The Idiosyncratic Waste Situation

Janine Yeong


June 5th, 2013

Janine explores the ability of waste to add economic benefit to an economy- why not use it to generate energy instead of fossil fuels?

Just last year, Sweden hit the headlines for its peculiar predicament. Well, thanks to its wildly efficacious garbage-to-energy management, the Swedes are now facing a shortage of garbage.[1] Since only 4% of their waste ends up in landfills, they have resorted to importing garbage from the neighbouring Norway in order to produce heat and electricity for 250,000 households.

At first glance, both Scandinavian nations appear to gain in this bizarre agreement.[2] Sweden gets to solve its shortage of combustible waste and at the same time is being paid for getting rid of Norway’s trash. Likewise, it is more economical for Norway to export its waste than to incinerate them domestically. However, there is a catch – by-products of waste incineration such as dioxins and heavy metals would have to be transported back to Norway.

In any case, it seems like this arrangement is going to be short-lived. Sweden will have to start looking to other countries for its trash woes as Norway has just recently joined the likes of the trash-strapped nation.[3] In fact, both Sweden and Norway are not the only ones vying for more waste – the Austrians and Germans have also latched themselves on to the game.

If so, this means that the garbage-to-energy market is growing rapidly in Europe. Indeed, the market is set to earn a profit of $4.94 billion in three years’ time.[4] Come to think of it, using household waste to generate heat and electricity seems like a brilliant idea – what better way to make use of trash than to power them for energy? It is easily obtainable and certainly reduces the accumulation of waste. What’s more, there is no need to burn fossil fuels for energy production. It is no wonder that Europe is big on the garbage-to-energy market right now.

Well, one of the primary reasons for spurring the upward trend in the energy-from-waste management stems from the various economic instruments dispensed by the European nations.[5] As a case in point, landfill tax was doled out in 2000 and bans on landfilling of combustible and organic waste were subsequently imposed in Sweden. The tax and bans had two ultimate goals: 1) to steer waste management towards waste-to-energy facilities and, 2) to inculcate a collective recycling habit amongst its residents. A glimpse into the figure below clearly reveals that Sweden has successfully rolled out its renewable energy as well as recycling plans.


Figure from

The success is not only limited to Sweden; statistics on countries such as Norway, Germany and Denmark have all painted the same picture.

As mentioned earlier, waste-to-energy plants create dioxins and heavy metals that result from the burning of garbage. Now, considering that waste incineration is hardly the most environmentally-sound solution, it is undoubtedly the preferred choice compared to the consumption of fossil fuels for energy production or the landfilling of trash.[1] This is because the incineration of waste discharges less greenhouse gases, thereby easing the environmental impact of waste management. Not to mention, landfilling of ashes from the combustion of waste compared to unprocessed waste takes up less space. Additionally, garbage-to-energy plants are also required to keep their emission levels under the tough limits enforced by the European Union and government bodies to ensure health and public safety.

Of course, the shift of waste disposal to garbage-for-energy facilities is costly for any economy. Generating energy from waste would require an integrated and coordinated effort from consumers and producers alike. This would mean that trash would have to be sorted out before entering the plant as hazardous waste are to be treated separately. This is probably the reason why some European nations like Romania and Bulgaria have yet to jump on the garbage-for-energy bandwagon and instead continue to landfill their waste.

Despite the debate surrounding the issue, there is no doubt that the garbage-to-energy market is the leading example to waste management in Europe. In fact, it has become the paradigm of waste management so much so that Japan has taken to following in its footsteps. Nonetheless, it is definitely not a long-term solution to waste management. Using waste as feedstock for energy generation would mean that beneath the ‘green’ façade, there is an obligation to produce more waste in order to bring heat and electricity to homes. This doesn’t really harmonise well with the three R’s, does it?

But, well, I guess a shortage of waste means good news.

[1] C. Wells, “Sweden forced to import trash from Norway to create heat and electricity,” New York Daily News, 25 October 2012.

[2] “Sweden imports waste from European neighbors to fuel waste-to-energy program,” Public Radio International, published 26 June 2012,

[3] J. Tagliabue, “A city that turns garbage into energy copes with a shortage,” The New York Times, 29 April 2013.

[4] “European waste to energy market to earn $5bn by 2016,” B. Messenger, Waste Management World, published 25 April 2013,–5bn-by-2016.html

[5] “Managing municipal solid waste – A review of achievements in 32 European countries,” European Environment Agency, published 19 March 2013,

[6] “Municipal solid waste,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, last modified 30 April 2013,

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

  • Theo Josseff

    Great article Janine.

    This is a pretty good stop-gap solution for the time-being. You bring up the interesting extension to this issue, that this may create an incentive for Swede’s to produce more trash in order to feed these waste-to-energy plants.

    There seems to very little scope for any political backlash to such policies, and given Australian’s are fairly knowledgable about recycling and waste management, I wonder whether this is something that can be implemented here as well? Hmmmmmm . . . .

  • Janine Yeong

    Thanks, Theo.

    Even though there are several alternative energy sources available, Sweden is gradually shifting its focus to waste-to-energy production. Considering that there are more than 30 such plants in Sweden, there is definitely some sort of pressure to produce more waste for these plants to run at full capacity. This is probably why Sweden has started to import waste.

    Oh, and talks about building a waste-to-energy plant in WA are currently underway. This is interesting because it seems like the state produces the most waste and recycle the least in Australia (see

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