Sweden imports more and more waste

7:12 min

Sweden is becoming a big importer of other countries' household waste.  But the imports are controversial. Critics say we should focus more on reducing the amount of waste produced in the first place.

In Sweden, virtually no waste goes to landfill dumps anymore. Over the past decade, this country has become better at recycling, but has also greatly increased the capacity to make energy out of the waste.

Up until 2008, Swedish incinerators were mainly fuelled by domestic waste, but since then, imports have grown steadily. By next year, Sweden is expected to import 1.5 million tonnes of waste from countries with less efficient energy recycling.

One of these new, waste-fuelled incinerators has been purchased by the municipal company Mälarenergi in Västerås, 100 km west of Stockholm. The so called "Unit 6" is currently being tested, and will be fully up and running by the autumn.

The combined heat- and power plant lies just at the edge of town, by the shores of Lake Mälaren, which flows into the Baltic Sea. In the end of January a big cargo ship docked here with rubbish from Drogheda in Ireland. The load contained household rubbish, which had undergone a first sorting in Ireland before being tightly packed in 1-2 ton heavy plastic bales.

Once here, a second sorting will take place, separating metal and glass from the rest - before the rest is chopped up in "credit card"-size bits. And - as if by magic - the stuff that Mr and Mrs Murphy chucked in their bins in Dublin is no longer just rubbish - it has been turned into fuel. Fuel that  - once the new incinerator is fully up and running - will help give the 140,000 people in and around Västerås hot water and electricity.

Mälarenergi estimates that the waste from households in and around Västerås will only make up a smaller part of the fuel for the new boiler - and between 50 and 70 percent of the waste will have to come from abroad. From this autumn onwards, 2-3 ships a week will be arriving in the harbour here, to begin with mainly from Ireland and the UK.

You'd think that transporting bales of waste that far would be bad for the environment, but according to the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association, the reduction of greenhouse gases that you can achieve by avoiding waste going to landfill - clearly out-weigh the emissions that come from transporting and burning the waste.

Yet, the development has been criticised by environmental groups. They warn that municipalities risk locking themselves into a system where more and more waste is needed.

"The whole idea is that we should prevent waste from being produced," says Patrik Zapata, researcher in public administration at Gothenburg University, who has examined the City of Gothenburg's waste management systems.

"But if you have a good way of ridding waste and produce energy from waste, then you don't have an incitament to prevent waste. That is the problem, you continue to produce waste even though you shouldn't, because you have such a big oven that needs to be fed," he says.

In Västerås, Heating Manager Niklas Gunnar says they deliberately chose to go for a boiler that can run on waste, OR bio mass, to keep their options open. He says he can understand why some people see a paradox between using waste for energy production at the same time as trying to reduce waste.

But, he says, Mälarenergi is only counting on waste import and waste incineration as an option for the next ten-fifteen years. Over that time other countries will be forced to move away from land-fill and move up the waste management escalator.

"We cannot build a system where we have a need for waste," says Niklas Gunnar, heating manager at Mälarenergi. "For the next 10-15 years, this is a good solution to get rid of the waste problem that we have. But we cannot build a system where we are fixed to big boilers that need waste. We have to shift in the future to other fuels as well, as we have done in the past."

Patrik Zapata at Gothenburg University is not so sure about the assumption that all EU-countries will have reached Swedish or better levels of recycling in just over a decade.

"We have an overcapacity for waste incineration, that makes us import waste from other countries. What happens in those countries, with their competence of how they should treat their waste, if we do it for them? Isn't there a risk we take away their competence, or we have it instead?" says Patrik Zapata.

He says that, if Sweden is so good at taking care of other countries waste, how will these countries be encouraged to start taking care of their own waste? Or rather: prevent their own waste from being produced?

But Niklas Gunnar at Mälarenergi in Västerås does not see a reason for concerned. He thinks that no matter how good Sweden is at taking care of other countries waste - the driving forces for other countries to increase their recycling are stronger.

"We will never be more efficient than recycling. Recycling will always be a better solution, both for the environment and economically. We are just the first step to avoid landfill," he says.