Sweden is so good at recycling that, for several years, it has imported rubbish from other countries to keep its recycling plants going. Less than 1 per cent of Swedish household waste was sent to landfill last year or any year since 2011.
The UK can only dream of such an effective system, which is why it ends up paying expensive transport costs to send rubbish to be recycled overseas rather than paying fines to send it to landfill under The Landfill Tax of 1996.
The UK has made strides in the proportion of waste recycled under an EU target of 50 per cent by 2020. This has underpinned hundreds of millions of pounds of investment into recycling facilities and energy recovery plants in the UK, creating many jobs. We’re not quite at that target yet. Recycling in the UK peaked at around 45 per cent of all waste in 2014.
Since then, provisional figures from the ONS have shown that figure has dropped to 44 per cent as austerity has resulted in budget cuts. The decision to leave the EU could be about to make this situation worse. While Europe is aiming for a 65 per cent recycling target by 2030, the UK may be about to fall even further behind its green neighbours.
Why is the UKsending waste to Sweden? The Sweden system is so far ahead because of a culture of looking after the environment. Sweden was one of the first countries to implement a heavy tax on fossil fuels in 1991 and now sources almost half its electricity from renewables.
Over time, Sweden has implemented a cohesive national recycling policy so that even though private companies undertake most of the business of importing and burning waste, the energy goes into a national heating network to heat homes through the freezing Swedish winter.
Sweden’s heating network is not without its detractors. They argue that the country is dodging real recycling by sending waste to be incinerated. Paper plant managers say that wood fibre can be used up to six times before it becomes dust. If Sweden burns paper before that point it is exhausting the potential for true recycling and replacing used paper with fresh raw material.
Swedish municipalities are individually investing in futuristic waste collection techniques, like automated vacuum systems in residential blocks, removing the need for collection transport, and underground container systems that free up road space and get rid of any smells.
In the UK, each local authority has its own system, making it difficult for residents to be confident about what they can recycle and where. Local authorities will often start by recycling the highest volume materials because they are measured according to the proportion of waste recycled, so bigger items count for more. “Whatever we end up with in the UK, we need a system which collects all recyclable materials rather than cherry-picking the easiest and cheapest,” says Richard Hands, chief executive of ACE UK, the drink carton industry’s trade association.
And what will Sweden do if the UK stops sending it rubbish to feed its heating system?
Ms Gripwall says the Swedes will not freeze – they have biofuels ready to substitute for our exported waste.