Recycling and Waste management in Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm’s waste management should focus on climate smart choices and efficient logistics. Areas for waste management need to be integrated and shared with other activities where new housing, business premises, schools and roads are being built. Waste systems are to be secure, safe and accessible, at the same time as they encourage reuse and recovery.

Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. Recycling is a key component of modern waste reduction and is the third component of the “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” waste hierarchy. It promotes environmental sustainability by removing raw material input and redirecting waste output in the economic system.

In ideal implementations, recycling a material produces a fresh supply of the same material, this is often difficult or too expensive (compared with producing the same product from raw materials or other sources), so “recycling” of many products and materials involves their reuse in producing different materials.

In recent decades, waste management practices have made considerable progress. As more goals, policy instruments and measures have been introduced, public environmental awareness has increased. Waste is no longer seen as merely garbage, but as a valuable resource.

In Sweden, an important task is to identify obstacles and opportunities for more sustainable consumption and to correlate behaviour with waste management planning. Waste prevention, reuse and reparation are the primary measures when it comes to waste management. Waste affects everyone and households, as well as industry and municipalities, can contribute to decreasing the amount of waste and recycle and reuse the waste created.

History and Current situation
Sweden has a great achievements in waste management, setting an example for the rest of the world. Sweden has extensive and efficient waste management systems in place and municipal waste in landfills is almost non-existent. About 99,3 % of all household waste is recycled or recovered as energy, putting Sweden at the top in this area. Less than 1% of Sweden’s household waste ends up in landfills. Of the 4.4 million tons of household waste produced by the nation every year, 2.2 million are converted into energy by a process called waste-to-energy (WTE).

Sweden’s waste is treated in integrated systems and recycled as district heating, electricity, biogas, biofertilizer and materials. Different treatment methods are used depending on the nature of the waste so as to make it possible to use the waste as a resource. Incineration is a method ideally suited to waste that cannot be recycled in any other way. It is an efficient and environmentally safe method for recovering energy from waste, and provides both district heating and electricity in Sweden.

Before this process starts, home and business owners filter and separate the waste into hazardous wastes and recyclable material, which are then sent to different waste-management systems, like incinerators and recycling, and a small amount to landfills. Sweden has become so good at waste management that it imports nearly 800,000 tons of waste from countries like the UK, Norway, Italy, and Ireland to feed its 32 WTE plants.

By not wasting its waste and recycling 99% of it, Sweden is on its way to achieving zero waste, and sustainable energy by 2020. However, not all of the garbage that has gone through the classification and recycling process has been reused. In fact, the recycled and reused rate is only about 30%, and as much as 60% of the garbage that has undergone the classification and treatment process is finally sent to the garbage incineration power plant for treatment. Therefore, the high penetration rate of waste sorting does not mean the high recycled and reused rate of garbage collection.

Landfill and incineration
The rubbish was taken out to Lövsta rubbish station with the so-called ” Silver Arrow ” and put in a landfill or set on fire. Before the first garbage incinerator was built in 1907, pigs were allowed to roost and pick up the dumped garbage. In 1901, the city of Stockholm decided that it was best to burn the rubbish and they began to build the first waste incineration plant in the area. Six years later, it could be used at full capacity. The plant managed at most to burn 160 tons of garbage per day. This capacity soon proved to be insufficient and they had to burn rubbish in the open or dump it in a bay of Lake Mälaren, which was next to the plant. In 1931 alone, 80,000 tonnes of rubbish were dumped in Lake Mälaren.

As early as 1923, people therefore began to consider stopping dumping the waste in Lake Mälaren, and the plans for another incineration plant took shape. Various placement alternatives closer to Stockholm were reviewed and finally the City Council decided in 1936 to build a second waste incineration plant at Lövsta. In 1938, the new incineration plant No. 2 was inaugurated. The industrial building had been designed by architect Holger Blom in a distinct functionalist style.

Still in the 1960s, there was a large dump at Lövsta with swarms of gulls over it. In 1986, Lövstaverket was closed down. Nowadays, the former Mälarviken is completely filled in and a new shoreline was created, the old tip is a grassy hill and on the site of the plant is today (2010) the recycling center ÅVC Lövsta.

Högdalenverket was built in the years 1966 to 1970 according to drawings by architect Anders Berg as a waste incineration plant. District heating production began in 1979. In 2009, the plant has 6 boilers, 4 waste-fired boilers, 1 CFB boiler, and an oil boiler.

Sorting and recycling
As early as 1907, an early form of waste sorting was introduced. Household waste was to be divided into “manure rubbish” (food scraps, ash, flowers, fruits, etc.) and “rubbish rubbish” (paper, rags, sheet metal, glass, porcelain, etc.) The twofold division of household waste was abolished again in 1927. At Lövsta garbage station, around 1910, waste sorting began. Along the conveyor belt that carried the garbage from the railway wagons to the incinerators stood workers who picked out what was considered valuable as paper, rags, iron and glass.

