The Sensible Swedes Burn a Lot of Their Garbage. Why Can’t We?

A Closer Look at the New Energy Economy
July 21 2014 11:20 AM

Förbränning for All!

The sensible Swedes burn a lot of their garbage. Why can’t we?

A landfill.
There’s another way.

Photo by Thinkstock

Sweden, from which I’ve recently returned, is impressively functional, efficient, and rational. The air is clean; the ferries run on time. I spent a few days on the island of Gotland attending Almedalen, the weeklong festival of ideas where all the political parties gather together to mingle and debate. The super-fast train that whisks travelers from Arlanda Airport to Stockholm Central Train Station takes a mere 20 minutes and is powered by renewable energy. Despite its proximity to coal-rich Poland and Russia, Sweden doesn’t use any of the dirty black stuff to create energy. In fact, the country’s electricity supply is largely emission-free, with 44 percent derived from hydro, 40.5 percent nuclear, some wind, and less than 1 percent coming from coal.

The country is so efficient and smart that, as one Swedish person casually acknowledged to me, “We only put 1 percent of our garbage in landfills.”

That is true. 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. Shockingly, though, Sweden burns just as much garbage as it recycles, as noted in a 2013 European Environment Agency report (PDF). 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.

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Sweden, a progressive, carbon-obsessed country, has clearly made its peace with burning garbage. So if the Swedes burn half their garbage to create heat and electricity, why can’t Americans? After all, we’re a much more prodigious producer of trash at 251 million tons a year, which comes out to 4.38 pounds per day per person, or nearly 1,600 pounds per year per person.* While we recover about 34.5 percent of our trash through a combination of recycling and composting, Americans send a huge chunk of the gross national detritus—54 percent—to landfills, where it just lies there and decomposes. In the U.S., we only burn about 12 percent of our garbage. (Facts and figures courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency can be seen here.)

“There are folks that love to hate waste energy,” said Ted Michaels, president of the Energy Recovery Council, a trade group for the WTE industry. “They’ll perpetuate the notion that it is dirty, or otherwise bad for the environment.” Michaels suggests that we shouldn’t hate on WTE and proposes Sweden as a counterexample of an “absurdly progressive community” that has reconciled with incinerators.

The potential problem is that burning garbage does create plenty of emissions, including some quite nasty ones, as the EPA points out: “Burning MSW [municipal solid waste] produces nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide as well as trace amounts of toxic pollutants, such as mercury compounds and dioxins.” But as Michaels notes, the government sharply restricts those emissions, and Sweden’s WTE plants are firmly in compliance.  

As for carbon dioxide—the big class of emissions that isn’t yet regulated—WTE actually performs quite well compared with other methods of electricity generation. On its face, WTE appears to be very carbon-intensive. The EPA reports that incinerating garbage releases 2,988 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. That compares unfavorably with coal (2,249 pounds/megawatt hour) and natural gas (1,135 pounds/megawatt hour). But most of the stuff burned in WTE processes—such as paper, food, wood, and other stuff created of biomass—would have released the CO2 embedded in it over time, aspart of the Earth's natural carbon cycle.” As a result, the EPA notes, only about one-third of the CO2 emissions associated with waste-to-energy can be ascribed to fossil fuels, i.e., burning the coal or natural gas necessary to incinerate the garbage. In other words, WTE really only produces 986 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. “So we’re roughly equivalent to natural gas, and half of coal,” Michaels says. “But coal and natural gas don’t manage solid waste.”

That makes WTE both efficient and comparatively green. It’s why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has dubbed WTE a “key GHG [greenhouse gas] mitigation technology.” It’s why most U.S. states have classified waste-to-energy as a renewable energy source, meaning it can be used to meet renewable portfolio standards and can benefit from the tax credits that apply to wind and solar. And it’s why Sweden is perfectly comfortable burning most of its garbage instead of burying it in the pastoral countryside.

But WTE has been having difficulty gaining traction in the U.S. Some 84 facilities in 23 states have a capacity of about 2,700 megawatts and deal with 96,000 tons of garbage each day. That’s a very small amount of the overall generation picture. For comparison’s sake, the U.S. in 2013 alone installed 4,751 megawatts of solar capacity, or nearly twice the amount of all existing WTE. If you look at a directory of WTE locations, you’ll see that they are concentrated in coastal states where landfills tend to be expensive. Capacity has been stagnant for years, and there is just one plant under construction, in West Palm Beach, Florida—a 93-megawatt plant adjacent to an existing WTE facility.

Trash-burning advocates are laboring against NIMBYism; the idea of living near a power plant, whether it burns coal or garbage, just isn’t all that appealing. But they’re also working against powerful market forces and an equally powerful zeitgeist. Cheap natural gas is fueling a boom in power plants that run on this domestic fuel source. Wind and solar have gained critical mass in the U.S. Environmentalists, who would prefer recycling, composting, or simply not creating waste in the first place, remain opposed to WTE. The Natural Resources Defense Council says WTE isn’t really renewable because it does “rely on dirty fossil fuel energy or create other pollution hazards during the process of energy extraction.”*

In such an environment, standing up and urging people to light more trash heaps on fire seems like a losing proposition. Perhaps WTE could benefit from being recast as a smart Scandinavian innovation. Over the years, the U.S. has proven it can be highly receptive to Swedish exports: ABBA, Ikea, Swedish Fish. Let’s start by rebranding incineration as förbränning—it sounds so much better in Swedish.

*Correction, July 24, 2014: This article originally misidentified the Natural Resources Defense Council as the National Resources Defense Council. (Return.)

*Correction, July 28, 2014: This article also mistakenly identified the number of pounds of garbage Americans burn per day as 0.38 pounds. The correct number is 4.38 pounds. (Return.)

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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