Garbage Means Business - Recycling in Sweden

Environmental preservation seems to be etched into the collective DNA of Swedes. Over 90 percent of their household garbage is recycled, easily establishing them as world leaders for recycling. They are marching ever closer to the Holy Grail of sustainable energy: zero reliance on fossil fuels.

Conservation starts at a very young age in Sweden. Cecilia Larsson Lantz/imagebank.sweden.se

I traveled from Taiwan to Stockholm, Sweden, to do research on environmental protection. One day out walking, I saw many office workers and students on bikes. As buses passed me, I felt quite at ease inhaling deeply—something that I am not inclined to do in my own city—because these buses did not produce smelly, choking exhaust.

Consisting of 14 islands connected by a network of bridges, Stockholm is often called the “Venice of the North.” Aside from its beautiful scenery, the city is a paragon of environmental preservation. It was the first city to receive the European Green Capital award from the EU Commission in 2010.

As far as environmental preservation is concerned, Stockholm, and indeed Sweden as a whole, is a poster child in this world of climate change, rising oceans, and receding glaciers. It seems that Swedes do not do anything without first taking into account the impact of their actions on the environment.

The public transportation system in Stock­holm, for example, strives to use fuels produced through biological instead of geological processes. Fuels produced by geological processes, such as petroleum and coal, are produced over millions of years, and they are neither easily nor quickly renewable. In contrast, fuels produced through biological processes, such as methane and other biofuels, can be produced quickly and are easily renewable. Thus most public buses in Stockholm run not on gasoline or diesel, but on methane gas obtained from garbage and kitchen waste. Buses that are not methane-powered run on other biofuels.

For people who choose to drive their own vehicles, the government provides incentives for them to purchase automobiles that are more environmentally friendly. The city also promotes a common transportation resource that uses no fuel at all: the bicycle. Bike routes are extensive and far-reaching in Stockholm, making it easy for people to get to their destinations and get exercise at the same time.

For more examples of how Swedish citizens are committed to the preservation of the environment, one need look no farther than how they process their garbage and waste. In Sweden, a deposit for each can and bottle is included in the purchase price of the item. People can return empty cans and bottles to stores and receive a deposit refund. On average, each Swede returns 146 bottles or cans a year. Eighty-eight percent of used bottles and cans are recycled.

In conjunction with the deposit refunds and other policies that provide incentives for people to recycle, the nation has also built disincentives into its system so that people think twice before throwing things away as garbage. The Swedes pay for their household garbage collection by weight, so they have a strong incentive to recycle as much as possible to cut down on their garbage fees. Over time, handling their garbage with utmost care has become second nature to the Swedes, adults and children alike.Though these policies are working well, the Swedes are not resting on their laurels. They continually look for better ways to strike a reasonable, sustainable balance between the environment and development.


There are solar panels on the roofs of almost all the buildings in Järva.

A sensible balance

Tall, densely packed residential buildings, neat streets, green parks, and well-kept landscaping provide positive first impressions to visitors when they come to Järva, a suburb outside Stockholm. The community was built between 1965 and 1975 to ease a housing shortage at the time. It was constructed with materials and technology of that era, which understandably do not pass muster today in terms of energy efficiency or environmental friendliness.

The city government has vowed to make Stockholm entirely free of fossil fuels by 2050, including energy-inefficient neighborhoods like Järva. As a step towards that lofty objective, the city embarked on the “Sustainable Järva” project, a joint program involving the city government, housing companies, and community residents. One of its initiatives is the refurbishing of old housing. In addition to improving environmental sustainability, the effort also aims at creating positive social and economic development in the area. About 80 percent of Järva residents are of immigrant backgrounds, and unemployment is high.

By retrofitting old housing in the neighborhood, the project has successfully cut down energy use by 50 percent. The refurbished buildings not only are more energy-efficient but also generate energy by means of solar panels.

“We have solar panels on the rooftop of almost every building to produce electricity and thermal energy,” Anne Arnström, communications manager for Svenska Bostäder, a Stockholm real estate company that is doing the refurbishing of Järva properties, said to me and my photographer, Alberto Buzzola, as we went up to the roof of a building. She then pointed to a chimney-like flue and said it was actually a vent of the air filtration system for the building. The system is capable of capturing and storing the heat in the air.

When we went back down into the building, we saw further evidence of the Sustainable Järva project on display, which included the use of energy-saving LED light bulbs, water-saving faucets, and energy-efficient refrigerators. The windows in all apartments are double-paned for better insulation. All of these have helped reduce energy use, and thus have reduced the carbon footprint of the building.

