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Imagine There’s No Garbage. I Wonder If I Can.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In John Lennon’s iconic song “Imagine,” he paints a world without war, greed or hunger. I’d like to add garbage to his list. Yup, plain ol’ trash. It’s everywhere. It’s persistent, and as the name implies, it’s dirty.

In the U.S. we throw away about 70% more garbage per person than those in Sweden.

When scanning the globe to check out ways different countries address this problem, I pause at Sweden. In 2011, this northern European land of water and forests prevented more than 99% of its garbage (municipal solid waste) from ending up in a landfill, emailed Hans Wrådhe, Head of the Waste and Chemicals Section, Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a dizzying stat compared to the U.S. where over half of ours made its way into the ground that very year.

It’s not lost on me that America’s population is about 30 times larger than Sweden’s. And yes, Sweden is only the size of California (roughly), just one of our 50 states. But, we do produce a lot more garbage per person (about 70% more). Moreover, most of Sweden’s is incinerated (51%) and turned into power, when ours is swept under the rug so to say.

“[Sweden's] waste to energy program is probably the best, or at least one of the best in the world if you look at the energy output when incinerating waste,” wrote Wrådhe in an email. “That is mainly due to the many district heating systems in Sweden, which make it possible to produce and use both electricity and heat from all waste incinerators.”

Sweden lit upon trash incineration in the 1940s. Much of this energy was distributed through the countries district-heating network, which expanded along with the post Second World War construction. Following suit, waste incineration plants boomed in the 70s, allowing garbage and fire to fuel the country’s heating and electrical needs.

At first, the process was pretty dirty. Harmful dioxins poured into the air. Since the 80s though, Sweden cracked down on these emissions with stricter standards and, according to a recent report, the bulk of these emissions have dropped 90-99%, making the technology much much cleaner today.

Currently, just over 2.5 million tons of municipal waste produced in Sweden is incinerated each year. An additional 1 million tons of waste is imported for incineration, mainly from Norway, but also from England, Holland and Italy. To be clear, importing trash is due to an “over capacity for incineration” rather than a “shortage of waste,” wrote Wrådhe, emphasizing that the Swedish EPA does not consider importing or incinerating waste as a long term solution. Rather, increased recycling and reuse is the final goal.

Today, burning waste produces 20% of Sweden’s heat supply for about 810,000 homes. It also provides electricity for 250,000 homes.

Waste to energy exists in the U.S. too, although on a smaller scale (in terms of percentage of waste, not tonnage). The EPA’s website states that  86 facilities in 25 states burn municipal solid waste. In 2011, we incinerated about 29 million tons of waste, about 12% of our garbage, which has the ability to generate over 2,700 megawatts of electricity.

It would be remiss to think that waste to energy here in the States could ever match the pervasiveness of Sweden’s example. This is mostly because of the way our infrastructure has developed. Even so, there are regions with unrealized potential, according to an analysis by Matt Williams, American Council On Renewable Energy. These include urban areas that have district heating, such as New York City, states with higher electricity prices (Hawaii to name one), and/or states that include a levy on carbon.

These factors could help spur waste to energy production, thereby reducing the amount of trash in the landfill. So too would a renewed focus on recycling and reuse. Can you imagine it? Fewer heaps of garbage smattered around the country. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. David Cummings 12:35 pm 08/15/2013

    I’m skeptical of anything that burns, period. No matter how safe “they” say it is.

    emissions have dropped 90-99%?

    What does that mean, that there is a huge margin for error in their measurements? More likely, that it’s mostly a 90% drop and in a few cases a 99% drop of something for some period of time (maybe an hour) and “they” get to say 90-99%.

    So I’m going to go with the lower number, 90%.

    And then I’m going to ask you this: where would you rather live, in a city where 100% of all dioxin waste ends up in a landfill or where 10% of the dioxin waste ends up in the air.

    To me that’s not much of a choice. Let Sweden win this competition, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to breath dioxin so that city officials can pat themselves on the back for going “green”?

    And again, exactly how is garbage-in-the-air (even a small percent) better than garbage-in-a-landfill?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Noone 2:57 pm 08/15/2013

    Mr. Cummings is absolutely right. Everyone for decades has underestimated dioxins by declining to actually test for them in ash. It should also be mentioned Sweden provides no other real choice for waste disposal, as anything else will set you back at least 5 cents per pound.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jerryd 3:53 pm 08/15/2013

    Actually they found out Dioxins were far more common and less dangerous that they thought. Still not good though.

    Personally I think garbage is far too valuable to burn as it’s such a high grade ore compared to most mining.

    for instance you can get more and higher quality, quantity of oil from a ton of garbage than from oil/tar sands plus metals, plastic feedstock, etc.

    Facts are done right there is little left to burn.

    Where Sweden should go is making liquid fuels from biomass by the FT^ process like they do with NG. Then make the electricity from the waste heat and district heating from that process waste heat.

    Same with NG, coal, sewage, etc too but biomass is cleaner, cheaper. It would clean coal up and just CO2 as the waste stream so little losses before injecting it back underground cheaply. This would easily meet emissions standards too and make more money than just burning less valuable HC’s like coal, biomass.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Satya Narayan Tiwary 3:28 am 08/16/2013

    Conversion of garbage or trash or waste into useful energy is very good idea for the whole world because developing countries are full of these things and have become disease transmitter.

    Link to this
  5. 5. David Cummings 6:00 am 08/16/2013

    Here’s a good article on landfills:

    Link to this

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