Sweden, birthplace of the Smörgåsbord and the world’s preferred solar-powered purveyor of flat-pack home furnishings, is in a bit of a pickle: the squeaky clean Scandinavian nation of more than 9.8 million has run out of garbage. The landfills have been tapped dry; the rubbish reserves depleted. And although this may seem like a positive — even enviable — predicament for a country to be facing, Sweden has been forced to import trash from neighboring countries.
You see, Swedes are big on recycling. So big, in fact, that less than 1 percent of Swedish household waste ended up in a landfill last year or any year since 2011.
Good for them! However, the population's remarkably pertinacious recycling habits are also a bit of a problem given that the country relies on waste to heat and provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes through a longstanding waste-to-energy incineration program. So with citizens simply not generating enough burnable waste to power the incinerators, the country has been forced to look elsewhere for fuel. Says Catarina Ostlund, a senior advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency in 2012: "We have more capacity than the production of waste in Sweden and that is usable for incineration."
The solution has been to import (well, kind of import) waste from other countries, mainly Norway and England. It's kind of a great deal for the Swedes: Other countries pays Sweden to take their excess waste, Sweden burns it for heat and electricity. And in the case of Norway, the ashes remaining from the incineration process filled with highly polluting dioxins, are returned back to the country and landfilled.
Public Radio International has the whole story with regards to Norway, one that may seem implausible in a country like garbage-bloated America, where overflowing landfills are anything but scarce.
Ostlund suggested that Norway might not be the perfect partner for a trash import-export scheme, however. "I hope that we instead will get the waste from Italy or from Romania or Bulgaria or the Baltic countries because they landfill a lot in these countries," she told PRI. "They don’t have any incineration plants or recycling plants, so they need to find a solution for their waste."
Norway's willingness to share its waste was the just the first chapter in this story; now the Brits are in on it as well.
England, meanwhile, has its own struggles with landfill taxes and recycling — the country peaked at recycling 45 percent of all waste in 2014, according to the Independent. To that end, creating a system of recycling that copies Sweden has some support under the Union Jack.
There is no national recycling policy for the Brits; local authorities set up their own systems, and that often causes confusion about what can be recycled and where.These local efforts tend to focus on high-volume items so as to look green in recycling reports, but for some folks, it's not enough.
"Whatever we end up with in the U.K., we need a system which collects all recyclable materials rather than cherry-picking the easiest and cheapest," Richard Hands, chief executive of ACE UK, the drink carton industry's trade association, told the Independent.
Hand has advocated for the development of more recycling plants in the U.K., so they'll stop giving the Swedes all that useful trash. Some local efforts have adopted a "no export" policy in regards to their waste as a way to keep and use the waste in their own country.
Developing a more cohesive internal recycling and waste management system is also in England's best interest considering the whole Brexit brouhaha. Angus Evers, an environmental lawyer at Shoosmith, sees recycling could be a boon to the U.K. economy.
"The materials we currently export represent a huge drain of valuable resources going out of the U.K. that could be used in the U.K. economy to make new products and reduce our imports of raw materials. If we have aspirations to be less dependent on Europe, then we need to be more self-sufficient and recycle more."
This would pose a problem for the Swedes — what would they use for energy if other countries copied their system?— but they're already ahead of the game. Anna-Carin Gripwall, director of communications for Avfall Sverige, the Swedish Waste Management's recycling association, said the country has biofuels ready to cover the gap in imported waste.
This story was originally published in October 2012 and has been updated with more recent information.