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Learning How They Talk Trash In Sweden

China has stopped importing foreign garbage – and that’s caused problems in places like Oregon, Washington and Alaska. They’ve been shipping their recyclables to China, and now all that plastic and paper is going to West coast landfills – which in a weird sort of way, reminds me of Sweden.

My family and I spent last year in my wife’s hometown of Stockholm - a booming metropolis that still retains its natural beauty. And one of the biggest differences between here and there is the way they manage their garbage.

Our residence last year was typically smaller than homes in the U.S., but we’re a family of four who eat, live and work much the same way no matter where we are. So we were surprised that our weekly trash in Stockholm was far less than what we discarded in Burlington.

In Vermont, our one large trash bin would be anywhere from half-filled to overflowing each week – in addition to our two small blue recycling bins of newspapers and assorted plastic and cardboard that the city of Burlington carted away. In Stockholm, we threw away just one small bag of trash a week – but instead we tossed two or three bags of organic waste that Stockholm County collected and turned into bio-diesel to run the public buses.

As for recycling, large neighborhood collection bins were located near our apartment building for plastics, paper products, and newspapers. Other bins were for recycling metal and glass, and there was even a bin for reusable clothes and shoes. And ours wasn’t some ultra-progressive neighborhood; this is standard Swedish practice.

A 2017 government report estimates that less than 1% of Swedish trash ends up in landfills. 49% of waste is turned into energy products, while 35% is recycled, including plastic, paper and metals. 8% of organic waste is turned into energy while another 8% is turned into compost. Sweden actually imports garbage from the EU that it turns into energy.

In Vermont 65% of our annual refuse ends up in the landfill, while we recycle, compost or reuse only about 35%. And considering that China won’t clean up after our neighbors to the west any more, maybe it’s a good time to rethink the whole trashy topic.

How the Swedes manage their garbage says a lot about their society. And personally I love riding on city buses knowing they run on my potato and carrot peels.


Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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