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Sweden Needs More Trash

Sweden has always been ahead of its neighbors when it comes to reducing its environmental impact. To make power, the country does something unique: it turns trash into power on a national scale using high-power incinerators. At first glance, it solves two problems: getting rid of trash before it piles up and generating electricity without burning dirty fossil fuels.

But now Sweden is hitting a wall. According to the country’s Environmental Protection Agency, it needs more trash to feet Sweden’s energy habit, and it’s begun importing trash—just over 881,000 tons—from nearby Norway to do it.

It’s an innovative idea that seems to work for everyone. Sweden powers most of its homes and business with a waste product, and gets paid to do so. Norway gets rid of trash it doesn’t have space to bury more cheaply than exporting trash elsewhere (it gets the ashes back after incineration, but those take up much less space). And no one has to dig or drill for energy.

When I heard about the growth of this technology, I immediately thought of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the growing island of the world’s trash kept in constant swirl about 1,000 miles north of Hawaii. Back in 2009, a group of environmentalists and waste managers began trying to tackle the global trash heap, which has turned vast swaths of the Northern Pacific into an ecological dead zone. The Ocean Voyages Institute in Sausalito, California, tried testing ways to clean it up, including incinerating the trash to create energy or even oil.

Unfortunately, the idea that works so well for Sweden isn’t so replicable. Especially not in the geographically inconvenient North Pacific, where even a solid day’s work incinerating trash is quickly eclipsed by exponentially more trash that joins the heap.

But could trash incineration come to the United States at a large-enough scale? Only under the best of conditions, say a few waste managers I talked to. Like Swedish cities, U.S. municipalities would have to invest heavily in pick-up and distribution infrastructure that would essentially marry trash pick-up with energy generation. America’s insatiable appetite for power would also be hard to keep up with. And then there’s the problem of ash, which can be more chemically potent than the raw trash.

Still, even if large countries can’t embrace incineration-to-power technology as impressively as Sweden, the technology continues to grow. Montgomery County, Maryland, has a waste incineration plant. And later this year, the city of Pontotoc, Mississippi, is planning to start turning local waste into liquid fuel. In a region full of agriculture waste, not a bad idea.

Comments

  1. Boggan Alseryd
    Sweden
    February 25, 8:47 am

    Here in Sweden we still have problems with waste, heavy metals wich exits in the ash is still a problem, and no one wants their back yard to be a designated storage area for all that waste ash.

  2. ck
    USA
    February 5, 9:23 pm

    When you burn anything, you release CO2, so this doesn’t really solve any sort of climate problems. The juxtaposition with dirty coal or natural gas is a half truth, since burning trash also releases CO2 and toxins. Bacterial and fungal biodegradation combined with a goal of zero waste is a goal worthy of every country.

  3. Paige
    United Kingdom
    February 5, 3:58 pm

    Interesting concept to deal with a number of problems, you’re looking at reduction of waste, ash being more compact, and energy generation saving on oil and gas. It’s interesting how both Norway and Sweden are rapidly becoming some of the world’s leaders in innovative energy generation, there are a lot of things we could learn from these two countries.

  4. Pal Martensson
    Sweden
    January 29, 2:25 am

    I was expecting a more serious article when we talk about inncineration and the “smart Swedish way”. Pls Mr Stone do your homework, studie the trash problem and you will find that Swedens way i completley wrong direction. Learn more about it att ZWIA.ORG. Make a new article that celebrate smart thinking and good behaviour when it come to trash. There is only one way and that i Zero Waste!

  5. Dahlia Vandoria
    Los Angeles, CA
    January 28, 8:04 pm

    In the 1980’s I worked on several waste-to-energy projects in Oregon. Though a transfer plant and incinerator were built in the Willamette Valley and another built in Eastern Oregon, they were rabidly opposed by environmentalists who supposed the plants would emit lethal amounts of cancer-causing dioxins into the air and every one on the west coast would die of lung disease and cancer, and birth defects would be the only result of human reproductive process. All of these plants were scrapped in favor of coal-fired energy. The smoke stack of the Keizer plant still stands above what became a garbage transfer station. The Boardman plant was converted to coal or natural gas.

  6. Jeff Anderson
    Boone Iowa
    January 28, 4:41 pm

    They do exactly that in Ames Iowa 10% of the city’s power comes from trash

  7. Heidi Souder
    United States
    January 28, 12:25 pm

    Everyone who is freaking out about how incinerating trash is killing the environment needs to do some research on biomass energy and closed carbon loops. Yeah.

