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

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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.

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

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