by April McCarthy
September 4, 2014
McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active
role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and
There's a revolution happening in Sweden right now.
"recycling revolution," the Scandinavian country now recycles 99
percent of their garbage, edging closer to a zero-waste lifestyle,
Wouldn't it be great if no household waste was wasted?
If each and
every item of refuse was turned into something else - new products,
raw materials, gas or at least heat?
Sweden is almost there. More than 99 per cent of all household waste
is recycled in one way or another. This means that the country has
gone through something of a recycling revolution in the last
decades, considering that only 38 per cent of household waste was
recycled in 1975.
Sweden already imports roughly
800,000 tonnes of garbage per year from the U.K., Italy, Norway,
and Ireland to generate electricity and heating for the country's
32 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants.
Today, recycling stations are
no more than 300 meters from any residential area so Swedes can
make their own drop-offs.
In addition to environmental benefits,
recycling also has plenty of fiscal incentives, says Swedish Waste
Management communications director Anna-Carin Gripwell, in an
interview with the
Garbage has already become a commodity, and it
may someday be common practice to purchase waste as fuel for power
generation plants and vehicles.
Weine Wiqvist, CEO of the Swedish
Waste Management and Recycling
Association still thinks Swedes can do more, considering that about
half of all household waste is burnt, that is, turned into energy.
He explains that reusing materials or products means using less
energy to create a product, than burning one and making another from
‘We are trying to "move up the refuse ladder", as we say, from
burning to material recycling, by promoting recycling and working
with authorities', he says.
Meanwhile, Swedish households keep
separating their newspapers, plastic, metal, glass, electric
appliances, light bulbs and batteries.
Many municipalities also
encourage consumers to separate food waste. And all of this is
reused, recycled or composted.
Newspapers are turned into paper mass,
bottles are reused or melted into new items, plastic containers
become plastic raw material; food is composted and becomes soil or
biogas through a complex chemical process.
Rubbish trucks are often
run on recycled electricity or biogas. Wasted water is purified to
the extent of being potable.
Special rubbish trucks go around cities
and pick up electronics and hazardous waste such as chemicals.
Pharmacists accept leftover medicine. Swedes take their larger
waste, such as a used TV or broken furniture, to recycling centers
on the outskirts of the cities.
Corporations are also held accountable
to encourage and enable recycling for the public. Producers are
required by Swedish law to handle all costs relevant to the
collection, recycling, or appropriate disposal of their products.
if a beverage is sold in bottles, the financial responsibility is on
the producer of the product to pay for all costs related to
recycling or bottle disposal.
Trash-burning facilities in the United States
handle only a small portion of U.S. waste, and most of the
burned trash ends up in landfills, according to The New York
In just one example of U.S. waste,
Americans throw away nearly half of their food, costing roughly
$165 billion per year, according to a recent study by the Natural
Resources Defense Council.
Each of Us Can Promote Sustainability
Each of us can promote sustainability and justice at multiple
levels: as an individual, as a teacher or parent, a community
member, a national citizen, and as a global citizen.
As Annie says
in the film,
"the good thing about such an all pervasive problem is
that there are so many points of intervention."
That means that
there are lots and lots of places to plug in, to get involved, and
to make a difference.
There is no single simple thing to do, because
the set of problems we're addressing just isn't simple. But everyone
can make a difference, but the bigger your action the bigger the
difference you'll make.
Here are some ideas:
A great deal of the resources we use and the waste we create is
in the energy we consume.
Look for opportunities in your life to
significantly reduce energy use: drive less, fly less, turn off
lights, buy local seasonal food (food takes energy to grow,
package, store and transport), wear a sweater instead of turning
up the heat, use a clothesline instead of a dryer, vacation
closer to home, buy used or borrow things before buying new,
All these things save energy and save you money. And,
if you can switch to alternative energy by supporting a company
that sells green energy to the grid or by installing solar
panels on your home, bravo!
Per capita waste production in the U.S. just keeps growing.
There are hundreds of opportunities each day to nurture a Zero
Waste culture in your home, school, workplace, church,
community. This takes developing new habits which soon become
Use both sides of the paper, carry your own mugs
and shopping bags, get printer cartridges refilled instead of
replaced, compost food scraps, avoid bottled water and other
over packaged products, upgrade computers rather than buying new
ones, repair and mend rather than replace... the list is
The more we visibly engage in re-use over wasting, the
more we cultivate a new cultural norm, or actually, reclaim an
Talk to everyone about
At school, your
neighbors, in line at the supermarket, on the bus... A student
once asked Cesar Chavez how he organized.
