The Idiosyncratic Waste Situation

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.

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Figure from http://www.avfallsverige.se/fileadmin/uploads/forbranning_eng.pdf

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, http://www.pri.org/stories/science/environment/swedes-import-trash-to-power-the-nation-10428.html

[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, http://www.waste-management-world.com/articles/2013/04/european-waste-to-energy-market-to-earn–5bn-by-2016.html

[5] “Managing municipal solid waste – A review of achievements in 32 European countries,” European Environment Agency, published 19 March 2013, http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/managing-municipal-solid-waste

[6] “Municipal solid waste,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, last modified 30 April 2013, http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/affect/municipal-sw.html