  8. Martino Pavese
    Italia
    January 28, 4:40 am

    This article is a complete TRASH, I’m sorry to say it and I can’t figure how it can come on a website like this.
    European Union is working to prevent CO2 emissions and material destruction since the nineties and you wrote a thing like this in 2013?
    The only people left supporting incineration are companies building this kind of plants and, of course, local politicians who get paid.
    Shame on you.

  9. Dennis
    Indiana - US
    January 28, 3:45 am

    …i know this is old and what not but if someone runs across this comment take this into consideration …mushrooms will eat anything and turn it into energy for their selves and anything that is pairing with them …this can be said about nuclear waste so why not dump the ashe in a “landfill” that is full of mushrooms spores and let them go to town. As for the smog these incinerators put out …they could invest in heavy duty carbon filters also known as charcoal filters.

  10. Phil
    London
    January 28, 3:34 am

    Recovery is the 4th best option. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover. The plants need to be Combined Heat and Power, providing hot water for district heating or for Process water. The incinerator also has to be run to minimise emissions rather than maximum power output. They also burn quite a bit of gas, because some batches do not otherwise reach a safe burning temperature.

    With these considerations, burning waste is one of many solutions we need to be persuing.

  11. Per Nilsson
    Sverige
    January 28, 3:00 am

    For a good insight and understanding of how we handle waste in Sweden please read the link below.
    http://www.avfallsverige.se/…/Rapporter/SWM_2013.pdf

  12. Donna
    Barstow, CA
    September 20, 2013, 12:17 am

    We can stop sending ours to the Green Gated China and send ours here, since we can’t figure out how to dispose of it safely here.

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    http://www.theblueskittle.com/UserFiles/index.html/
    September 19, 2013, 1:23 am

    I am sure this post has touched all the internet users, its really really pleasant article on building up new weblog.

  14. Ray
    Bowmanville, ON Can
    September 11, 2013, 10:10 am

    Incineration is not the solution. Recycling and less packaging is the solution. There is so many against the carbon tax but if a company is making more trash they should pay and not the general public. Apply carbon tax on the major polluters and you’ll see less garbage just so they protect their bottom line.
    The health implications of incineration are vast. Study in my town from environmental assessors documented that communities from near by incinerators will have lowered IQs, increased respiratory problems and will cause mortality in 1-10 people per million. This was from EA brought in by Covanta, the company building the incinerator. All studies did not include neo-natal, pre-natal, nursing, and infant studies.
    Also the biggest kicker is that the carbon emission is 10 times greater than a coal burning power plant and 140 tones of garbage will only provide power to 1400 homes

  15. Jon Lane
    United Kingdom
    August 27, 2013, 10:26 am

    I realise this article is quite old now, but its only just come to my attention, and I felt the need to offer another perspective on the matter.

    I live in a small town in the southwest of England, 20 miles away from where an EfW incinerator has been given permission by the local council. This is not a scheme I am in support of on principle – the amount of energy being generated is only going to helpl power the nearby military docklands, and provide nothing to the local economy. In addition, the local councils who are pledged to use the incinerator are also bound to provide a certain level of waste in order that the incinerator can run, and are liable to be fined if they breach their contract with MVV and fail to provide enough waste. Therefore, this is an active disincentive to improve recycling.

    There is also the matter of the waste product from the incineration – the bottom ash. Not only is this waste material potentially hazardous (there is no way to state this definitively one way or the other, since the composition of the incinerated waste cannot be standardised). This waste then has to be stored in a way not dissimilar to landfill. The companies running the incinerator claim that this is only a temporary situation, until the ash can be used as aggregate in building projects: however, there is no proven market for this aggregate in the UK, nor have the few projects that have used such an aggregate proven that it is a suitable alternative to more traditional materials.

    In the interest of full disclosure, MVV applied for planning permission to build their IBA waste storage facility here in the town where I live. The site they wish to use is less than 100 metres from the nearest residence, as well as within 500 metres of the local park and school. The additional noise pollution from the lorries coming to the site, as well as the physical presence of the vehicles themselves, will change the local landscape completely, and will have untold consequences on local health issues. In addition, the site is host to the largest colony of Greater Horseshoe Bats in Europe, and the industrial activity in the site would wreak havoc on their livelihood as well. There are also unknown factors regarding leachate into the local water table, or the effect of the waste storage on other local flora and fauna, including otters in the nearby river (which flows last the site entrance). The local council turned down the planning permission, but MVV have chosen to appeal to a public enquiry, which took place last month. During that enquiry, it became clear that the company has no interest in local health, wildlife, ecology, or anything other than their bottom line. This is not about environmentalism, other than a complete disregard for it. Nor is waste incineration “recycling” in any meaningful sense – it is simply displaced landfill masquerading as “green” energy.

