Depósito de resíduos recicláveis. Crédito: Patrícia Valério/Unsplash

Swedes recycle 99% of their household waste, how is that possible?

Cultural and economic change were essential to ensure commitment of the 10 million inhabitants of the Scandinavian country to recycling

Recently, Sweden became a world reference in recycling. Today, over 99 percent of all household waste is recycled in one way or another, according to a study by the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association (Avfall Sverige). Yet, that was not often the case in the past. Only 38 percent of household waste was recycled in 1975. There were many changes to reach 99 percent. After all, it is not easy to convince the population of a whole country - now estimated at 10 million inhabitants - to change their habits. But Sweden made it. How?

After scanning the history of Sweden's recycling policies in recent years, two measures stand out in the effort to make the practice universal.

The first one has to do with recycling availability and visibility. Since the early 1980s, Sweden has opted to make small local recycling stations instead of building large central plants. These stations spread out and, today, it is estimated that there is no residence or apartment in Sweden located more than 300 meters away from a recycling station. Thus, citizens not only have frequent selective collection at small distances, but they also know where the waste goes to, they understand how the process works and they appreciate it.

Recycling is part of the neighborhood, city and country culture

The second measure is money-related and has important consequences on a new understanding of the value of waste. Since 2000, Swedes have paid a waste collection tax based on how much waste they give for collection. It’s like a pay-as-you-throw system; if you produce more waste, you pay more. This has been an economic boost in favor of recycling, which allows for reduction in the total waste volume to be collected. More importantly, since the fee was set, it has already been readjusted by 74%, according to a study of the European Environment Agency (EEA). It is worth mentioning that Sweden’s annual inflation rate is around 2%.

With this second measure, the government was able to increase recycling rates and reduce the amount of waste produced. At the same time, they created a culture of appreciating the durability of products and their own waste, thus understanding better the price they pay for things.

The recycling market

Regarding durability, governmental bodies and Swedish companies already came up with an encouragement plan for the industry to manufacture long-lasting products, thus avoiding waste. Nowadays, the possibility of a 50 percent tax exemption is considered, countrywide, for repair services in electronic equipment and household appliances, for example. The goal is to encourage consumption of a broken refrigerator or a broken television, instead of discarding it.

Recycling culture is broader within the Swedish economy. For example, H&M began accepting used clothing from customers in exchange for rebate coupons. In infrastructure, there was growth in the number of private companies interested in recycling services. These companies promote waste and food collection in 67% of the cities, while 29% of the cities have a public collection system, and 4% use a mixed solution.

Speaking of recycling innovation, Sweden also has interesting initiatives aligned with the culture created in the country. The Optibag Company has developed a machine that can separate colored waste bags from each other. What needs to be done is standardizing colors for different materials – organic waste in green bags, papers in red bags, metal in yellow bags etc. –, cutting off the need for sorting at recycling stations, thus reducing costs and streamlining processes.

Energy recycling controversy

Every revolution has its pros and cons. So does recycling in Sweden, despite its huge success. Today, around 50 percent of household waste is burnt to produce energy at incineration plants – the so-called energy recycling. In 2016, nearly 2.3 million tons of household waste was turned into energy through burning. Waste is a relatively cheap fuel and Sweden has developed a profitable waste treatment over time. Due to its profitability, Sweden even imported 2.7 million tons of waste from other countries in 2014.

Burning has its disadvantages, however. Although studies show that only 0.1% of all smoke produced in energy recycling is toxic and that, officially, these emissions are mostly treated as biomass burning – meaning, it’s less toxic -, some people do criticize it. In 2006, in Sweden, a waste incineration fee was put into practice - and eventually abolished in 2010, according to a study by Waste Matters. While the fee was in effect, it was only applied to household waste; commercial and industrial waste were not charged, although these accounted for half of all incinerated materials.

Avfall Sverige's report shows that, regarding energy efficiency, it is cheaper to make a product from scratch than recycling it. “We are trying to ‘move up the refuse ladder’, as we say, from burning to material recycling,” says Wigvist in a statement to the country’s official website. Considering the successful outcome of the latest Swedish job contracts in the industry, it will certainly go well.