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For Sweden, trash equals cash

Sweden's waste incineration plants generate 20% of Sweden’s district heating.

Waste-to-energy plants help power Swedish districts

Waste not, want not. Or so the expression goes. It’s conventional wisdom, logical and time tested. After all, we learned it from our parents and grandparents. And it’s what makes Sweden’s current waste management situation so interesting.

Like many nations around the globe, Sweden deploys a combination of recycling and conversion technologies that work together to make the most of the country’s solid waste.

In a nutshell, Sweden recycles what it can and most of what’s left is converted into energy. Sweden has this down to a science – literally. It’s so efficient in its integrated approach to recycling and recovery that only 4% of Sweden’s trash goes to landfills.

Sweden has one of the highest recycling rates in the world. For example, when it comes to plastics, Sweden recycles roughly 35 percent of the plastics it consumes, and what’s left over is converted into energy. Waste is treated as the valuable resource it is, and as a result, very little of Sweden’s waste is actually wasted.

What makes Sweden unique is that this Scandinavian nation actually wants more waste to make energy. In fact, Sweden now imports waste from neighboring countries in order to feed its waste-to-energy plants.

Before imports, Sweden’s waste-to-energy program processed two million tons of waste each year to heat 810,000 homes and provide electricity for 250,000 homes.  But Sweden’s energy conversion capacity exceeds the amount of trash its citizens generate, so Sweden has started to import waste from Norway.

Reuters reported that, in 2011, Sweden imported about 850,000 tonnes of waste and that number is expected to reach nearly 2 million tonnes in 2016.

And here’s the beauty of what Sweden has accomplished: Norway is paying Sweden to process its waste. So Sweden gets to keep the energy and the processing fees, and sends the residuals – usually ash – back to Norway to be landfilled.

Not a bad deal, eh?

So how’s this for updating our opening platitude: Waste not… and get paid to process trash from other places. Oh, and you can keep the energy you generate while you’re at it.

And Sweden isn’t alone — Reuters reports that Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have also started importing waste.

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