As the world seeks out ways to shrink its open mountains of garbage, Sweden, a country that dumps less than one percent of its waste to landfills, offers an alternate path. It's particularly important, as landfills spew out methane which, over a 20 year period, is at least 84 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere, according to the UN Economic Commission for Europe.
So, how does this Nordic country manage to achieve such impressive results? Much of its success in reducing landfill waste can be credited to its high recycling rates: between recycled solid waste and composted organic matter, Sweden recycles nearly half of what it throws away.
What it does with the other half is what sets Sweden apart from much of the world. Nearly all of Sweden’s non-recycled waste is burned to generate electricity and heat. It’s a method that, while emitting CO2, is far better for the climate than sending garbage to landfills, according to the Swedish government and proponents of waste-to-energy technology. “Energy recovery is the best available technology for treating and utilizing the energy in different residual wastes that can’t easily be recycled,” says Klas Svensson, a waste-to-energy technical advisor at Sweden’s waste management association. “For many other countries in Europe, it represents an opportunity to both replace Russian gas, and at the same time phase out landfilling.”
Today, Sweden has 34 waste-to-energy plants supplying 1,445,000 households with heat and 780,000 households with electricity - impressive figures for a country with a population of only 10 million. Yet overall, waste-to-energy plants provide a relatively small proportion of Sweden’s power, over 80 percent of which comes from a combination of hydro and nuclear energy. Their main benefit is keeping trash out of landfills.
This is why waste-to-energy advocates argue that, despite their CO2 emissions, such plants are far less harmful than methane-oozing landfills, and why the rest of the EU, which sends 24 percent of its waste to landfills, should adopt the Swedish model.
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