All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Swedish garbage

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The Swedes sure do things differently.  Hanging out with Swedish scientists for a week, I started wondering if I entered an episode of a reality show based on the Jetsons.

Take garbage, for instance.  In Linköping, there is a new development where no trucks ever pick up the garbage.  Instead, there is a suction system that conveys your garbage into a central collection plant.  Think of garbage chutes in apartment buildings – but in this case, there are also fat bollard posts on street corners, with a mouth, ready to suck your garbage away – magic!

It’s what happens after, though, that is truly remarkable.  Burnable garbage is sent to the incinerator, while rottable garbage (food waste) goes to a bio-digester.    The main incinerator in Linköping receives waste from about 600,000 people.  That produces 1000 GWh of district heating, and 200 GWh of electricity.

The main district heating pipes run under this Uppsala street, melting the snow.

The main district heating pipes run under this Uppsala street, melting the snow.

District heating?  Yes, most people heat up their homes using the steam pipes that run under the streets.  Which means – here’s the kicker – only 10% of space heating uses fossil fuels or electricity; the rest is from the district heating – heat from garbage!  Add to that the electricity produced, and garbage no longer seems a waste.

The food waste, automatically separated from the rest, goes to a central bio-digester.  The methane produced fuels 6% of the vehicles, including the fleet of city buses and taxis.  The residue is spread as fertilizer on surrounding farm land.  Uh, waste?  What waste?

The biogas digester in Linkoping, possibly the best in the world.

The biogas digester in Linkoping, possibly the best in the world.



Much has been made to the fact that the Swedes import garbage from neighbouring Norway.  In the eyes of some, this is a cautionary tale against incinerators.  The capital cost of incinerators is so high, they say, that garbage must always be found to feed the beast – and that harms any effort at recycling.

Folks in Linköping don’t see it that way.  For them, garbage is a resource, and they have their eye on the ultimate price: importing garbage from Italy, the apparently inexhaustible source!

And it’s not if the Swedes don’t recycle.  They produce about 460 kg waste per capita, half of which is turned into energy; most of the rest is recycled, and only 5% is landfilled.  The amount of waste produced is pretty average for the western world (for instance, Germans produce about 600 kg per year each).  The recycling rate, near 50%, is also in the average.  What is remarkable is the amount that is landfilled; it is one of the smallest in Europe (only Denmark and the Netherlands are comparable).

In Metro Vancouver, for comparison, we produce a bit more garbage (570 kg per year per person), and on average recycle a similar 50%.  But this hides the fact that apartment dwellers recycle only 15% of their garbage (the high percentage is largely due to industry); and, in towns like Linköping, a much larger percentage lives in apartments than in Metro.

It’s just that it’s better set up there; in the basement of an apartment building in Uppsala, I counted a dozen recycling and garbage containers (yes, they have garbage trucks there): paper and cardboard, of course, but they also recycle light bulbs and neon lights separately, for instance.  In this case, what wouldn’t work for single family housing works well in apartments (another advantage of densification).

Recycling light bulbs in an ordinary apartment building

Recycling light bulbs in an ordinary apartment building

But aren’t incinerators polluting?  Old ones certainly were, but new ones run clean.  For instance, there are more dioxins produced in a single large display of fireworks than from a well-run incinerator running over a year.  Some of my friends in the environmental movement insist that burning anything, cleanly or not, pumps carbon dioxide into the air, so incinerators should be banned because they contribute to climate change.  But after seeing the one in Sweden (and there are many like it) providing district heating, and replacing fossil fuels, I don’t buy that argument (sorry guys!).  It just makes sense.

I was lucky enough to be invited to go to Sweden as part of a mission funded in part by our government; we discussed such obscure things as to whether spreading digested manure on fields releases more greenhouses gases than the raw stuff.  And how to determine whether a waste has a high potential for generating methane, which is surprisingly not that straightforward.  I was certainly suitably impressed by what the Swedes have accomplished.  They may be the only ones who can get away with a statement like “you know, because their feebates are so rich, the Germans have become lazy when they design their biogas systems”.  Wow!  And here I was thinking that Germany is so far ahead of us in Canada!

My travel mates were very sceptical of the latest project that will grace the skyline of Linköping: a vertical greenhouse, heated like the rest by the incinerator.  The south side will grow veggies, the north side will be office space in a prestige building.  Will it work?  Sure.  Will it make money and justify the investment?  Uh, fairly dubious at this stage.  But trust the Swedes: it’s a novel idea, an attractive idea, that seems reason enough to try.

my fish burger produced only 400 grams of CO2eq

my fish burger produced only 400 grams of CO2eq

Along the way we stopped for a quick bite in a Max, a local burger chain.  But not your average burger joint: their operation claims to be carbon neutral, and the menu advertises, along with price, the carbon footprint of each selection.  “I don’t know if people care that much”, said Gustav, our host.  Still, just to have that option!

And then there was the washroom.  Everything is high-tech – stainless steel fixtures and pipes, everything working just so – even the door latch was designed in a perfectly logical matter, better than ours, and closed with a satisfying high-quality precision “click”.  Nothing ever seems poorly designed or shoddy, even in a fast-food joint.




A lot of things seem to be like that in Sweden.  Maybe not quite the Jetsons – but how much closer than we are!





Written by enviropaul

March 15, 2013 at 4:34 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] was lucky enough to return to Cuba and travel to Sweden for work; Dinah and I also spent some holiday time in Australia – while looking at environmental […]

  2. […] wastewater treatment plant (as well as from garbage).  It’s not the first one to do so; Sweden has had biogas-powered transit for awhile.  But it’s the first one to take the opportunity to educate the public about the potential […]

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