Why Sweden is the waste king of Nordic Europe

Waste management in Jätkäsaari
Reading time: 3 minutes

Want to live in Finland or another Nordic country? Get ready to spend a lot of time sorting waste and recycling.

In Finland, most apartments and houses contain multiple bins for waste sorting by type. You carry it outside regardless of the weather and dispose of it in one of several different receptacles: biological, mixed, cardboard, plastic, paper, cans, glasses, and hazardous (batteries, small electronics).

Compare this to Britain, where residents usually put out three bins: food waste, mixed recycling, and garden waste. In countries such as the UAE and Turkey, people generally do not recycle at all.

I chose these countries as examples because I can speak from first-hand experience after living for multiple years in each. The point is that Northern Europe is a leader when it comes to waste treatment and recycling.

How do they do it in Sweden and Finland?

In Sweden, nearly half of general waste is sent for energy recovery. The country is so good at burning waste, which produces steam for electricity producing turbines, that it imports waste from other nations, including Norway and Finland. The energy is used to heat Swedes’ homes and even to power buses.

Some numbers from Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association Avfall Sverige:

  • In 2018, each Swedish citizen produced 466kg of household waste.
  • In 2017, each Swede produced 473kg (so waste per person in Sweden is being reduced – at least between 2017 and 2018!).
  • In 2018, 15.5% of household waste was treated biologically.
  • Nearly 50% of household waste went to energy recovery in 2018.  
  • Only 0.68% of the waste went to landfills.

Finns, on the other hand, produced 510kg of waste per person in 2017. In Finland, most of the municipal solid waste is treated for energy recovery. The rest gets recycled and only a tiny amount is sent to landfills, as per data from Statistics Finland.

The most dramatic change with Finnish municipal waste management happened in 2016 when the dumping of municipal waste in landfills decreased substantially compared to previous years, coming in at 3%. This change was due to a regulation that banned dumping organic waste into landfills. 

Helsinki neighborhood waste center door
Fall in line and recycle as you are told!

Why are Danes the largest waste producers in EEA?

NOTE: How countries define municipal waste varies. Sometimes the term covers a wide amount of commercial waste. This is the situation in Denmark, which partly explains the large amount of generated municipal waste per capita. Therefore, the figures below are not completely comparable between countries.

Danes produced the most municipal waste in the European Economic Area at a staggering 781kg per capita in 2017. In Norway, the figure was close at 748kg. In Iceland, the third biggest waste producer, it was 656kg. 

This puts Scandinavian nations on the top of the list for municipal waste generators. This can partly be explained by the wealth of these nations. Usually, rich nations produce more municipal waste than less wealthy nations within the EEC.

However, Sweden and Finland are producing much less waste and are also wealthy countries.

Urbanisation is considered another important contributor to Denmark’s high level of waste. However, perhaps the main reason for the high figure is the way that municipal waste is determined, according to Denmark’s Environmental Implementation Review 2019. The review also states that Denmark is among the countries with the lowest amount of landfill waste in the EU at 1%.

Why does Sweden import waste?

Currently, Sweden imports more than 1.3 million tonnes of waste from other European countries. Nearly half of this waste comes from Norway, but also Finland exports waste to its western neighbour. Why is that?

Overcapacity

Finland has a problem when it comes to energy recovery at home. The country’s waste burning facilities are overcapacity. That is why a lot of Finland’s waste is sent to Sweden and Estonia. All in all, Finland exported 100,000 tons of mixed waste in 2018, according to Yle.

A ban on dumping organic waste in landfills also increased the amount of municipal waste being burned. If Finland’s waste incinerators only took in household waste they would have enough capacity. However, they also accept industrial waste.

Finland Waste by Sector 2017
Finland Waste by Sector 2017

Finland is building a new waste incinerator facility in Salo, but it won’t be ready until 2021. Finland’s largest waste management facility (in Vantaa) is also being expanded. However, for the time being, it seems Finland will keep exporting waste to its neighbours to the south and west.

Trash means cash

In Norway, the problem is not related to capacity but the free-market economy. Norway has enough facilities to burn its waste at home. The capacity was built up after landfill dumping was banned in 2009. However, Swedish waste burners compete in the Norwegian market. They offer a cheaper price due to lower costs in Sweden. 

It seems that Sweden is destined to sit on the Nordic waste throne for the foreseeable future.

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