No, Sweden Does Not Recycle 99 Percent of Its Waste.

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Blocks of plastic recycled materials

Koron / Getty Images

Our friends at Inhabitat are running a very popular post titled How Sweden recycles 99 percent of its waste, which they picked up from Global Citizen. They are not the first to cover this; back in 2014 Huffpo ran 99 Per Cent Of Sweden's Garbage Is Now Recycled. It all seems to derive from an official Swedish government site which writes that “With its ongoing recycling revolution, less than one per cent of Sweden’s household waste ends up in a rubbish dump” and comes with an impressive video, which Mike covered earlier in TreeHugger.

Importing garbage for energy is good business for Sweden from Sweden on Vimeo.

The trouble is, by any definition of recycling, this is a stretch. In fact, they incinerate about 50 percent of their waste to make heat and energy. And even in their own website, they admit that is not the best approach, that it is not really recycling, and that it takes less energy to actually recycle and reuse than it does to burn and manufacture a replacement from scratch.

Recycling vs Transformation

In the USA, Recycling is defined as “Using waste as material to manufacture a new product. Recycling involves altering the physical form of an object or material and making a new object from the altered material.” Burning is called Transformation, which “refers to incineration, pyrolysis, distillation, or biological conversion other than composting.” They are very different things.

There is no question that the waste to energy plants are really clean, and filter out almost all of the dioxins and other stuff that comes out of incinerators. But what does come out is “99.9 per cent non-toxic carbon dioxide and water.” There are many who question whether carbon dioxide is non-toxic, given its effect on the climate.

Power plant at night
Prapass Pulsub / Getty Images

Oh, and these plants put out a lot of CO2. According to the EPA, quoted in Slate, it puts out more CO2 per megawatt generated than burning coal.

The EPA reports that incinerating garbage releases 2,988 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. That compares unfavorably with coal (2,249 pounds/megawatt hour) and natural gas (1,135 pounds/megawatt hour). But most of the stuff burned in WTE processes—such as paper, food, wood, and other stuff created of biomass—would have released the CO2 embedded in it over time, as “part of the Earth's natural carbon cycle.”

So about two thirds of the emissions of CO2 are treated like biomass and considered carbon neutral, which many scientists dispute, because these plants are pumping out CO2 now, where in a natural cycle they might take decades to do so. That's the only reason it can be considered cleaner than coal.

Then there is the question of what impact waste to energy has on the actual recycling rate. TreeHugger contributor Tom Szaky wrote in his post, Does waste-to-energy make sense?

Waste-to-energy also acts as a disincentive to develop more sustainable waste reduction strategies. It may work better in the short term with strict pollution standards and as a last-resort for waste disposal, but it does not offer us a sustainable long-term solution. Preserving material (through recycling and reuse) already in circulation is a key component of sustainable development. Burning finite resources may not be the best approach down the line.

On the Swedish site promoting WTE, they are proud of the fact that they import waste:

Waste is a relatively cheap fuel and Sweden has, over time, developed a large capacity and skill in efficient and profitable waste treatment. Sweden even imports 700,000 tonnes of waste from other countries.

David Suzuki has another view of the importing:

Incineration is also expensive and inefficient. Once we start the practice, we come to rely on waste as a fuel commodity, and it's tough to go back to more environmentally sound methods of dealing with it. As has been seen in Sweden and Germany, improving efforts to reduce, re-use and recycle can actually result in shortages of waste "fuel"!

Improving the Positive Impact

There is no question that they are doing some pretty amazing things with waste to energy in Scandinavia, including having Bjark Ingells build new power plants that you can ski on. There is also no question that it’s better than landfilling the stuff. I toured a WTE plant in Copenhagen (being replaced by Bjark’s at a very high price because it didn’t meet European standards for emissions of dioxins and heavy metals) and was impressed at how it heats the surrounding community, eliminates trucking of garbage to landfills, and of course, generates electricity.

But it is not recycling. As David Suzuki notes,

It's a complicated issue. We need to find ways to manage waste and to generate energy without relying on diminishing and increasingly expensive supplies of polluting fossil fuels. Sending trash to landfills is clearly not the best solution. But we have better options than landfills and incineration, starting with reducing the amount of waste we produce. Through education and regulation, we can reduce obvious sources and divert more compostable, recyclable and reusable materials away from the dump. It's simply wasteful to incinerate it.

In summary: Incineration is not recycling, and therefore Sweden does not recycle 99% of its waste.