Following Sweden's Recycling Lead

When you think about countries that are truly nailing recycling, do you think of Sweden? Well, you should! I was recently talking to a friend who lives in southern Sweden and she told me all about the recycling efforts of her community and country. When I heard about how much they recycle, I was stunned. Let’s look at the numbers. In 2020 Sweden produced about 1,029 pounds of trash per person [1] while the United States produced 1,642 pounds per person [2]. But where the numbers really differ is when we look at recycling. In 2019 Swedes recycled 84% of all plastic bottles and aluminum cans [1]. In that same year the United States only recycled 46.1% of aluminum cans [3] and in 2018 only recycled 29% of plastic bottles and jars [4]. That’s a massive difference. So why are they recycling more than the United States? Let’s dig deeper. Sweden has a long history of encouraging can and bottle recycling. Since 1984 they’ve paid their citizens to recycle aluminum cans. And since 1994 they’ve done the same for plastic bottles. It’s estimated that every year 1.8 billion bottles and cans are recycled there. They do this by providing a recycling deposit system. A person can place their recycling in what looks like a small ATM and air flow sucks the items to a collection station.

The problem in the United States is not only overconsumption but also that we only have 10 states with a “pay you for your bottles” system (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont) [5]. It makes you wonder, if more Americans were paid for recycling their plastic bottles and aluminum cans, would we recycle more?

Then we need to look at the ease of recycling in general. In southern Sweden communities have garbage “houses” where they have bins for newspapers, clear glass, colored glass, metal, paper cartons, plastic light bulbs, batteries, corrugated boxes, food waste, and non-recyclable materials [6]. You simply drop off your items at these community “houses.”

In the U.S., every region, state, and community seems to accept different things. For example, when living in Illinois we could recycle paper, plastics, metal, and glass all in one bin for curbside pickup. But they never say which numbers of plastic they accepted (we’re talking about those little numbers at the bottom of plastic that have the recycling triangle around it). So, you may be using plastic and throwing it in the bin, thinking it is going to be recycled, when it’s really headed for the landfill. Oh, and you can’t forget that you can’t throw plastic bags in the bin even though they accept plastic (the bags float away and clog up their machines). Then there’s Virginia where we can recycle paper, cardboard, plastics #1-7, aluminum/metal, and glass. But with glass it has to be in a separate bin and you have to find a location where you can go drop it off. And you can recycle plastic bags but they have to be placed in a clear plastic bag and tied up before going in your bin. All these variations cause confusion for people and let’s me honest, if recycling isn’t super clear and easy, people simply won’t do it.

Now going back to Sweden. 85% of their food waste [7] is used to create biogas, a naturally occurring gas that is created when organic matter breaks down and is then used to produce energy [8]. Sweden uses biogas to power buses and municipal vehicles. If you’ve ever heard of or had a compost pile, biogas is produced in a similar way. Those compostable items are broken down and the methane gas produced is used to create energy.

Anaerobic digestion process (Graphic by Sara Tanigawa, EESI).

In the United States we have a huge food waste issue. About 133 billion pounds of food waste was produced in 2010. It actually makes up 21% of our landfills [9]. But only 2.9% of our food waste went to bio-based material and biochemical processing [10], 82% less than Sweden. Some will argue that biogas isn’t as “green” as it is portrayed. And there is definitely some validity to that statement. Creating biomass does create methane. But leaving compostables, like food, to rot in a landfill isn’t the answer either because it will still produce methane as it decomposes. In fact, landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane emission in the U.S [11]. By producing biogas, we harness that otherwise wasted methane for power [12]. Biogas does also contain impurities even after it's processing. This can cause metal corrosion in cars [13]. But when compared to natural gas that is removed from the earth via fracking, biogas is a clear winner. Why? Fracking, the process of forcing water, chemicals, and sand into rock, damages ecosystems, habitats, and landscapes. There’s a lot we can learn from Sweden and their methods of tackling waste and recycling. Perhaps monetizing recycling and making it the same in every part of the country would do a great deal to boost our number. I also think making recycling as easy as possible would also accomplish a lot. And maybe it’s time we start looking at our food waste issue more seriously and work on reducing waste and creating biogas with what we do create.


Sources: [1] [2],1%2C642%20pounds%20per%20person. [3] [4],was%2029.3%20percent%20in%202018. [5] [6] [7],(Swedish%20EPA%2C%202020a). [8] [9] [10] [11],-Note%3A%20All%20emission&text=Municipal%20solid%20waste%20(MSW)%20landfills,of%20these%20emissions%20in%202019. [12],potent%20as%20a%20greenhouse%20gas. [13]