Besides doing the environment a good turn, the Sustainable Järva project has also created jobs. “The project has created many work opportunities, including those for gardeners, security guards, and janitors,” said Helen Larsson, who works in public relations and communications for the project. All housing units are for lease only. Larsson told us the rent here starts at 3,000 kronor (US$335) a month.

To attract tenants, community management has further spruced up the surroundings. Ample outdoor space with nice landscaping has been retained. The community has also been made more livable by adding outdoor basketball courts, an indoor swimming pool, a supermarket, and a school.

When we went indoors again, Arnström showed us another nice feature of the living quarters: “This contraption on the wall here is actually a waste inlet. Just open the lid and drop your garbage in.”

The feature was so simple. A resident can just drop garbage in and forget about it. But where does it go? What happens to it?

What Arnström showed us was merely a door to a chute that is connected to a complex piping system underground. Waste eventually ends up in a collection facility operated by Envac, the supplier of the system.

A few days after our visit to Järva, we went to Envac.

Even air is recycled. An air filter, left, extracts thermal energy from exhaust. The recovered energy is then used to heat inflowing air, right.  

Garbage is a resource

In 2011, the Swedish government started a new four-year plan, investing 100 million kronor (US$11.3 million) each year to promote research and innovation in environmental technology. Sweden strives to offer a friendly environment for green technology companies. The country also promotes the export of Swedish environmental technology to contribute to economic growth.

It is not just the public sector that is involved. Mistra, for example, is a private foundation which, according to its own website, supports research of strategic importance for a good living environment and sustainable development. Each year, Mistra invests about 22.4 million U.S. dollars in sustainability technology companies or research organizations.

Statistics show that Sweden’s environmental technology sector employs about 40,000 people and rakes in 120 billion kronor (US$13.4 billion) in annual revenues. Envac, the company we were visiting, is a part of that environmental technology sector.

Many modern conveniences come into or out of modern houses through conduits underground or behind the walls, such as electricity, gas, water, and sewage. Envac has taken garbage collection underground too.

Let us rewind to the apartment building in Järva where Arnström showed us the Envac waste inlets. Once garbage is dropped in, it goes into an underground vacuum piping system which suctions waste and transfers it to a central collection station that operates completely without any human intervention. The automated, sealed, and underground nature of the system means that it is very clean. There are no smells associated with conventional garbage collection methods and no unpleasant bins.

“Residents simply put their kitchen waste, paper, bottles and cans, and non-recyclables into our inlets,” said Jonas Törnblom, director of marketing and communication at Envac Group. “We’re standing right next to one, but we don’t get any foul smell at all.”

This Envac system has been installed in many places beyond the country’s borders. The Beijing World Center, Ng Teng Fong General Hospital in Singapore, some residential areas in Quebec, Canada, and Taipei 101, a Taiwan landmark and once the tallest building in the world, have all imported the Envac system.

Even competitors seek to work with Envac. In October 2016, BIR, the second largest waste management firm in Norway, licensed the technology from Envac for about US$23 million. BIR will install the Envac system in Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, where the system is expected to handle at least 30 tonnes (66,140 pounds) of garbage a day.

Double-pane windows (upper left), water-saving faucets and LED light bulbs in the bathroom (upper right), and insulation in the attic of a building (left) can help make a house more energy efficient.

Importing garbage

It seems that Sweden has a large capacity to handle garbage. Amazingly, the nation even imports garbage. What happens to it all? Where does it go?

The belief that garbage is the least costly fuel lies at the core of WTE (waste to energy), the process of generating energy from waste. There are currently 32 WTE incinerators in Sweden which generate enough energy to provide approximately 950,000 homes with heating and 260,000 with electricity.

That is respectable, but they cannot keep the incinerators running without some help.

Because recycling has been so firmly established as a habit there, the Swedes produce very little unrecyclable garbage. The incinerators cannot obtain enough raw materials within Sweden, and so garbage must be imported from other countries. The nation imported 1.5 million tonnes (1.65 million short tons or 3.3 billion pounds) of garbage in 2015 alone. It seems incredible that a well-developed economy should import unrecyclable garbage.

Technically, Sweden does not import the stuff because it does not shell out money for the garbage. On the contrary, other countries—the exporters—pay Sweden for taking in their garbage. It is kind of a sweet deal for Sweden: Other countries pay the nation to take their excess waste, and Sweden burns it for heat and electricity. It is such a good business for Sweden that they are projected to import 2.3 million tonnes of waste a year by 2020.

With profit comes entrepreneurship. The Fortum Brista CHP plant in northern Stockholm is one example that is grabbing a piece of the action from the waste-to-energy industry.