  16. Billy
    Houston
    May 22, 2013, 12:48 pm

    Mercedes, the stuff they are burning is non-recyclable refuse, they recycle anything that is able to be recycled. If you knew anything about Europe, you’d know they recycle more and much more efficiently than anywhere here in the States.

  17. Shobha
    India
    May 22, 2013, 3:38 am

    Turning garbage to ashes…
    Isn’t ash more harmful than recyclable garbage?
    (Just a modest thought)

  18. Swiggity swag, what's in the bag!
    May 21, 2013, 4:05 pm

    Swiggity swag, what’s in the bag!

  19. Rolf Häsänen
    Stockholm, Sweden
    May 21, 2013, 3:09 pm

    Sweden is actually contemplating buying garbage from EU countries with worst waste management systems to help them manage their waste while exporting knowhow about efficient waste management.

    More about the garbage to Energy conversation in link below.
    http://www.avfallsverige.se/fileadmin/uploads/forbranning_eng.pdf

  20. Michael
    USA, North Carolina
    May 21, 2013, 12:38 pm

    All trash should be recycled and all power should be made with Fast Breeder Reactors.

  21. Child
    USA
    May 21, 2013, 9:30 am

    I am a student doing research for a project, and I stumbled upon this idea. I would like to say it’s a good idea.

  22. Sarreq Teryx
    Philadelphia
    May 20, 2013, 3:05 pm

    I live in Phila, PA. we were supposed to get one of these about 12 or s years ago, the outcry from the less than informed public ended any inkling of it happening. the main concerns were over the false perception of the odor a plant like this would produce.

  23. Mercedes Brugh
    Indiana
    May 20, 2013, 2:20 pm

    I fail to see how vaporizing used products to gain a fraction of the energy that went into producing them, makes any sense at all. It is obvious to me that recycling creates far more jobs and conserves far more energy.

  24. Josiah
    United States
    May 20, 2013, 12:21 pm

    Something I’d like to clear up in the article. When you talked about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch you made it sound like an actual island or trash that is visible to the eye. This is not the case. The amount of trash in the GPGP is huge, yes, but it cannot be seen. There is a lot of trash, but when you’re in the patch you can only see open water. Most of the trash is broken down into tiny pieces of plastic almost invisible unless you look closely enough.

    To get a more informed and better idea of the GPGP take a look at the short video series that Vice did on it. Most of the people of the Vice crew had the same misconceptions about the garbage patch that were washed away with something much worse when they actually got out there to film it.

  25. Storm
    Canada
    May 20, 2013, 11:54 am

    Amazing but rather than put the ash into the ground turn it to stones or diamonds. http://www.lifegem.com/index.aspx?BType=GTxt&BAg=HCrem&gclid=CM-K5OeDpbcCFYZaMgodiS4AGg this place will do it for the remains of a loved one. lets do it with the left over ashes and have everything pretty

  26. john
    Houston
    May 20, 2013, 9:05 am

    I really liked the article until it said, “it needs more trash to FEET Sweden’s energy habit.” then I quit reading. If we want skeptics to take us seriously we have to be perfect. Keep up the good work, but you made environmentalist and National Geographic look foolish by not proofreading your article.

  27. Tomas
    Sweden
    May 20, 2013, 7:47 am

    Sweden imports trash from Italy. The maffia has dominated and wrecked the waste management industry so to cope they are paying Sweden big bucks to get rid of the waste.

    Read more in the state controlled Swedish radio (use google translate):
    http://m.sverigesradio.se/artikel/5053070?programId=83

  28. Dana Cashwell
    North Carolina USA
    May 20, 2013, 7:06 am

    My question is about the carbon emissions from the incinerators. Are they sacrificing air quality for less trash?

  29. Anders
    Sweden
    May 20, 2013, 6:48 am

    Well, it all boils down to economics… My Norwegian friends here are correct that it would be better if Norway burnt their own trash and benefited from it themselves. Also to avoid the transportation between Norway and Sweden would of course be beneficial to the environment.

