Sweden has started importing waste as fuel for power plants from Norway. Future sources could be Italy, Romania, Bulgaria or Baltic countries that otherwise landfill

Sweden’s successful waste-to-energy program converts household waste into energy for heating and electricity. But they’ve run into an unusual problem: they simply aren’t generating enough trash to power the incinerators, so they’ve begun importing waste from European neighbors.

When it comes to recycling, Sweden is incredibly successful. Just four percent of household waste in Sweden goes into landfills. The rest winds up either recycled or used as fuel in waste-to-energy power plants.

Burning the garbage in the incinerators generates 20 percent of Sweden’s district heating, a system of distributing heat by pumping heated water into pipes through residential and commercial buildings. It also provides electricity for a quarter of a million homes.

According to Swedish Waste Management, Sweden recovers the most energy from each ton of waste in the waste to energy plants, and energy recovery from waste incineration has increased dramatically just over the last few years.

The problem is, Sweden’s waste recycling program is too successful.

Catarina Ostlund, Senior Advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said the country is producing much less burnable waste than it needs.

“We have more capacity than the production of waste in Sweden and that is usable for incineration,” Ostlund said.

However, they’ve recently found a solution.

Sweden has recently begun to import about eight hundred thousand tons of trash from the rest of Europe per year to use in its power plants. The majority of the imported waste comes from neighboring Norway because it’s more expensive to burn the trash there and cheaper for the Norwegians to simply export their waste to Sweden.

In the arrangement, Norway pays Sweden to take the waste off their hands and Sweden also gets electricity and heat.  But dioxins in the ashes of the waste byproduct are a serious environmental pollutant. Ostlund explained that there are also heavy metals captured within the ash that need to be landfilled. Those ashes are then exported to Norway.

Sweden imports waste from European neighbors to fuel waste-to-energy program | Bruce Gellerman (Living on Earth) | June 26, 2012 | Public Radio International at http://www.pri.org/stories/science/environment/swedes-import-trash-to-power-the-nation-10428.html.

Sweden's waste incineration plants generate 20 percent of Sweden’s district heating. (Photo by Vattenfall via Flickr CC.)