Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

One Country's Trash is Another's Treasure: The Rise of Waste-to-Energy Programs

By Julia MalitsPublished February 18, 2015

Northern European countries, such as Norway and Sweden, have proven the immediate necessity of waste-to-energy programs. The waste-to-energy incinerators burn all sorts of waste in order to generate municipal and household heat and electricity. The demand for waste, however, has recently outstripped its supply in Nordic countries, forcing them to import waste from neighboring countries.

By Julia Malits, 2/18/15

At a time when 70% of deep-sea organisms are in direct contact with human trash, there is a definitive need to divert waste away from the seas and into renewable sources of energy. Norway and Sweden have pioneered this effort by becoming global leaders in the efficient implementation of waste-to-energy power plants. These sophisticated power plants collect and incinerate previously sorted waste of all types- household, municipal, industrial, even hazardous- as a means of generating heat and electricity for nearby cities and towns.

In Norway, for example, garbage-generated energy heats half the city of Oslo. Sweden, Norway's eastern neighbor, has likewise put waste-to-energy power plants to great use: 20 percent of the energy required for Sweden's district heating systems is generated by burning garbage in incinerators, as of 2012.  Further, waste-to-energy programs power a quarter of a million Swedish homes. And as the current leader in this front, Sweden recovers the most energy per ton of waste in these power plants.

The Nordic countries are not the only ones building waste-to-energy power plants. In fact, countries such as Germany and Japan are making considerable headway in setting up their own programs. Despite its recent popularity, however, this energy source has not seen as much use outside of Europe.

The environmental benefits of utilizing waste-to-energy power plants are quite substantial. In Sweden, for example, only 4 percent of waste is directed into landfills, while the remaining 96 percent is either recycled or converted into fuel in these incineration plants. The standards for limiting emissions from these waste incinerators, which were imposed in the mid 1980s, are strictly upheld and have enabled the waste incinerators to emit fewer greenhouse gases than if households were all individually heated. Even more so, improvements in technology and waste sorting have reduced the carbon emissions from these incinerators by 90 to 99 percent.

However, the most recent news lies not in the implementation of these programs but in their remarkable and transformative success, particularly in Sweden and Norway. These two Nordic countries have up-regulated their reliance on waste-to-energy power plants so much so that they are now facing a problem we rarely hear of: a shortage of waste. The countries' demand for waste has outstripped their domestic supply, and as a result, they are now forced to import waste from other European countries, such as Ireland, England, Bulgaria, Italy and Romania. According to Hege Rooth Olbergsveen, the senior adviser to Oslo's waste recovery program, "There's a European waste market-it's a commodity. It's a growing market." Several decades ago, few could have imagined that waste would one day be commodified. But with the rise in its utility as a source of energy, waste is now traded just as Arabian oil, Danish chocolate or Japanese automobiles are. According to a recent report, Sweden imports 800,000 tons of waste per year. And for many neighboring European countries, this newly founded, anything but wasteful trade is equally beneficial.

Italy, for example, is burdened with an overwhelming surplus of waste, which is slightly alleviated by its export to Sweden and Norway. Likewise, taxes on landfills in Britain have incentivized exporting their waste to countries that will accept it. The waste market, therefore, is a powerful mechanism by which Nordic countries can continue to power their cities with renewed energy while also reducing the amount of waste hitting a "dead end" in European landfills.

Despite these environmental benefits, the new waste market is only a short-term solution to sustainable waste management. As administrators in the Swedish EPA explain, the top priority must ultimately be to reduce the amount of waste humans generate. Secondarily, waste management agencies must redirect the waste humans have already generated into renewable avenues. Waste-to-energy programs also have imperfections. In the process of incinerating waste, the plants release dioxins and heavy metals, which are serious environmental pollutants, in the ashes of the waste byproduct. Another problem with waste-to-energy programs is that they inadvertently increase the demand for waste. Nonetheless, waste-to-energy programs are an efficient means of handling large excesses of waste, and are a good temporary solution to our waste problems.