Garbage Truck

How does a nation, known for a furniture store that sells everything by the individually-wrapped part, have no trash?

It certainly sounds too weird to be true, but Sweden has begun importing trash from neighboring countries such as Norway—some 800,000 tons annually. Of. Trash.

It gets weirder: Not only is Sweden happy to receive the garbage, but countries are actually paying for the service of shipping off their waste to Sweden; so, it’s profit-generating for the small European nation as well as a peculiar import fetish.

Despite being best known these days as home to Ikea, the grandiose DIY furniture store, Sweden’s also a bit OCD when it comes to recycling, which has decreased the nation’s trash output significantly. Only 4 percent of Sweden’s garbage is now sent to landfills (for scale, Americans send approximately 52 percent of our waste to landfills). Not a bad habit in theory, but what the 9.5 million Swedes didn’t necessarily realize, was that by recycling and composting most of their waste, they’ve minimized their heat source significantly as well. And that’s not good news for a country where the average temperature is 44 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sweden uses much of its waste to provide heat to hundreds of thousands of homes through a waste incineration program that converts trash to energy. Without enough burnable waste, some 20 percent of Swedes now have no heat source or electricity. “We have more capacity than the production of waste in Sweden and that is usable for incineration,” Catarina Ostlund, Senior Advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said in a story on Public Radio International.

So, the nation has started the service of taking trash off the hands of nearby countries, which pay Sweden for this service. Once the trash is burned, heavy metals and other pollutants, are then exported back to Norway to be disposed of properly.  According to Ostlund, “This is not a long-term solution really, because we need to be better to reuse and recycle, but in the short perspective I think it’s quite a good solution.”

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: p.Gordon