One of the biggest culture shocks for me in Sweden has been waste disposal. Waste plays such a huge part in all of our lives every day. I’m not sure in the U.S. if we are aware of just how much waste we produce every day. According to Duke University, Americans produce an average of 4.3 pounds of waste a day. 55% of this waste goes to landfills compared to less than 1% in Sweden.
In Sweden, I am very much aware of every bit of waste I produce because I cannot simply throw it away. I have to think about what I am doing with that trash when I go to dispose of it. There are recycling centers everywhere: parks, fast food restaurants, schools, and apartment complexes. You are always within walking distance of a recycling center. These centers do not house just paper, plastic, and glass. Every recycling center, no matter if it is in my school or a park, has all of these options: combustible waste (things that don’t fall under any of the other categories), compost, plastic packaging, paper, metal packaging, cardboard, colored glass, and clear glass.
At first, sorting my trash was confusing and a little bit frustrating, especially before I knew the words for the categories in Swedish. Sometimes it is still difficult to choose how to sort my trash, but the idea is everything gets sorted. There is no general trash. Everything is recyclable in some way. This has changed the way I view waste. It feels wrong to call it trash/waste/disposables anymore. Nothing is waste. Everything has value from the banana peel to the tin can. Everything should be recycled. This has also broadened my definition of recyclables. Before, I defined recyclables as the money makers (the ones you get refunds for in some states): glass and some plastics and paper (if you wanted to do something nice for the planet since you don’t get a refund on it.) Now I believe that everything should be recycled because it can be recycled.
This proliferation of recycling centers makes it easy to not litter. There is always a place nearby to sort my trash. There is a lot less litter in parks and public areas as a result. Even restaurants have recycling centers. Swedish McDonald’s makes it easy to sort with their recycling center which labels the slots for compost, Happy Meal boxes, drink cups, and a drink sink.
My apartment complex has a very large recycling center since many people live here. On my floor, we take turns taking out the trash. The only really gross part of this is taking the disintegrating, dripping compost bag to the recycling center. Växjö supplies free paper bags to every resident to store and carry compost. With so many people living on my floor, that bag can get pretty gross, and I have had it rip and spill all over me twice when I was taking it downstairs. That bag can get pretty wet since garbage disposals are outlawed in Sweden. The Swedish government takes collecting compost seriously, and collecting compost puts less strain on the water treatment centers when there isn’t food matter going through the system according to my Swedish friends. Different cities have different methods of dealing with compost: some provide paper and some provide plastic bags. For people living in private homes in Växjö, a garbage truck comes by to pick up the compost, but home owners must take their recyclables to the recycling center themselves. In larger cities, trucks will pick up all waste.
The phenomenal part is what happens to the compost after I manage to get the sopping bag downstairs. The recycled compost is turned into biogas which fuels the city buses and heats the houses in winter. Solid sewage waste is also collected for this purpose. The Sandvik Energi Plant produces electricity for 29, 000 households, heat for 6, 500 households, and biogas for all of the cities buses, not to mention compost for farmers as well. This pushes Växjö towards its goal of being fossil fuel free by 2030.
One of the major questions I had before coming here was how did the city motivate its citizens to recycle and how can we apply those principles to the U.S.? I have been asking my local friends and doing some research. The locals attribute the change in attitude towards waste to pride in their city as a green city and a love for the natural environment. Researchers have attributed this change to wide support by all politicians in every political party, environmental education for children in all grade levels, information sessions for business owners and stock holders, and effective media coverage. Locals say that is was a gradual process with each town taking their own approach to recycling.
It does seem doable at least on the local level. When I return to the U.S., I will sort all of my waste because there is no reason to not recycle everything.