old or young, whether students or professors, Swedes seem to really care about environmental awareness and responsibility. It can be easy to look at the great things a government does and be grateful to its members, but I believe that the real thanks should go to the people who emplace and nurture that government. In any case, my exposure to Sweden’s approach to environmentalism has made one thing abundantly clear: it all begins with you and me.
Thanks for reading!