Nestled between the Nordic nations of Norway and Finland lies the Kingdom of Sweden; a land where recycling is the norm and trash is so valued as an energy source that they actually have to import other people’s garbage to keep the lights on.

Burn, Baby! Burn!

Sweden has long been cited by industry leaders, and even some environmental groups, as the world leader in sustainable waste management. Only 1% of the country’s 4.4 million tons of trash ends up in landfills, while the rest is either recycled or incinerated (a near 50-50 split). There are currently 32 incineration plants located throughout Sweden, each of which is designed to harness the intense heat of the burning process to generate electricity and provide heat for homes and businesses. Such waste-to-energy (WtE) plants are particularly popular in southern Sweden where 40% of households receive their heat from local trash incinerators. Altogether, Sweden receives approximately 8.5% of its electricity from the trash it burns; a greater percentage of energy than the United States receives from solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal energy sources combined.

US-Sweden Comparison

A comparison chart of US & Swedish levels of recycling, WtE, and landfilling circa 2011.

As a fuel source, trash presents a couple of advantages. For one thing, trash is practically renewable as there is always garbage available from somewhere, be it domestic or foreign (as much as that statement might make you cringe). And since garbage is pretty much worthless, its essentially a free energy source. It also contains a surprising amount of energy, just 3 tons of garbage contains roughly as much energy as 1 ton of fuel oil. But besides these inherent benefits, there are numerous external factors at work in Europe that make incineration such a compelling waste management solution.

The European Union is currently drafting new rules for landfills that will affect all 28 countries within the political union. Right now, landfill rates within Europe are at an all-time high, and these rates are expected to increase further under the new rules which seek to limit landfill expansion and greenhouse gas emissions. One of the EU’s proposals even calls for the phasing out of landfills for all recyclable waste including paper, metals, plastics, glass, and organics by the year 2025. Many countries within the EU, particularly the United Kingdom, are also feeling the squeeze as space for landfills becomes scarce, adding additional pressure to abandon the fill and open the kiln.

It’s Getting Hot in Here

So why hasn’t the US gotten on board with the burn barrel? The answer, as with most things, boils down to economics. Just as the feasibility of recycling is dependent on the price of commodities, so too is investment in incineration plants contingent on the price of landfill disposal. Prior to the 1990’s, there were 186 MSW incinerators operating in the United States. But the 90’s saw a dramatic expansion in landfill capacity as newer and larger regional landfills opened. Naturally, it became cheaper for many communities and businesses to send their trash to landfills, rather than incinerators, resulting in a relatively quick decline in their use. By 2007, there were just 89 MSW incinerators left throughout the country, with most operating in smaller states with less land to devote to landfills.

One of 32 incinerators located in Sweden. This particular plant processes 28 tons of trash every hour.

One of 32 incinerators located in Sweden. This particular plant processes 28 tons of trash every hour.

Today, there is a renewed interest in incineration among local governments who are looking for a way to reduce landfill dependence and increase investment in renewable energies. (The EPA categorizes WtE plants as renewable energy sources). The first new incinerator built in the United States since 1996 is about to come online in Baltimore with a $1 billion price tag and promises to turn 4,000 tons of trash per day into electricity. Yet local residents have opposed its construction since the outset, citing myriad concerns for the environment and public safety. Such concerns are not without scientific basis, as the incineration process has long been known to release dioxins, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and other pollutants into the air. But newer generations of incinerators, such as the ones used by Sweden and other Nordic countries, use advanced emissions technologies to scrub their exhaust before its released into the atmosphere, making their use safe and relatively clean.

Of course, Swedish incineration plants are required to use state-of-the-art emissions technology by law. It remains to be seen if the new Baltimore plant, along with other planned facilities, will come close to the level of emissions safety attained by their European counterparts. They will certainly need to in order to gain the public’s trust; especially if they plan to cite their operations so close to residential neighborhoods with a history of industrial pollution.

Despite the misgivings of many here in the US, the success of the Swedish model makes it clear that, if done right, the best solution to our trash problems might just be a stale reference to 70’s disco: