Within the framework of the Days of Sweden, Voronezh was visited by Ronny Arnberg, one of the leading Swedish waste management experts and the Project Manager of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute. In an exclusive interview with RIA Voronezh, Ronny Arnberg told what Sweden had accomplished in the environmental field since the 1970s, how the country manages to send less than 1% of garbage to landfills, why it accepts waste from other countries and whether Greta Thunberg will save the world.
– Sweden probably was not always so well-meaning – sorting waste, using recycled energy. When did everything change? What contributed to this?
– It all started around the late 1970s when we decided to change our central heating system in order to reduce the dependence on the oil industry and the import of petroleum products. We realized that a large amount of garbage was being sent to a landfill and we needed to do something about it. We decided to build factories that would burn garbage, thereby generating energy, and to earn money by selling electricity and heat. At first, almost all of the garbage produced by the citizens of Sweden was mixed. It was not separated, we burnt it and used the energy in the central heating system. But in the 1980s, a movement emerged to make our life and our behavior more responsible and environmentally friendly. Moreover, this desire arose simultaneously among ordinary Swedes and among businessmen and politicians. We all started to pay attention to the issue of garbage. In 1991, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency issued a recommendation to municipalities to prepare a five-year waste management plan. In 1993, the Borlänge Municipality, where I come from, was the first in Sweden to sort 100% of its waste.
It was a very large-scale project: it required working out the educational aspect, promotion and, of course, completely changing the entire technological base. We also had to conduct an audit of all landfills in the country and figure out what to do with them. In the mid-1990s, several industry-aimed laws were issued. For example, one of them provided for the liability of manufacturers of packaged goods for the further disposal of the packaging. Since the 1960s, the Swedes paid on the garbage removal and disposal taxes, and the new system was supposed to be more cost-effective, to reduce taxes so that people would commit to it. The Media played a big role in it: every day all over the television news and newspapers there were materials about how harmful garbage was for the environment and what each individual could do to improve the situation. In doing so, we decided not to present all this information in the form of boring white sheets with a lot of text that no one would read.
We came up with an entire campaign – jingles on the radio, colorful commercials on the TV. One of the campaigns addressed the education of supermarket and gas station employees. It was called Buy/Act Greener. In Swedish, the word handla means both “act” and “buy,” so this was a pun. The essence of the campaign was that we trained sellers to tell customers how to shop more environmentally friendly. We decided to go "from the bottom up". After all, what takes five seconds for a buyer can take five years for a government. The choice in favor of more eco-friendly products must be made by people themselves in order to change the scenario with their demand. And politicians would need much more time to change it legislatively.
When we burn garbage, about 30% of what is produced is electricity and 70% is steam which is immediately sent into the central heating system. There are now 40 energy-producing garbage incineration plants in Sweden. In per-capita terms, this number is the largest in the world.
In 2001, the Swedish government issued a law banning the allocation of garbage in landfills. It raised the landfill tax, making it unprofitable for everyone. After that, the amount of garbage that was ending up in landfills decreased drastically. In 2005, it was completely forbidden to bring organic waste to landfills. At the same time, waste processing began to develop more actively, as did the incineration of garbage for energy production. These industries are not in conflict with each other but grow in parallel. At the same time, organic waste processing stations were introduced - with the production of biofuels - and a more active introduction of biofuels instead of petroleum products in public transport began.
We also found that 0.5% of garbage is hazardous waste like batteries, light bulbs, paints and nail polishes. But this 0.5 % provided 90% of the damage caused by this waste in landfills and during incineration. The so-called red boxes were introduced - all citizens of Sweden put hazardous waste in them at home, after which they are collected centrally and disposed of in accordance with very strict rules. We also realized that it was not possible to have recycling centers for all waste in each municipality, which are sometimes very small in Sweden. This is why we have developed regional waste management plans that distribute waste between different cities. In one region, garbage is burned for energy production, another one recycles, for example, glass, and so on.
Throughout Sweden, there are 6 thousand household waste reception stations located mainly near supermarkets. Metal, plastic, glass and paper packages can be turned in in any city and in almost any district. Bulky and hazardous waste is collected from citizens centrally.
Today, we send to landfills 0.4% of all the waste with which nothing can be done, such as sand or ceramics. About 50% are burned for energy production. 30-35% are processed – they are used to make new things. Everything else is an organic waste, from which biogas is produced. Moreover, the latter is a combination of organic waste from private homes and restaurants with wastewater treatment products. 100% of public transport in Stockholm travels on biofuels. By 2030, Sweden plans to completely switch all vehicles to renewable energy sources. This is a new challenge for all of us - to rebuild the entire system without taking account of the interests of the oil industry.
Our main goal is educating the population at all levels. We start with kindergarten - themed games and classes are held there for children. Recently, we have built a park where children ride electric cars, and at each station, they are told about the advantages of such vehicles. And when children return home, they tell their dads that they need to change the car because the old one does a lot of environmental damage. This is a more sensible and effective effect on people than through laws and recommendations.
– In Russia, now is the period when people collecting garbage separately are considered rather odd. For example, in the comments under the text about such a girl there were such sayings as “If she had a husband and children, she would not have time for such nonsense”. Was it the same in Sweden?
– Yes, we also had “champions” who were the first to advance these ideas. But the state began to build all its projects around these people. We realized that they were right at the moment. Of course, among them were radical adherents of eco-ideas. But while 10% of the population can have their own composters at home, everyone else needs a ready-made and operational centralized system. Now we have separate rules for people who want to somehow recycle and dispose of their waste on their own. They can file an application to the municipality so that their garbage is not collected. But this is also not easy - they have to fill out a lot of documents about what kind of equipment they have, how exactly they plan to get rid of waste. That’s because if you do it wrong, you can do more harm than good.
