Sweden turns trash into cash as EU seeks to curb dumping

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden has an unusual problem - not enough rubbish.

With a strong tradition of recycling and incinerating, it now has too many waste-to-energy incinerators and not enough rubbish to meet demand. It has become Europe’s biggest importer of trash from other countries, currently mainly from Norway.

But as the European Union seeks to reduce the dumping of 150 million tonnes of rubbish in huge landfills each year, Sweden sees a chance to import more waste from other EU states too.

“It sounds almost foul to be importing waste, but the import to Sweden is not a problem. The dumping in landfills abroad is a huge problem,” said Weine Wiqvist, head of trade association Swedish Waste Management.

Sweden is not the only EU country importing trash - Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands do too. Germany is the biggest in actual amounts, but as a share of rubbish burnt, Sweden is the leading importer.

Many European states need to find ways to quickly get away from waste landfill to comply with tougher EU waste handling regulations in a 2008 law.

Eastern Europe is currently the biggest landfill sinner, but Britain and Italy are among countries that also need to change to comply with the EU law and Sweden has already started importing from them.

Sweden last year imported around 850,000 tonnes of combustible waste, and was paid to do so. In all, it incinerated 5.5 million tonnes.

Energy and waste consultant Johan Sundberg at Profu said he estimated that based on announced plans for increased incineration capacity, Sweden’s waste imports will more than double to some 2 million tonnes in 2016.

Swedish imports of trash leaped in the late 2000s when waste supply from financial crisis-hit firms took a dive, leaving heat and power (CHP) plants and heating plants with spare capacity. More plants are under way.

“They have been built to be able to take on waste from other countries. It’s a strategy to replace other types of fuels with waste,” said Sundberg.

Burning other countries’ waste is kinder to the environment, experts say. Landfills cause a large share of global emissions of greenhouse gas methane.

“If you incinerate one tonne of Italian waste in Sweden you get 500 kg CO2 equivalent less emissions than if it is dumped in a landfill in Italy. That’s a substantial reduction,” Sundberg said.

Nearly none of Sweden’s combustible waste ends up in landfills. Half of it becomes fuel for producing district heating and electricity. The cold country is well-suited environment-wise for burning trash for energy.

Its many CHP plants, connected to a large district heating grid, capture up to 90 percent of the waste’s energy, much more than in pure electricity generation.

Reporting by Anna Ringstrom