Sweden is the country that on January 1, 2023 took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first half of the year. In terms of environmental protection and sustainability, the Scandinavian country impresses with its closeness to achieving its goal of zero waste. How is Sweden achieving this?
Recycling as a way of thinking
In Sweden, the foundations for a sustainable lifestyle were laid decades ago. Since 1984, there has been a system for returning metal cans to stores against a deposit. Such a scheme for plastic bottles was introduced in 1994. Every year Swedes recycle 1.8 billion bottles.
Members of Generation Y neither remember nor can imagine the possibility of not recycling. Daniel Silberstein was born in the nineties and quoted by Sweden’s government website, he says: “The thing about recycling is that it’s quite mechanical. It’s basically just this thing you automatically do where you sort your rubbish – just another part of all the consumption we do in our daily lives”.
Recycling is regulated by law, so rubbish and recyclables are sorted at home or by businesses before going to a recycling centre. There is a seven-category system for sorting household waste and there are recycling points no more than 300 meters from all residential areas.
“Local authorities make it easy. Once these norms are embedded in your thinking it actually feels cognitively uncomfortable when you visit another country and can’t find easy ways to recycle,” says Owen Gaffney, a sustainability analyst who works in Stockholm.
Innovations in sustainability
In the Swedish city of Eskilstuna is located the world’s first shopping center for used goods. Goods brought by customers for whom they are no longer needed are sold there. If they need a refresh or repair, a team of employees takes on the task. The seemingly new goods are resold, the business model being an example of a circular economy.
In 2017, the Swedish government reformed the tax system so that people can get cheaper repairs on used items and thus extend the life of the goods. Starting in 2020, customers of the Swedish fashion company H&M in Stockholm can transform their unwanted clothes into new clothes through a garment-to-garment recycling system called Looop. In this system, H&M cleans old clothes, then cuts them into fibers and spins them into new yarn, which is then woven into new fashion favorites.
Thanks to the innovations of the national waste-to-energy program, Sweden has 34 plants that create energy by burning waste. Four tons of garbage contains energy equivalent to one ton of oil, 1.6 tons of coal or five tons of wood waste. This process provides heat during the cold months for nearly 10 million inhabitants in the country. The energy from garbage equals the heating needs of 1.25 million apartments and electricity for another 680,000 homes.
Sweden recycles an astonishing 99 percent of its locally produced waste, thanks to its citizens’ concern for the environment and sophisticated collection techniques. The percentage of household waste recycled has increased from 38 percent in 1975 to at least 99 percent as of 2019.
According to the Swedish government, 4,600,000 tons of household waste were managed in 2020, which equates to 449 kilograms per person per year. 54% of household and similar waste was converted to energy in 2020. 86% of PET bottles and 87% of aluminum cans in the deposit system were recycled in 2020. This is slightly below the national target of 90% for both. 61% of all packaging materials were recycled in 2020, with a desired target of 65%.
As the zero-waste policy has led the country to run out of garbage, Sweden’s waste imports quadrupled between 2005 and 2014. Almost 2.3 million tonnes of waste were imported from the UK, Norway, Ireland and other countries in 2016.
Sweden is also a world leader in turning food waste into environmentally friendly biogas. The country has made food waste collection mandatory from 2021, according to the Swedish Waste Management Association. There is a dedicated biogas plant for food waste located in Skellefteå at the Tuvan Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant. Biogas is now used to run public buses and to heat residential buildings.