Mats Claesson, the Brista plant manager, said that they burned 350,000 tonnes of wood chips a year to produce electricity and heat, but even though they achieved a 90 percent combustion efficiency, it wasn’t enough to support the operation of the plant. In 2013 they inaugurated a new waste-fired unit, with which they could also burn garbage as a more cost-effective way to generate heat and electricity, which is supplied to the northwestern district heating grid of Stockholm.

The new waste-to-energy unit burns garbage to boil water, which is made available for sale to households in the district through a 264-kilometer (165-mile) piping grid system. Used hot water is collected from homes and is piped back to the plant to extract residual heat for reuse.

Burning garbage to generate energy is innovative in that it diminishes dependence on fossil fuels and reduces the amount of garbage disposed in landfills. However, this technology is not without its detractors.

In the process of burning garbage, carbon dioxide and toxins are released into the air. Even though the Swedish government has repeatedly assured its people that the gases that this practice releases into the air are 99 percent harmless, environmentalists are still not convinced.

Can proponents of this technology really defend it as environmentally friendly?

“Indeed, garbage burning does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions at present,” said Ingela Ronnermark, head of sustainability at Brista. She told us that they have designed a carbon offset program to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions from their plant. Specifically, they boost the social welfare of the community and they preserve biodiversity. She pointed out that the wetlands located next to their plant are an example of their efforts to conserve local biodiversity.

An Automatic Vacuum Pipping Recycling System Users throw their waste bags into waste inlets located either indoors or outdoors. The waste is stored in closed underground tanks which are emptied regularly, depending on the amount of waste discarded. Then the waste is transported through a vacuum piping system to central collection stations. Photos courtesy of Envac

An indoor waste inlet accepts color-coded bags containing sorted garbage. Alberto Buzzalo

Outdoor waste inlets specially designed by Envac for the convenience of residents.


Inside an Envac central collection station, right, all operations are automated. House­hold users sort their garbage into Envac-provided color-coded waste bags, below, which are separated by color automatically, below right, for further processing. Right photo by Alberto Buzzalo



Since recycling is so important in Sweden, public garbage cans are works of art. 


Dumpsters for different kinds of recyclable garbage bear color-coded labels.


All but nuclear waste

Ashes are left when garbage is burned, and Swedes, true to form, do not even consider the ashes to be useless waste. Through advanced technology, they have been able to extract useful substances from ashes that businesses need and for which they are willing to pay.

Ragn-Sells is a privately held corporate group that is involved in waste management, environmental services, and recycling. “We don’t want to waste anything that can be reused,” said Larshans Pär, head of sustainability at Ragn-Sells. “With the sole exception of nuclear waste, we recycle just about everything.” General household waste, sewage sludge, used solvents, and metal scrap are all right up their alley.

The group collects, treats, and recycles waste and residual products from businesses, organizations, and households. “We can handle more than 800 kinds of waste, and each may require its own method of processing. Therefore we’ve invested heavily in R&D,” said Patrik Enfält of Ragn-Sells. He mentioned that his company has technology to extract substances such as phosphorus from ashes obtained from sewage sludge. Phosphorus is a very important chemical element used commercially in animal feeds, fertilizers, industrial products, and food additives.

The life cycle of phosphorus may look like this: Phosphate rocks are harvested, from which raw phosphorus is extracted. The element is then added in the process of making fertilizers. When crops are consumed and digested, some phosphorus is expelled in the waste, and it remains in the ash when the waste is burned. The used phosphorus is reclaimed and reused as a raw material to make another end product.

We toured a Ragn-Sells garbage processing plant, the largest of its kind in all of Europe. The plant was huge and very impressive. Larshans Pär explained to us that when garbage reaches their plant, it is sorted and placed in separate areas. Different technologies are used to process and recycle the various types of garbage. He pointed to a pile of waste ahead of us which had been frozen and would then be allowed to thaw to release useful substances.

In addition to processing a wide variety of waste, the facility also includes a place for storing garbage that the company is unable to recycle at present. Pär believes that his company might one day develop new technologies to recycle even such “unrecyclable” garbage profitably.

Arguably the most environmentally friendly nation in the world, Sweden has achieved high levels of recycling, recovering, and reuse. Still, the nation keeps striving for perpetual sustainability. That is something that every nation, every person on earth, can learn from. We all need to respect nature, and we all can do more to reduce the creation of garbage in the first place.

This Ragn-Sells waste processing site collects and handles all types of residential and industrial waste.

After processing, waste residues are stored in silos to prevent leakage.

Useful substances, such as phosphorus, are extracted from ashes of burned waste

Trucks go through streets and alleys, efficiently picking up household recyclables. Sofia Sabel/imagebank.Sweden.Se

Compressed bales of used paper products await recycling. Courtesy of Srv Återvinning

Super-sized bags are used to collect bulky household waste, which is handled by specialized companies.


Spring 2017