Sweden Has A Bizarre New Dilemma That Might Just Save The Planet

This is weird but wonderful.

Garbage is everywhere.

If you live in a big city, you probably see it on the street or piling up outside restaurants and apartment buildings. If you're in the suburbs or the country, you may see it in giant dumpsters and landfills. But Sweden has found a way to eliminate its garbage.


Miss Earth Sweden 2016 stands beside a mock garbage bin advertising the dangers of pollution.

Thanks to their 32 waste-to-energy plants, Swedes have been converting their trash — their old Starbucks cups, discarded grocery bags, and torn candy wrappers — into energy. Yes, energy. By burning garbage, Swedish government officials estimate they heat 810,000 homes and provide electricity to another 250,000. On top of the plants, Swedes also recycle about half the stuff they throw out, an important habit that has helped them essentially run out of garbage to burn.

In 2014, the country imported 800,000 tons of trash from other countries. Some are even paying Sweden to take the trash off their hands. There are some concerns, though: the plants' processes release carbon monoxide into the air, although they have been designed to limit pollution.

Fortunately, this isn't just a Swedish innovation. In America, we already have 84 waste-to-energy plants, but we're a bit worse at recycling (we only recycle about a third of what we throw away) and a bit larger than Sweden (about 33 times its size). Still, the fact that we're in the waste-to-energy business is encouraging, and it couldn't come at a better time.

As we reported this week, the oceans are quickly filling up with plastic — something environmentalists have attributed to our poor recycling habits and lack of personal responsibility. Duke University's Center for Sustainability & Commerce estimates the average American creates 4.3 pounds of waste a day. That's 220 million tons of waste a year according to Upworthy, and about 55 percent of that is going into landfills. 

Which brings up more issues: we are running out of landfill space, and the trucks that transport our trash are releasing significant amounts of greenhouse gases.

Sweden's recycling revolution paired with its waste-to-energy plants could be the blueprint for other countries. In 1975, residents recycled only 38 percent of their household waste. Today, they recycle — in one way or another — more than 99 percent of household waste. 

If there's a place to look for hope in the quest to reduce garbage, Sweden might be it. 

Cover photo: Shutterstock / leoks.

(H/T: Upworthy)


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