Burning Trash in Sweden

July 29, 2014

Sweden sends just 1 percent of its waste to landfills, reports Daniel Gross at Slate.com. Instead, the country recycles and incinerates most of its garbage, turning it into energy.

Sweden produced 1,070 pounds of garbage per person in 2010. But in 2001, Gross reports, the country began a recycling program, reducing the amount of trash that goes to landfills from 22 percent to 1 percent in 2012.

  • The trash that is not recycled (50 percent) or sent to a landfill (1 percent) is incinerated at one of its waste-to-energy (WTE) plants.
  • Sweden has 32 of these plants, which burned 2.27 million tons of waste in 2012.
  • Today, WTE produces 8.5 percent of Sweden's electricity.

Could the United States, which produces 1,600 pounds of garbage per year per person, use WTE? Fifty-four percent of American trash goes to landfills, while 12 percent is burned. While much of the opposition to WTE has focused on emissions, Gross explains that WTE is not as carbon-intensive as it appears:

  • Burning trash emits 2,988 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced. This is higher than coal (2,249 pounds per megawatt hour) and natural gas (1,135 pounds per megawatt hour).
  • However, much of that waste (such as paper and food) would have released carbon dioxide over time, naturally. According to the EPA, just one-third of the WTE carbon dioxide emissions are actually due to the fossil fuels used to burn the garbage, making WTE emissions closer to those of natural gas.

Twenty-three states in the United States have WTE facilities, notes Gross, but the amount of waste that they burn is relatively small.

Source: Daniel Gross, "Forbranning for All!" Slate.com, July 21, 2014.

 

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