– Is it possible to change this attitude to eco-friendly people – as if they are weird?
– Sweden can be called a happy country in this regard. We had a general movement towards a more environmentally friendly life. In addition, the Swedes realized that such a lifestyle is more advantageous economically. In Sweden, it all started not with laws but with recommendations on waste sorting issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. And the rest came from the citizens themselves - they themselves wanted to do it, and they themselves forced the state to adopt the laws in this area.
– Does it mean that the key is in education?
– Yes. I always say that investments made in the construction of factories should be equal to investments in educating people in this field and promoting these ideas. Of course, after World War II, our democracy and economy were in a state that allowed us to do all this. In a way, we were privileged. But the most important thing is education. After all, it is so simple. You have a glass bottle. Firstly, you can reuse it up to hundreds of times. Secondly, if you turn it in for processing, it can be smelted almost endlessly. Reusing saves up to 95% of the energy that could have been spent on the production of new containers. You just have to think about what we want to spend natural resources and our own money on: on buying a new bottle, which we’ll just throw out after using it or, for example, on traveling. People need to understand this benefit.
– Is the system with the production of energy through the incineration of garbage relevant for a country with significant oil and gas reserves such as Russia? Or sooner or later, even such countries will have to switch to renewable energy?
– I think that such a strong dependence on the oil industry has its own problems. Now Russia has signed 17 UN sustainable development goals, and in any case, it will have to think about how to reduce the exhaust damage and switch to another fuel. For example, many Russian cities have trolleybuses. If energy-producing waste incineration plants were to be built here, it would be possible to produce electricity for such vehicles. This is an example of a circular economy. Now almost all of the electricity in Russia is produced by factories using petroleum products. Such decisions must be made at the top, by the government. Of course, this is a serious matter and a major overhaul of the entire system. But Russia has very good engineers, and their number is much more than ours. Their knowledge and skills will allow creating maybe even a better system than the Swedish one.
– In recent months, the world has been stirred up by the news that Sweden has run out of garbage and is ready to buy it from other countries. Is it that good that the country has to buy someone else's trash? This, after all, indicates that certain production capacities lack the resources for work.
– Sweden does not buy garbage, it’s the other way around. The countries themselves pay us to collect their waste. Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom pay approximately 70-80 euros per ton of garbage that they export to Sweden for recycling. In these countries, there are only two options: either throw the garbage out to a landfill or send it to Sweden, which can offer them the best environmental solution. Now, these countries are developing their own waste management strategies. If at some point they stop sending their garbage to Sweden, we will launch another system into operation. Instead of the waste that we don’t have, we will burn wood chips - the remnants of the forest industry. We developed this mechanism a long time ago, then we switched to garbage burning, but if necessary, we can always return to burning the “green gold”. Yes, there is a certain underload to provide this whole system, but we have a plan. Currently, we make money from exporting garbage from other countries, and the advantage is that thanks to this, the negative impact on the environment in Europe is decreasing.
– Do waste incinerators really not harm the environment with their emissions?
– Of all the possible waste management systems, such as biogas production, landfills, and everything else, incinerators are the most controllable. They have the most stringent emission standards and measurements that are made every hour. As soon as some norms are exceeded, the plant stops. In Russia, almost all garbage is stored in landfills. For comparison, five days of an uncontrolled landfill fire are equivalent to 120 years of operation of one of our plants in terms of emissions. If we take the number of emissions from all the transport in Stockholm as 100%, then emissions from four medium and one large waste incineration plant around the city will be less than 1%. And 40 years ago we did not check and did not control these emissions. But people thought about it, expressed their displeasure, and this forced the authorities to monitor the emissions and clean them.
– Even in such an ecologically advanced country as Sweden, young activist Greta Thunberg has appeared, who is unhappy with the actions of the authorities regarding the protection of the environment. How do you evaluate her activity?– Даже в такой продвинутой с точки зрения экологии стране, как Швеция, появилась юная активистка Грета Тунберг, которая недовольна действиями властей относительно защиты окружающей среды. Как вы оцениваете ее деятельность?
– She's a true champion. A year ago, no one knew her, but today she is more popular than Barack Obama and the Beatles. She initiated many important actions. I’m impressed: she’s only 16, she posts something in her social networks almost every hour, and, of course, she has become an influencer that inspires a lot of people around the world. But at the same time, sometimes she goes too far. For example, traveling by train instead of flying by plane to reduce your carbon footprint may not be the best solution. After all, almost all of the electricity that trains run on is produced by plants that operate on petroleum products and coal.
– Can her work change the world?
– In addition to Greta, there are also Greenpeace and other people and organizations that promote these ideas. They inspire, start a dialogue, make others think. Scientists do not like Greta because they develop real solutions to problems but do not appear in the press, and she does not develop anything but takes away all the glory with her speeches. But the main thing is that everyone seems to have understood: the climate has really changed and something needs to be done. Greta's speeches have contributed to this as well. In general, the modern generation of young people, whose main media are social networks, is able to launch big changes with their own voices. Recently, Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov spent several days in Sweden, and I think that thanks to him, many in Russia will also start thinking about these issues.
– Will the mankind and the planet be saved by the radical measures that eco-activists are calling for or by a balanced strategic approach?
– I think it should be a combination. Activists have weight and contribute to decision-making. People are increasingly realizing that they can protest and their voices will be heard. For example, in Arkhangelsk, people were able to ensure that the construction of a landfill was frozen. Going all vegan is not an option. But we all need to become more responsible.