An interesting video here from Journeyman pictures about Sweden and its policy of incineration. The Swedish banned landfills on environmental grounds back in 2005 and took to adopting stricter recycling policies, with the idea being that anything that couldn’t be recycled would instead be incinerated. Those incinerators not only generating electricity but also providing winter heating for towns and cities.
However, like everywhere else, Sweden has problems with its plastic waste. And while some portion is being recycled, quite a lot is finding its way into incinerators. The Swede’s claim that this counts as “recycling”. However, burning plastics is basically burning low grade fossil fuels. And as your supply of fuel is tied to the availability of fossil fuels, as well as all of the downstream carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel production, its not a practice that’s sustainable.
On the other hand, before we start trolling the swedes (and they have enough problems with trolls at the moment), it has to be said that incineration is better than land-filling of plastics. As I discussed before with regard to plastic waste, incineration is very much the least worse option compared to landfill. Not only do landfills create an awful stinking mess, but they will leach chemicals and methane (a potent greenhouse gas, many times worse than carbon dioxide) into the environment for decades. However the criticism is that incineration is providing the swede’s with an easy way out, a method to essentially fudge the issue.
What Sweden’s dilemma highlights is the problem with tackling plastic waste in a bottom up manner, rather than a top down approach. As I’ve mentioned before, the waste pyramid runs reduce, reuse, recycle, recover (i.e. incineration) and then and only then disposal. The trouble is for too long governments have got things back to front, they’ll chuck it all in a landfill…..until people complain, or watch the blue planet, and then they’ll ban landfills and start incineration. Then when its pointed out that, while an improvement it isn’t a sustainable solution, they’ll look at recycling, and so on.
Instead, we need to reverse the process. If there’s plastics entering the system that are difficult to recycle, then either that needs to be stopped, or a price needs to be put on that. If every plastic food container or cup cost a euro (which can be redeemed upon completion of recycling), people will bring their own or return it for recycling. Or some enterprising individual will go around and collect the stuff and find a way to reuse/recycling them. Similarly if you start to charge people by the kilo for disposing of non-recyclable waste, then so long as the price is high enough, people will start to recycle more.
Can’t we just ban plastics altogether? Easier said that done. It was recently pointed out to me that eliminating plastic containers would increase the rate of food spoilage, meaning any reduction in carbon emissions would be negated by the increased carbon emissions from food production. Oh and the cardboard alternatives to plastic (at least those used for frozen foods) sometimes aren’t recyclable either.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t just redesign those containers to make them either easier to recycle or reusable. Although that reusablity would require reverse logistics. Or use different types of plastic. As I discussed in my prior post on plastics, historically most plastics were derived from natural substances, making them not only more carbon neutral and more sustainable, but also in many cases biodegradable.
But what’s Sweden’s waste dilemma does show is that, while there are answers to the problem of plastic waste, there are no easy silver bullet solutions. Our handsomest politicians can’t fudge the issue with a little tweak here and there. But like so many things, if there was a easy quick fix, someone would have already implemented it. A fundamental shift in how waste is handled is needed. And as this is a global problem, it will require a global solution.