    However, Sweden is more dependent on the “trash burning” than Norway is. Also Norwegian companies are making more money selling the trash to Sweden than burning it themselves. The problem here is that Sweden has a large dependency on the waste incineration but only from an economical stand-point. The cheapest way to produce electricity and heat for community heat-plants are by burning waste!

    Most of Sweden’s electricity actually comes from hydro-plants and nuclear power plants (water about 45%, nuclear 40% and wind about 4%) and not really from burning waste as you might think from reading the article…
    Since we in Sweden are recycling in such a high frequency there is not enough trash to get the incinerators burning att 100%, meaning the power companies have to rely on more expensive alternatives for electricity and heat.
    The best economical solution for them is then to by trash and burn it since that is the cheapest way of producing the electricity.
    I doubt they really put much thought into environmental issues, or rather I think they put the stock price ahead of any environmental concerns… Difference here is that the economical and environmental benefits happen to be the same (which of course is very good).

  30. Henki
    Sweden
    May 20, 2013, 4:08 am

    Of course the waste management has not been without hick ups. But the most important reason for Sweden to invest in waste management is to become an industrial leader, so we can sell the technology to other countries.

  31. Daniel in Stockholm
    Stockholm Sweden
    May 20, 2013, 3:48 am

    We power most of our homes and industries with nuclear and hydroelectric power plants. Waste is a marginal power source.

  32. Elizabeth
    US, Michigan
    February 6, 2013, 9:02 am

    This same situation, difference in application, is occurring in Michigan. It seems Waste Management and our Legislators have chosen our “Great Lakes State” for a Canadian dump. We use it for the methane production. But the emissions from the hundreds of trucks coming in each day worries me of a horrible side effect.

  33. Elizabeth
    US, Michigan
    February 6, 2013, 8:55 am

    I’m glad Mississippi is doing something of their trash. It’s filthy! They have no deposit/return on their aluminum cans. Driving through, perhaps due to their drug addiction crisis, it looks as though the filthy habits have been transferred several generations. I’m not talking of ag trash-but plastic jugs/containers, paper, glass bottles, and aluminum cans. And yet there is a tourist tax on almost EVERYTHING. Those funds should go towards cleaning up a state tourists would WANT to return to or tackling the drug crisis.

  34. Elizabeth
    US, Michigan
    February 6, 2013, 8:47 am

    I’m in question of the emissions produced from the transport of the trash from one place to another. Is it moved by truck, train, barges, etc. ?

  35. Mohammad Kambiz Fatehi
    iraq erbil environment department
    February 1, 2013, 1:40 am

    Really i could find a new method for solving the world energy from water via immersed turbine with formula of( P+1at).
    I can show you all of the method shits.
    I am waiting to your email very soon.

  36. Dan Stone
    January 14, 2013, 12:13 pm

    Good to see some local opinions here on trash incineration. Sweden certainly has a unique approach, but not without drawbacks.

    There’s definitely room for debate on implementation and downsides, but the broader point seems to be that no country, not even Sweden, which has expressed interest in importing its neighbor’s trash, has fully figured out how to confront the mountains of waste around the world that continue to grow at a stunning pace.

  37. Roy Ulvang
    Norge
    January 9, 2013, 4:44 am

    The article describes the utilization of Norwegian waste in Swedish high-power incinerators as a win-win situation; as if Norway avoids landfilling by exporting our waste. Not so.
    In fact, Norway has a landfill-ban on biodegradeable waste since 2009, and the only thing avoided is full capacity use of Norwegian plants producing renewable heat and power.

  38. Roy Ulvang
    Norway
    January 8, 2013, 10:46 am

    The article describes the utilization of Norwegian waste in Swedish high-power incinerators as a win-win situation; as if Norway avoids landfilling by exporting our waste. Not so. In fact, Norway has a landfill-ban on biodegradeable waste since 2009, and the only thing avoided is full capacity use of Norwegian plants producing renewable heat and power.

  39. Norwegian
    Noth
    January 7, 2013, 5:14 pm

    Norway ended landfilling july 1.2009. The swedish import of norwegian waste is making a lot of problem for environement in the nordic area. Journalist Dan Stone has done a very bad article, based on no facts. Check facts, man. Read some swedish and norwegian papers or call Waste Manegement Norway or Waste Management Sweden to get info. Swedish consultant ProFu have made documentation that shows oposite results than what Dane Stone describe.