In May 1975, the Swedish Parliament decided that raw materials should be used with restraint and that recycling of used material should be sought. In 1977, the municipality’s own company Stockholms Kommuns Avfallsförädling (SKAFAB) began operations. SKAFAB was later replaced by the Waste Management Administration in Stockholm since 2006 is part of the Traffic Office.

In 2007, Stockholm’s residents produced 237,000 tonnes of household waste. Of this, just over a third is estimated to be food waste. Today, almost all of Stockholm’s household waste is burned in incineration plants at Högdalenverket (inaugurated in 1970) in Högdalen and in the newly built Uppsala Block 5 (inaugurated in 2005) in Uppsala. The energy is converted there to district heating. But through digestion in special plants, the leftover food can also be used to produce biogas. Instead of sorting out food waste, there are currently ideas that through a waste grinderin the sink’s drains grind down, flush and send food residues via the sewage pipes to Stockholm Vatten’s treatment plants, where they can be turned into biogas.

Environmental stations and recycling centers
Today, waste that must not be thrown in the garbage bag must be sorted out and left at, among other places, environmental stations, recycling centers and recycling stations.
Environmental station is where households can leave hazardous waste such as batteries and fluorescent lamps. Environmental stations are located adjacent to some petrol stations and at the recycling centers.
The Recycling Center (ÅVC) is a staffed facility where private individuals can leave bulky and electrical waste as well as hazardous waste free of charge. There are five recycling centers in Stockholm municipality.
Recycling station (ÅVS) are green containers out on the town where households can leave paper, glass, plastic, packaging and newspapers. There are about 250 recycling stations around Stockholm.

Beyond recycling
The problem today is that many vital products are hard to dispose of. A new movement is gaining ground that seeks to ensure everything can be reused somehow.

The EU waste hierarchy forms the point of departure for the waste management plan. Compared with the past there will be more of a focus on preventing the production of waste and promoting reuse. Waste that is produced is to be recovered in the best possible manner; increased food waste collection is one of the main objectives of the waste plan for example. The waste management plan also addresses objectives and action to counter litter in the urban environment,in the city’s bodies of water and on its shoreline.

The waste management plan affects everyone who lives and works in Stockholm. We can all help in our own way to make waste management in the city work in the best possible fashion. Communication and cooperation initiatives can create the conditions needed for the commitment and effort required to fulfil the objectives of the waste management plan.

Circular economy is an approach that involves using products that can be reused completely, a so-called cradle-to-cradle approach. In 2018 the Swedish government even established a special advisory group, Delegationen för cirkulär ekonomi (the delegation for circular economy), to help make circular economy a key part of government policy.

Changing behaviours
At the forefront of this movement is a startup that sprang out of Stockholm’s buzzing design scene. Beteendelabbet, Swedish for ‘behaviour lab’, tries to find innovative solutions to sustainable living. Building on Sweden’s industrial design heritage and recruiting from Stockholm’s renowned design schools, the company has its sights set on transforming how Swedes live.

Repairs, recycling and research
In 2017 the Swedish government reformed the tax system so that people could get cheaper repairs on used items. Since 2020 H&M customers in Stockholm can have their unwanted garments transformed into new pieces of clothing through a garment-to-garment recycling system called Looop. The old garments are cleaned, shredded into fibres and spun into new yarn, which is then knitted into new fashion favourites. Meanwhile, researchers are working on finding new clothing materials that are less damaging to the environment.

One option is to sell them secondhand for those items that no longer want but still useful. Sweden has a lively loppis (flea market) culture. A lower effort option is to use a site like Sellpy, Blocket or Facebook Marketplace to advertise your old items.

As for items with a higher price tag, a better served finding specialised shops to take them in. Many bike shops will buy good quality secondhand bikes, for example, and some secondhand or vintage clothes shops will buy ld things. The same goes for antiques shops or used bookshops if the items of value to collectors.

One person’s trash is another’s treasure, so it’s always worth checking if someone can make use of old belongings before send them to landfill, even if they seem worthless.

The pant system
Sweden has long had a can and bottle deposit system that gives people money back when they recycle – since 1984 for aluminium cans, and since 1994 for plastic bottles. Each year Swedes recycle 1.8 billion bottles and cans that would otherwise be thrown away using the so-called pant system. It even has its own verb in Swedish, panta.

Doing the dirty work
Sweden’s reuse revolution would not be possible without those who do the literal dirty work of handling Sweden’s rubbish. The Swedish Waste Management Association works to facilitate the move towards a circular economy, where products are used for longer and in smarter ways. This includes motivating and guiding citizens and consumers to change their behaviour. But it’s also about providing the infrastructure needed for people to do the necessary sorting for themselves.

The increased threat of climate change has also led Sweden to use waste to power everything from buses to apartment heating systems. Rubbish is burnt in low-carbon incinerators and food waste is used to make climate-friendly biogas fuel.