Sweden and the Wakening of Eco-Integrity

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Startling news: Sweden now recycles 99 percent of its waste.

At least that’s what people are saying, including an official website of Sweden itself: “Less than one per cent of Sweden’s household waste ends up in a rubbish dump.” There may be less to this statement than meets the eye, but before I address that issue, I need to pause at the jolt of ecstatic excitement and jubilant incredulity I felt for a moment — that maybe the resource-consuming, planet-destroying, multinational political and economic system I’m part of is capable of correcting its own insanity, committing itself to a sustainable future and embracing the circle of life.

I’ve gotten used to living with despair: that so little of our effort, energy, intelligence and determination are invested in creating a sustainable future; and, indeed, that humanity’s macro-organizations, its national governments, its multinational business enterprises, expend their enormous power not only contributing to the devastation but sabotaging every effort to make it stop.

I’ve felt trapped in a state of permanent disconnect. Human indifference and helplessness, on a scale that is large beyond reckoning and as tiny as the car key in my hand and the bag of trash at my doorstep, seems permanently planted between me and the natural world. Only humans create garbage. Beyond our reckoning, everything has a purpose — but we cannot access or be part of this purpose, even though we come from it.

What if humanity actually committed itself, at the level of a national government, to learning from and working with nature? What if environmentalism didn’t mean (only) marching in the streets, pumping one’s fists or chaining oneself to a tree? I respect and honor such efforts — 300,000-plus people on the streets of New York demanding a sustainable future — but know that the point isn’t to celebrate individual righteousness but, rather, to awaken the integrity of our most powerful institutions.

What if we lived in a world where such integrity was awake? What if my own small efforts — recycle, compost, walk — were truly part of a larger whole? Here’s Sweden, absolutely committed to the elimination of landfill waste. I felt a sudden bolt of connection . . . to the future. The feeling was a new one: a government committed to the same values I am.

“That is true,” Daniel Gross wrote in July at Slate. “The Swedes generate a decent amount of garbage, just like everybody else — 465 kilograms per capita of waste in 2010, or about 1,070 pounds per person. Aggressive recycling programs that hoover up about 50 percent of the country’s waste have helped radically reduce the amount of junk going to landfills — that 1 percent figure is down from 22 percent of the total in 2001.”

He adds: “Shockingly, though, Sweden burns just as much garbage as it recycles, as noted in a 2013 European Environment Agency report. In 2012, Sweden incinerated 2.27 million tons of household waste at the country’s 32 waste-to-energy plants. Waste-to-energy, or WTE, is responsible for about 8.5 percent of the country’s electricity.”

Indeed, Sweden actually imports waste from elsewhere in Europe — the UK, Italy, Norway and Ireland — to keep its WTE plants going.

This sounds too good to be true, and maybe it is.

The waste-to-energy process isn’t mindless, open-air incineration — the instant destruction of unwanted planetary matter simply to make it go away — but it’s definitely controversial.

As Zi-Ann Lum wrote last month at Huffington Post Canada: “The incineration process isn’t perfect, but technological advancements and introduction of flue-gas cleaning have reduced airborne dioxins to ‘very small amounts,’ according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.”

The Swedes make a serious effort — far more than the U.S. does — to recycle their waste rather than simply feeding it into the WTE furnace. Christina Sarich, writing at Nation of Change last week, notes that “Swedes also have an advanced system of trash separation so that every scrap can be reused if possible, or repurposed in an appropriate way.”

And Lum adds: “By Swedish law, producers are responsible for handling all costs related to collection and recycling or disposal of their products. If a beverage company sells bottles of pop at stores, the financial onus is on them to pay for bottle collection as well as related recycling or disposal costs.”

However, as Canadian environmental activist Liz Benneian wrote, commenting on Lum’s article: “Taking these valuable resources, and then using fossil fuels to burn them up, destroying them forever, makes absolutely no sense and is not sustainable on a planet with finite resources and growing consumption. Sweden is no example to the rest of the world. If you want to stop methane release from landfill, take the compostables out and compost them properly so that no methane is generated. Then not only have you solved the methane emission problem, you have also created valuable compost that can be returned to our depleted soil.”

I think about out-of-control consumerism (“go shopping,” President Bush told America in the wake of 9/11) and the U.S. government’s serious lack of commitment to sustainable living, and still see much to value in Sweden’s approach. But I don’t believe that converting waste into fuel returns humanity to the circle of life. We still have a spiritual step to take: acknowledging, at every level of human society, that there’s no such thing as garbage.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.