Sweden’s waste-to-energy program converts household trash into energy, providing electricity and heating to hundreds of thousands of homes across the nation. But the program may be too successful; they’re now running out of homegrown trash to fuel the power plants. Host Bruce Gellerman spoke with Catarina Ostlund of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency about the country’s decision to import waste from its European neighbors to keep incinerators running.
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. When it comes to recycling, Sweden is sensationally successful. Just 4% of household waste in Sweden goes into landfills. The rest winds up either recycled or used as fuel in waste-to-energy power plants.
Burning the garbage in the incinerators generates 20 percent of Sweden’s district heating and provides electricity for a quarter of a million homes. The problem is, Sweden’s waste recycling program is too successful! Catarina Ostlund, is Senior Advisor for the Swedish EPA.
OSTLUND: We don’t have enough burnable waste within our own country so that’s why we import waste from other countries. We have more capacity than the production of waste in Sweden and that is usable for incineration.
GELLERMAN: You’ve got an enviable problem there! You don’t have enough trash!
OSTLUND: It’s not a problem- we can import some trash from the rest of Europe, because in the rest of Europe you landfill quite a lot of trash and I think they need us to take care of their trash.
GELLERMAN: So they’ve got more than enough trash, and you’ve got too little. How much do you import right now?
OSTLUND: It’s about eight hundred thousand tons.
GELLERMAN: Eight hundred thousand tons! That’s a lot of trash!
OSTLUND: Well, yeah, but in fact we hope that in the future Europe will build their own plants so they can manage to take care of their own waste. And we need to find ways of reducing our own waste as well in the future so I mean, this is not a long-term solution really, because we need to be better to reuse and recycle, but in the short perspective I think it’s quite a good solution.
GELLERMAN: What countries? Where are you getting your garbage now?
OSTLUND: Some from Norway. And also I think that there is some from Germany. The most part it’s from Norway right now.
GELLERMAN: But why doesn’t Norway burn their own garbage?
OSTLUND: They have incineration plants, but it’s more expensive to burn it in Norway- it’s cheaper for the Norwegians if they export their waste to Sweden. I think they will do in the near future—that they will burn their garbage in their own facilities—and I hope that we instead will get the waste from Italy or from Romania or Bulgaria or the Baltic countries because they landfill a lot in these countries. They don’t have any incineration plants or recycling plants, so they need to find a solution for their waste.
GELLERMAN: So, Miss Ostlund, I’ve gotta ask you- who pays who? They’ve got the trash that they want to get rid of, and you’ve got the trash that you want… do you have to buy it from Europe?
OSTLUND: We get paid. We get money from taking the trash to Sweden, and also we get money while selling it—electricity and heat. So, it’s quite the good business in fact. But, of course, you have dioxins in the ashes, so that’s a problem: what to do with the ashes.
GELLERMAN: Dioxin, you’re saying?
OSTLUND: Yeah, dioxins. And also, you have heavy metals but you get the dioxins and the heavy metals captured within the ash and then you need to landfill the ash. And in fact we export ashes to Norway! [Laughs] That’s the way it is.
GELLERMAN: It sounds really strange! Norway sends their garbage to you, they pay you to take it off their hands, you turn it into energy, you get to power your society and then you send the waste product back to Norway!
OSTLUND: Yeah. They aren’t so happy with that. [Laughs.]
GELLERMAN: Well, since Sweden is so good at this, why don’t you just export your technology so other countries don’t have to export their waste to you?
OSTLUND: I would say we do this. But Sweden has a different situation since we need the heat from the waste. You know in Italy maybe they don’t need the heat for heating, they just want the electricity. And when you use both heat and electricity, you get a much higher efficiency on your plant.
So that’s why we have the world’s best incineration plants concerning energy efficiency. But I would say maybe in the future, this waste will be valued even more so maybe you could sell your waste because there will be a shortage of resources within the world. So, I mean, the waste will be more and more valuable.
GELLERMAN: Well, that’s an interesting take - waste as a rare energy resource!
OSTLUND: Yeah! I would say it is. It could be, yeah it will be, I’m sure it will be.
GELLERMAN: Well Ms. Ostlund, thank you so very much.
OSTLUND: Thank you very much.
GELLERMAN: That’s Catarina Ostlund, Senior Advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.
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