Muck is money

 By Nicholas Newman

Re-processing and trading waste is a valued business in mainland Europe. As Anna-Carin Gripwell, Swedish Director of Waste Management Communications, explains, “waste today is a commodity in a different way than it has been. It is not only waste, it’s a business.” All kinds of waste is traded for profit. For instance, plastic waste containing (laundry detergent and shampoo bottles) can earn a processor a profit of $250 per metric ton, while processing used aluminum generates profits of around $1,325 per metric ton. In Europe, Sweden leads the way in re-processing and recycling…

Half of Sweden’s 4.4 million metric tons of household waste is converted into energy by 32 waste-to-energy incineration plants. Almost all the remainder is recycled, leaving just 1 percent to be sent to landfill sites where the resultant methane emissions can be used as a fuel to generate electricity. The Swedish west coast city of Gothenburg provides a mini-case study of what can be achieved from waste. This city of one million people is home to a 3 MWH waste-to-power plant operated by Renova AB at Sävenäs. The plant receives around 300 waste truck deliveries a day which is enough to provide 30 percent of district heating in the region’s network and 5 percent of the electricity needs of Gothenburg’s population.

Since 2008, Sweden has become so experienced at recycling and reprocessing waste that, in order to keep its many waste-to-power plants fully employed, it has imported around 1.5 million metric tons of waste a year from Norway, Britain, Ireland and Italy. The trouble is, as Patrik Zapata at Gothenburg University asks, “if Sweden is so good at taking care of other countries waste, how will these countries be encouraged to start taking care of their own waste? Or rather, prevent their own waste from being produced?”

The Swedish west coast city of Gothenburg provides a mini-case study of what can be achieved from waste.

Other uses

Every year, the average Swede produces around 461 kilograms of waste, an amount that is slightly below the half-ton European average. Apart from incineration to provide heat and electricity, leftover waste can be re-used multiple times. For instance, waste paper can be re-processed 5 to 7 times before it becomes unusable. Likewise, aluminum drink cans contain as much as 70 percent of recycled metal. Moreover, much of household waste such as cycles, televisions and washing machines could be re-purposed or even repaired. Indeed, historically, such products were expensive and repaired when they stopped functioning.

Mass manufacture and high labor costs have made it cheaper to replace, rather than repair, such goods. In an effort to encourage sustainability Sweden’s government has halved the VAT rate on repairs from 25 to 12 percent. In addition, Sweden has successfully encouraged patients to return unused medicines to chemists and routinely collected medical waste resulting in annual safe combustion of 378 metric tons. Following city and government examples, McDonald’s in Sweden accepts empty beer and soda bottles in exchange for food. Therefore, anyone bringing in ten cans gets a hamburger or cheeseburger in exchange, while 40 cans earns a Big Mac.

In Britain

By comparison, the UK’s record in recycling and reprocessing is not as robust. Gary Porter, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s environment board, has declared that “Britain is fast running out of space to dump rubbish in the ground.” The Environmental Service Association estimates that, between 2013 and 2020, approximately 395 million metric tons of recyclable material will pass through the UK’s waste management sector, of which just 255 million metric tons will be recycled. To illustrate the scale of the problem, a metric ton of trash is equivalent to the size of a small car. At least 12.5 million metric tons of paper and cardboard are produced in the UK every year, which on average, is around 200 kilograms per person. The country’s annual production is more than 31 million metric tons of waste a year, of which only about 45 percent is recycled.

The UK incinerates only around 10 percent of municipal waste to generate electricity compared with a European average of 30.4 percent reaching a high of 78 percent in Switzerland and 72 percent in Germany. However, not all is lost as the following example of good practice demonstrates. In Oxfordshire England, local councils collect, sort and deliver 300,000 metric tons, almost 95 percent of the county’s non-recyclable waste, to the Viridor Energy Recovery Facility (ERF), generating enough electricity to power around 38,000 homes.

An example of incinerator

However, there is still the problem of unconsumed food. Some 7.3 million metric tons of food waste ends up in UK landfills each year. Supermarket chains, the main perpetrators, have begun to reduce and even remove multi-buys offers in favor of simpler pricing so that customers can buy just what they need. Also, UK supermarkets have ended their practice of throwing away fit-to-eat food simply because it failed to meet their cosmetic standards.

Apart from mountains of food waste more than 10 million metric tons of packaging waste is generated in the UK each year. Almost two thirds of packaging waste is recoverable, yet a significant amount still ends up in landfill. Not uncommon is the practice of sending big boxes containing minuscule items. In response to public protest, Amazon has invested in a new technology called “Box in Demand” that will reduce their packaging waste.


Sweden’s success proves that having a nationwide waste management policy can significantly impact a country’s waste problem. There is much the UK can learn from Switzerland or Germany in dealing with its waste. For, as an old English saying goes, “where there’s muck there is money.”

SEE MORE: Road to Bioplastic by Michelle Leslie

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.