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The dark truth behind Sweden's 'revolutionary' recycling schemes

The Independent  13 December 2016 | Dominic Hogg

Sweden considers incinerating waste to be recycling it – and Britain is making the same mistake

Everyone is talking about Sweden’s recycling system. It’s so good, the press report, that the country can even import waste from overseas to deal with. As one writer put it, “we can only dream of such an effective system in the UK”.

This puzzles me. As someone whose job involves delving through mounds of statistics on waste, and is very familiar with what the various countries of the EU do to manage their waste, I am struggling to understand why Sweden is being painted as some sort of nirvana. In fact, in some parts of the UK, we are outperforming Sweden on recycling rates.

So what is going on? 

Sweden’s recycling rate is high at 49.8 per cent, but it has been flat-lining since 2006. It is ahead of the UK’s recycling rate – 44.6 per cent – but not dramatically so, and considerably less than Wales. Thanks to bold policy initiatives from the devolved administration in Cardiff, Welsh councils achieved close to 60 per cent recycling in 2015.

The confusion that has led to everyone looking at Sweden through rose-tinted spectacles seems to stem from the way incineration of waste is being categorised. Reports praising the country include incineration as a form of recycling, but it isn’t. Indeed, too much incineration capacity can hinder recycling. 

Yes, Sweden landfills a much lower proportion of waste than the UK – but that’s mainly because it incinerates a much greater proportion. The country incinerated 49.5 per cent of its municipal waste in 2014-15; the UK figure was just 27.1 per cent. 

Sweden is amazing at recycling

Sweden’s incinerators were built partly in response to bans on landfilling that were introduced in the 2000s. At that time, many in Sweden worried that building too much incineration could supress recycling: come what may, the capital-intense incinerators would need to be fed with waste.

Fortunately for Sweden, at the turn of the last decade, a European restriction on the export of “residual waste” (the stuff that can’t be recycled) was partially lifted. Suddenly, incinerators that met certain energy efficiency standards could import waste from abroad. 

Several countries – including Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden – started importing waste, not least because they were keen to develop recycling rates further without undermining the viability of their incineration plants. In fact, the majority of residual waste exported from the UK is sent to Dutch incinerators, which, in turn, means that Dutch local authorities and businesses can press on with improving their recycling performance without leaving their incineration plants starved of waste to burn.

It was hoped that the UK would learn from the experience of Sweden and other countries by taking care not to over-invest in incineration. But that’s not the case either.

For the last five years, Eunomia Research & Consulting has closely monitored the amount of residual waste the UK generates, as well as the capacity of the incinerators we have – those in construction, and those being planned – to deal with it. If the whole of the UK was to follow the Welsh approach then, by our estimates, by the end of the decade there will be more incineration capacity than waste suitable to feed them. 

Given that EU policies are now targeting 65 per cent recycling by 2030 – well above existing performance of most countries (including the UK and Sweden) – it seems unlikely that there will be residual waste available from overseas to feed the incinerators we build. 

Remember, incineration is not recycling.

Given that we should be trying to reduce our waste and recycle more of what we do create, then we should expect a diminishing amount of residual waste available for incineration or landfill. The solution is not to keep building more and more incineration plants. On the contrary, we need to commit to a strategy based on wasting less and recycling more. The same, of course, applies to Sweden.

Dr Dominic Hogg is chair of Eunomia Research & Consulting