Waste Management trash

Published on May 13th, 2013 | by Ellen R Delisio

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Sweden importing trash

A shortage of trash sounds like a country’s dream come true, but for Sweden’s ultra-efficient waste-to-energy systems, it means a lack of fuel to produce heat and electricity.

The shortage has reached the point where Sweden is importing trash; that is, taking in waste from other countries, primarily Norway, and using it to run its plants. Not only does Sweden get the fuel it needs for its district heating system, but it gets revenue—Norway pays Sweden to take its trash and then Norway disposes of the toxic ash that is the residue of the burning process.

Reduce the waste-to-energy system

Sweden’s waste-to-energy program uses about two million tons of waste each year, providing heat to about 810,000 homes and electricity to 250,000 homes. So efficient is the country’s waste management system that only one percent of trash ends up as waste, compared to the 38 percent average for the rest of Europe.

“The issue is not that Sweden is generating less trash than other countries; it simply has developed more ways of processing waste,” said Weine Wiqvist, CEO of Swedish Waste Management. The country crafted strict recycling and waste management regulations and new solutions for waste because landfills were outlawed in 2003. “Our long-term goal is to reduce the waste stream,” said Wiqvist. “In the short term, it seems good to use trash in the waste-to-energy system.”

An industrial crisis in 2007-2008 also cut the production of industrial combustible waste by one-third, Wiqvist added. The recycling of waste from food and other sources also increased.

The fact that his agency also views waste management as a public service has led to such a high level of efficiency. “We have a clear division of roles and responsibilities that enable necessary investments.” Wiqvist added. “We have had long-term regulations and economical steering instruments and both cooperation between municipalities and collaboration between public and private sectors. But where it all starts, is with the consumer. Another important factor, I think, is our focus on communication and public engagement. We have a long tradition of reuse through flymarkets, second hand use and collections at recycling parks.”

The ashes

About 15 percent of the trash burned in waste-to-energy plants is “imported” waste, Wiqvist said. Sweden is bringing in about 800,000 tons of trash from neighboring countries every year. The problem for Norway and some other countries without other alternatives for waste is that the fee to use landfills is very high, Wiqvist noted. Paying Sweden to dispose of it is less costly. “For the Swedish owners of waste-to-energy facilities, it is economically sound to use the capacity available,” according to Wiqvist. “Otherwise, they would have to buy other material, such as fossil fuels like coal or wood—most likely coal, which is a worst option from an environmental point of view.”

The one problem with waste incineration is the ashes, said Catarina Östlund a senior advisor at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. “We have no good solution for this. The fly ash is exported to Norway where it is landfilled.”

Beyond the Nordic countries

Looking beyond Norway, Sweden also is considering Bulgaria, Romania, Italy and the Baltic as sources for trash.

“The waste-to-energy facility is like the kidneys of society; all the dirt builds up there.” Wiqvist noted. “But it is still better than putting all the trash in landfills.”

Even though Sweden has a stellar record on waste management, the ultimate goal is to eliminate waste completely, he said. “Our vision is zero waste. It does not mean we are working towards recovering or recycling all household waste — we already are, more or less – but that we should strive towards not generating any waste,” continued Wiqvist. “Utopia? We cannot have anything but a zero-vision for waste — it’s not incredible – particularly when we say we are working with environmental issues, for a better environment.”

 

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