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Sweden Needs More Trash

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Sweden has always been ahead of its neighbors when it comes to reducing its environmental impact. To make power, the country does something unique: it turns trash into power on a national scale using high-power incinerators. At first glance, it solves two problems: getting rid of trash before it piles up and generating electricity without burning dirty fossil fuels.

But now Sweden is hitting a wall. According to the country’s Environmental Protection Agency, it needs more trash to feet Sweden’s energy habit, and it’s begun importing trash—just over 881,000 tons—from nearby Norway to do it.

It’s an innovative idea that seems to work for everyone. Sweden powers most of its homes and business with a waste product, and gets paid to do so. Norway gets rid of trash it doesn’t have space to bury more cheaply than exporting trash elsewhere (it gets the ashes back after incineration, but those take up much less space). And no one has to dig or drill for energy.

When I heard about the growth of this technology, I immediately thought of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the growing island of the world’s trash kept in constant swirl about 1,000 miles north of Hawaii. Back in 2009, a group of environmentalists and waste managers began trying to tackle the global trash heap, which has turned vast swaths of the Northern Pacific into an ecological dead zone. The Ocean Voyages Institute in Sausalito, California, tried testing ways to clean it up, including incinerating the trash to create energy or even oil.

Unfortunately, the idea that works so well for Sweden isn’t so replicable. Especially not in the geographically inconvenient North Pacific, where even a solid day’s work incinerating trash is quickly eclipsed by exponentially more trash that joins the heap.

But could trash incineration come to the United States at a large-enough scale? Only under the best of conditions, say a few waste managers I talked to. Like Swedish cities, U.S. municipalities would have to invest heavily in pick-up and distribution infrastructure that would essentially marry trash pick-up with energy generation. America’s insatiable appetite for power would also be hard to keep up with. And then there’s the problem of ash, which can be more chemically potent than the raw trash.

Still, even if large countries can’t embrace incineration-to-power technology as impressively as Sweden, the technology continues to grow. Montgomery County, Maryland, has a waste incineration plant. And later this year, the city of Pontotoc, Mississippi, is planning to start turning local waste into liquid fuel. In a region full of agriculture waste, not a bad idea.