Is recycling in Sweden actually a load of rubbish?

Is recycling in Sweden actually a load of rubbish?

The idea of achieving zero waste seems to be the new holy grail, with businesses, bloggers and governments all moving the issue into the mainstream and vying to be seen as leading the way when it comes to responsible living. Held high as a poster-boy for this movement is Sweden, boasting that not only is 99 per cent of its waste is recycled, but that they have even had to import waste from other European countries to ensure their recycling plants are kept running. But with so many different possible ways of interpreting these figures, is recycling in Sweden really all it's cracked up to be or is its “recycling revolution” really a load of rubbish?

Sweden’s official website claims that more than 99 per cent of household waste in the country is recycled, adding a slightly cryptic “in one way or another” to the end of that statistic. On the face of it, this rate sounds highly impressive, especially compared to the UK where, according to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), the recycling rate sits at around 44 per cent. In the USA, which produces more rubbish per person per day than any other country in the world, the rate sits at around 34 per cent.

Recycling bins Credit: Getty

So, what does “in one way or another” really mean? Well to put it bluntly, it’s more or less a code for “depending on how you spin it”.  The fact is that almost 50 per cent of Sweden’s 99 per cent figure is made up of waste that is burnt to produce energy and then used to heat homes etc. In the USA, this process is not categorised as recycling. The UK burns 20 per cent of their waste to create energy, but does not claim it as part of its official recycling figures. When you strip it back and exclude this incinerated waste, Sweden’s actual figure is just shy of 50 per cent.

These waste-to-energy plants themselves, which work in the same way as traditional coal or gas plants by burning materials to generate steam that powers turbines, are not without controversy. Whilst they are considerably cleaner than burning traditional fossil fuels - smoke from incineration contains 99.9 per cent non-toxic fumes - the plants are also being blamed by some for a stagnation in recycling rates. Sweden’s own recycling rates have barely moved from around the 49 per cent mark since 2006, and many countries are now set to miss the EU Commission’s Europe-wide target of recycling 50 per cent of waste by 2020, let alone the more stringent target of 65 per cent of waste by 2030.

Groups such as Zero Waste Europe, who work to promote zero waste across the continent, have been highly critical of the continued use of waste-to-energy facilities, contending that in order to be economically viable they require constant feeding thus causing recycling to be diverted. Their website explains that: “Incinerators are not flexible. This means that, in order to deliver a sound economic profit, they need from 40 to 50 years of activity, without taking into account the management costs.” Drawing attention to the case of a plant in the the south of England built in 1998, which is now making a loss due to the improvement of recycling in the UK as a whole, the group argues that: “Rather than selling its recyclables for reuse, which would be both economically and environmentally efficient, it must send those valuable resources up in smoke.”

Pipes inside a waste-to-energy plant Credit: Getty

For their part, the UK enjoyed rapidly growing recycling rates for more than a decade, with Wales far outperforming any other UK nation. This said, recycling rates fell slightly for the first time in 2015/2016 from 44.9 per cent to 44.3 per cent, a trend attributed to local authority budget cuts, the falling price of producing plastic and confusion over what can and can’t be recycled.

However you look at it, it is still true to say recycling in Sweden has come on in leaps and bounds over the past 20 years and is still in much better shape than in much of the rest of Europe. Croatia and Greece in particular still send the large majority of their rubbish to landfill, with over 80 per cent of municipal waste heading for the tip in 2014. Turkey, which is not an EU country but whose landfill waste is still recognised by the European Environment Agency, was estimated to send over 80 per cent to landfill. In Sweden, as a rule, recycling stations are located no more than 300m from any residential area and most recycling waste is sorted at home therefore reducing the need for middle-man sorting sites. But the fact of the matter remains that incineration and recycling are not the same thing. Whilst it may not be rotting in the ground, none of this rubbish will be reused. 

A digger drives through a landfill site Credit: Getty

So if not Sweden, then who can we look up to in search of environmental inspiration? Germany is a good bet; in 2013 they managed to recycle 65 per cent of household waste, according to the OECD. Among their strategies are an abundance of colour coded recycling bins in public spaces, the frequent composting of organic materials and the implementation of laws that make the producer of goods responsible for their disposal once the consumer is finished with them. In 2019, these laws will be even stricter, with the German government aiming to recycle 63 per cent of plastics and 90 per cent of metal, glass, and paper by 2022.

The main thing that Sweden, Germany and other highly performing countries have in common is the fact that recycling is so ingrained in the national psyche. With Trump’s withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Agreement, the increasing prevalence of natural disasters and climate change now being considered to be one of the biggest threats to global security, the idea of zero waste is - quite rightly - no longer the preserve of tree huggers and hippies. The tiny actions we take as individuals, whether that be sorting bottles, minimising paper use or using fewer carrier bags, can have a huge impact. But now, perhaps more than ever, what the world needs is not only innovative and clean approaches to waste disposal and energy production, but our governments to be transparent about these.