What we can learn from Sweden's success in recycling

July 12, 2019 13:41
A father and his daughter return used bottles at a local store to get a refund of the recycling premium. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck/imagebank.sweden.se

Sweden is running out of trash thanks to advanced recycling.

I visited Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, a couple of years ago. The city has adopted a system of reducing, sorting, treating and recycling waste.

Local officials told me that citizens use bags, cups and boxes made from degradable plastics, which cost much more than ordinary plastics.

Taking waste reduction efforts one step further, the Swedish government said on Monday that it intends to ban plastic utensils and other plastic items altogether.

Garbage in the Scandinavian country is currently classified into several categories such as organic (kitchen waste), paper, glass and tin products.

Sweden started educating citizens about garbage sorting in the 1980s, and by now people have become fully accustomed to it.

How we wish we could have such an effective system in Hong Kong. In fact, the SAR government has put up classified rubbish bins on the streets across the territory. However, it's been revealed that the sorted items are just mixed together and sent to landfills.

That's probably because we don't really have a practical, workable waste recycling system in place.

By contrast, the Swedish government has introduced much more advanced waste collection techniques, including an automated vacuum system in residential blocks that send garbage directly to recycling centers via a network of underground pipelines.

Organic waste is used to generate biogas that is used to power cars and buses. Other wastes are also used for power generation, which supplies electricity and heating for 20 percent of the households.

Sweden’s waste incineration plants use the most advanced technology to reduce dioxin emission. People have complete access to the emission data of such plants.

Air quality is properly monitored and the data is open to everyone. This helps in instilling public confidence.

Currently, Sweden’s waste recycling rate is 99 percent; the remaining 1 percent of waste is buried in landfills.

Sweden is so good at recycling that, for several years, it has been importing rubbish from other countries to keep its incinerators in operation.

China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest waste producer since 2004. It generates a billion tons of waste every year. Local waste treatment and recycling facilities struggle to cope with the massive and growing amounts of garbage.

But Shanghai is determined to do something about it. Just this month, it introduced a stringent garbage sorting policy as part of efforts to recycle and reduce its waste.

It's a laudable start. But to match Sweden's success in waste management, China still has a long way to go.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 11

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist