Sweden’s 99% recycling

The Independent says that Sweden has 99% recycling and so has to import waste to run its municipal waste incinerators – true or false?

99% Recycling

Sweden generates around 4.25Mtonnes of municipal waste each year[1] and Sweden only landfills 1%.  The remainder is recycled (so far, so good). However, recycling is split almost equally between materials recycling and energy recycling – what we (and the EU would call energy recovery).  So, Sweden’s material recycling performance is on a par with our own – it’s all in a name.

Sweden has to import waste to run its EfW plants

Swedish energy from waste plant have a capacity of 5.1Mtonnes[2] and, if they ran solely on municipal waste produced in Sweden, would be 3Mtonnes a year under-capacity.  This is important in Sweden, because energy from waste plant are used (together with other sources such as waste heat from industry) to provide heat to a well-developed network of district heating schemes.

However, Sweden’s ability to import waste for its EfW plants is heavily dependent on the price charged.  Because Swedish EfW plant generate not only electricity but are integrated into district heating networks, the gate fee they need to charge is very low and has allowed them to take waste from other countries, initially from Scandinavia and more recently from other European states.

Energy, Politics and Taxes

Do we need to get ‘hung up’ about this? Probably not, despite what EU waste law says about producer responsibility, the proximity principle and a network of installations.  Waste management should never be viewed in isolation from the rest of the economy in any country.  This is perhaps nowhere truer than in Sweden, due to the integration of waste in the heating and electricity systems.

Both the energy and political/fiscal landscape in Sweden have changed markedly over the past 40 or so years. For electricity, Sweden stopped the expansion of hydropower (due to local environmental concerns) and moved away from new build nuclear (although plans to shut all plant were softened, requiring alternative energy sources to be available). Nonetheless, electricity generation in Sweden is still dominated by the combination of nuclear and hydropower. Out of a total annual electricity generation of 154 TWh[3], nuclear provides between 65 and 70 TWh with hydroelectricity providing 50-75TWh, depending on the amount of precipitation[4]. The next largest generating source is Wind power which produced 8% of the total in 2014.

District heating is a different matter and has seen a massive change over the past 40 years, from a total dominance by oil in the mid to late 1970s to its replacement by multiple fuels, including natural gas, coal and peat but latterly dominated by biomass and municipal waste with important contributions from industrial waste heat and heat pumps.

With regards to taxes and laws, the position is complex and only a cursory summary is given here.  Sweden has tried to integrate some of its waste management and energy legislation. Sweden (in common with many other European countries) introduced landfill bans, first on combustible waste and then on organic waste.  Taxes have also been introduced, on landfilling and for a time on energy from waste, (although this was removed in 2010 but is now the subject of a new study reporting in June 2017). In the 1970s high taxes on oil coincided with a switch away from oil for district heating. In the 1990s Sweden introduced an energy tax and more recently, and perhaps more importantly, this was partially replaced by a carbon tax[5].

Capacity and Demand

Sweden has some 39,000MW of electricity generating capacity.  Of this, more than 31,000MW are provided virtually carbon-free (depending on how you define that) by hydro, wind and nuclear power. Average demand in Sweden is just over 17,000MW electricity, suggesting Sweden has an overcapacity and electricity generated from burning municipal waste will displace these very low carbon sources.

However, average demand does not reflect the peak demand that the grid has to meet.  Nor does installed capacity represent available capacity.  This is most true of wind, because the wind does not always blow and hydro, where the output is also dependent on the weather.  The displaced fuel argument is further complicated by the complexities of the electricity distribution system.  Sweden is part of an integrated electricity market, Nord Pool, covering all Nordic countries (with the exception of Iceland) and there is further interconnectivity between Nord Pool and other Northern European countries. Thus, electricity generated in Sweden may effectively and ultimately supply consumers in Poland.

Does all this mean sending waste to Sweden to burn is a good or a bad idea?

Whether all this is good or bad for the environment depends on your viewpoint, the sector of the environment with which you are concerned and the conditions in the country where the waste is being exported.

If we just look at global climate change and therefore at greenhouse gas emissions, the overall answer depends on the answers to several subsidiary questions.  There include the following.

What Swedish power source is being displaced?

We can see that if Swedish EfW is substituting oil for district heating and marginal brown coal plant in Germany, then on the face of it, it looks highly beneficial, subject to transport emissions and electricity transmission losses being relatively small.

What is the waste?

Anything that is non-combustible (e.g., glass and metals) should not be exported for EfW –  it can mostly be beneficially recycled and will only be a disbenefit to the EfW process, reducing the efficiency.  Effectively, therefore, we are only talking about paper, plastics, food waste, wood and textiles.

What would have happened to it?

We need to ask ourselves what would have happened to the waste exported to Swedish EfW plant? If it was being landfilled and was biodegradable, then there could be a significant climate change benefit just by removing it from landfill, although this will depend on whether the landfill would have recovered methane, and how efficiently it did so.

What will it displace?

If however, the exported waste would otherwise have been recycled then we need even greater scrutiny. Each of these has different greenhouse gas benefits when recycled and these also vary significantly for each material according to the final use of the material (that which it is displacing) – glass recycled into flat glass is much more beneficial in terms of greenhouse gases than glass recycled into aggregates and plastics recycled into replacement for virgin plastics are more beneficial than those recycled to replace sustainable wood products.

What is the difference in the energy used?

The climate change benefit achieved will depend on both the energy source used in recycling and that used to produce the raw material which the recycled material displaces.  For example, aluminium recycling in the UK is generally regarded as enormously beneficial from the standpoint of climate change, because extraction of aluminium from bauxite is energy intensive (13-15MWh/tonne of aluminium[6]) and where fossil fuels are used to provide this energy, it is also carbon intensive.  However, where this energy is supplied by geothermal or hydropower, then aluminium recycling carries nothing like these benefits, because the carbon balance is tilted a different way.  We can and should ask the same questions of electricity generated from landfilled waste and energy from waste plant: if it generates electricity, what is the marginal fuel for the electricity it replaces?


So the answer is that energy from waste plant in Sweden import waste, because there is insufficient waste in Sweden for the capacity that exists and, because they get a good price for heat as well as generating electricity, they are competitively priced.

Whether it would be the right thing to build a new EfW plant in Sweden to take waste from elsewhere is a different decision, dependent on different factors.

Whether the choices made are good for the environment depends on a complex, inter-related set of factors that does not benefit from over-simplification and can only fairly be considered using a life cycle approach to calculate the global change impacts of the different options.

Perhaps in these days of global markets and common, high, European, environmental standards, we should stop being concerned about the mere fact of moving waste for recovery and apply some life cycle thinking to look objectively at the benefits and disbenefits in each case.


Terry Coleman
Resource and Waste Solutions
December 2016


[1] Eurostat


[3] Eurostat, 2014

[4] Svensk Energi

[5] Introduction and development of the Swedish district heating systems

[6] http://primary.world-aluminium.org/processes/power-generation.html