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Transforming trash into treasure, the Swedish way

Sweden has to import trash to keep its recycling plants running. Thanks to its revolutionary waste management, 52 per cent of its waste is converted into energy and 47 per cent is recycled. Only 1 per cent goes to landfills!

Transforming trash into treasure, the Swedish way


Archana Singh

It’s a crisp summer morning on the west coast of Sweden and Palle Stenberg, the co-founder of Gothenburg-based Nudie Jeans, is getting ready to start his day. Besides his daily chores, Palle has voluntarily taken the additional responsibility of being a local guide to Dan, his friend and business partner, who is visiting from Australia. Around 6:30 am they are ready to hit the road but not before Stenberg has done the most important job of the day, a job that he has been doing every single day without fail for decades. He picks up the neatly segregated packs of the waste — paper, plastic, glass, metal, and biodegradable waste. He puts them into their respective recycling centres, some 300 metres away from his home. Dan is blown away by Palle’s commitment to waste management. And, so am I.

Cut to September 2019. I am attending the Adventure Travel World Summit in Gothenburg, the Swedish city that has been voted the most sustainable destination in the world for four years in a row. While adventure is my main motive to visit, my mind wanders off to catch another story unfolding in front of my eyes that has made the Scandinavian nation a champion of recycling. Sweden is so ahead of the curve; it has run out of trash, and for several years, it has been importing garbage from other countries to keep its recycling plants running. Only less than 1 per cent of Sweden’s trash is sent to landfills. The rest is either converted into energy (52 per cent)  or gets recycled (47 per cent). The power generated from waste provides heating to one million homes and electricity to 250,000.

Recycling centres are within 300m from residential buildings

Intrigued to know more, I embark on a journey to demystify Sweden’s secret of turning trash into treasure. My story takes me to more than a dozen of different stakeholders — from waste management companies, tourism boards, manufacturers to locals at large. And this is what I found.

First-mover advantage

Sweden was quick to realise that the scarcity of non-renewable resources and climate change will become irreversible trends in the future. Therefore, it started looking for sustainable alternatives early on. Starting in the mid-20th century, it laid the foundation of the Recycling Revolution when it began investing in converting waste to energy. Its investment paid off when not only it reduced its reliance on fossil fuels but also brought down its carbon footprint. The greenhouse gas emissions in Sweden are projected to fall by 76 per cent by 2020 as compared to levels in 1990.

However, this did not happen overnight. Katarina Thorstensson, the Sustainability Strategist at Gothenburg & Company, explains, “Where Sweden and Gothenburg are today, is a result of many years of environmental work on a national and local level. And, in some way, it’s a cultural thing. We care about people and planet, and therefore every Swede is conscious about efficiently using the resources. We actively reduce, reuse and recycle resources.” Moreover, credit must be given to the Swedish government for bringing together all the stakeholders, creating a collaborative environment and bringing a behavioural change in its citizens — from a will to recycle to actually doing it.

Early start

Swedish government realised that for a long-term sustainable solution to their waste management problem, they’ll have to educate kids about environmental issues and sustainability from early on. In school, children were taught to recycle, making it a way of life in Swedish communities. Teachers underwent specialised training to engage children in practical activities like making their own paper or inculcating reduce-reuse-recycle habits. My 41-year-old native Swede friend Kicki Lind recalls her childhood days. “Keeping nature clean is in our blood. I grew up with the “Keep Nature Tidy” campaign and back in school, a lot of emphases was on why and how we must make sure never to leave any trash behind. And, if someone did leave by mistake, we were taught to pick up their trash,” says Lind.

Environment education was then supported by strict regulations, policies, structures and developing a robust infrastructure for people to be able to sort waste and recycle. Even today the Swedish government levies higher waste tariffs on unsorted waste and provides almost free waste tariffs for bio-waste.

Easy to recycle

Sweden would not have been able to turn its trash into treasure if it had not made recycling easy, accessible and convenient. A recycling station can be found as close as 300 metres from any residential area. Every household segregates their waste —newspaper, plastic, metal, glass, lightbulbs, and batteries. For larger items such as furniture or electronics, Swedes go to specialised recycling centres outside cities.

Beyond recycling

Today a new movement — circular economy — is gaining ground in Sweden that motivates people to reuse everything. They use products for longer, and in smarter ways. For example, instead of tossing spare medicines in the bin, 43 per cent of Swedes give their unused medication back to pharmacists.

Nudie Jeans, an organically manufactured denim brand. Photos by Simon Paulin and Margareta Bloom

As I walked through the city centre of Gothenburg, I stumbled upon many different stores reinventing fashion through a collaborative approach, reducing waste and selling second-hand clothes. It was here I discovered Nudie Jeans, the world’s only 100 per cent organically manufactured denim brand that comes with a lifetime repair warranty and buy-back option. They are the first ones to introduce the concept of coolness and sustainability in a denim brand.

Another store that is doing a great job in reducing waste in the industry and within their own company is a designer brand called Atacac. They have pioneered a new way of pattern making, using the 3D modelling and other technologies to reinvent the design, production and selling process. Shop manager Hannah Holden gave me the insider scoop on their company philosophy, “We aim to design something that isn’t just a trend. There is no reason to throw something away that is always amazing. Like a leather jacket or other classic styles, you have them forever because they always look good.” During my conversations, I found a common thread across — Swedes care for the planet more than their profits and are ready to partner with anyone willing to walk the path.

Lessons India can learn from Sweden

India generates about 62 million tonnes of trash per annum, of which less than 60 per cent is collected and only 15 per cent processed. It’s high time India took some strong actions; otherwise, we will sink in our own garbage! While it might be a little tight for India to be where Sweden currently is due to high illiteracy, population, poverty and reluctance from the top, it’s not impossible.

Firstly, the government should learn from Sweden’s success and come up with strict policies, and develop a robust infrastructure to propagate the ‘circular economy’ model for minimising waste and ensuring maximum recycling.

Secondly, for efficient waste management, proper segregation of waste should be ensured in households and institutions before being sent to recycling plants. Rag pickers can be utilised to sort waste.

Thirdly, recycling should be made convenient by constructing recycling centres near every locality to process different kinds of waste.

Fourthly, community participation would play a key role in bringing a behavioural change. Therefore, incentive-based schemes should be launched to promote recycling.

Finally, the most fundamental change India should bring about is

to actively promote environmental education in schools from an early age about reduce, reuse and recycle, which would then become a part of their DNA.

If India can do these five things, we will not only have Swachh Bharat but will also get rid of many other problems. For instance, recovering just 15 per cent of daily waste can provide employment to about 500,000 rag-pickers and could provide electricity for nearly two million homes.


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