He said, "First, I
talk to one person. Then I talk to another person." "No," said
the student, "how do you organize?" Chavez answered, "First I
talk to one person. Then I talk to another person." You get the
Talking about these issues raises awareness, builds
community and can inspire others to action.
Make Your Voice Heard
Write letters to the editor and submit articles to local press.
In the last two years, and especially with
Al Gore winning the Nobel
'Peace' Prize, the media has been forced to write about
As individuals, we can influence the media to
better represent other important issues as well.
Letters to the
editor are a great way to help newspaper readers make
connections they might not make without your help. Also local
papers are often willing to print book and film reviews,
interviews and articles by community members.
Let's get the
issues we care about in the news.
DeTox your body, DeTox
your home, and DeTox the Economy
Many of today's consumer products - from children's pajamas to
lipstick - contain toxic chemical additives that simply aren't
Research online (for example,
http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/) before you buy to be sure
you're not inadvertently introducing toxics into your home and
Then tell your friends about toxics in consumer products.
Together, ask the businesses why they're using toxic chemicals
without any warning labels. And ask your elected officials why
they are permitting this practice.
The European Union has
adopted strong policies that require toxics to be removed from
So, while our electronic gadgets and cosmetics
have toxics in them, people in Europe can buy the same things
toxics-free. Let's demand the same thing here.
toxics out of production at the source is the best way to ensure
they don't get into any home and body.
Unplug (the TV and
internet) and Plug In (the community)
The average person in the U.S. watches T.V. over 4 hours a day.
Four hours per day filled with messages about stuff we should
buy. That is four hours a day that could be spent with family,
friends and in our community.
On-line activism is a good start,
but spending time in face-to-face civic or community activities
strengthens the community and many studies show that a stronger
community is a source of social and logistical support, greater
security and happiness.
A strong community is also critical to
having a strong, active democracy.
Park your car and
walk... and when necessary MARCH!
Car-centric land use policies and life styles lead to more
greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel extraction, conversion of
agricultural and wild-lands to roads and parking lots.
less and walking more is good for the climate, the planet, your
health, and your wallet. But sometimes we don't have an option
to leave the car home because of inadequate bike lanes or public
Then, we may need to march, to join with
others to demand sustainable transportation options.
U.S. history, peaceful non-violent marches have played a
powerful role in raising awareness about issues, mobilizing
people, and sending messages to decision makers.
Change your lightbulbs... and
then, change your paradigm
Changing lightbulbs is quick and easy.
Energy 'efficient' lightbulbs use 75% less energy and last 10 times longer than
conventional ones. That's a no-brainer.
But changing lightbulbs
is just tinkering at the margins of a fundamentally flawed
system unless we also change our paradigm. A paradigm is a
collection of assumptions, concepts, believes and values that
together make up a community's way of viewing reality.
current paradigm dictates that more stuff is better, that
infinite economic growth is desirable and possible, and that
pollution is the price of progress.
To really turn things
around, we need to nurture a different paradigm based on the
values of sustainability, justice, health, and community.
trash... and, recycle your elected officials
Recycling saves energy and reduces both waste and the pressure
to harvest and mine new stuff.
Unfortunately, many cities still
don't have adequate recycling systems in place. In that case you
can usually find some recycling options in the phone book to
start recycling while you're pressuring your local government to
support recycling city-wide.
Also, many products - for example,
most electronics - are designed not to be recycled or contain
toxics so recycling is hazardous.
In these cases, we need to
lobby government to prohibit toxics in consumer products and to
enact Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws, as is
happening in Europe. EPR is a policy which holds producers
responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products, so that
electronics company who use toxics in their products, have to
take them back.
That is a great incentive for them to get the
Buy Green, Buy Fair,
Buy Local, Buy Used, and most importantly, Buy Less
Shopping is not the solution to the environmental problems we
currently face because the real changes we need just aren't for
sale in even the greenest shop.
But, when we do shop, we should
ensure our dollars support businesses that protect the
environment and worker rights. Look beyond vague claims on
packages like "all natural" to find hard facts.
Is it organic?
Is it free of super-toxic PVC plastic? When you can, buy
products from local stores, which keeps more of our hard earned
money in the community.
Buying used items keeps them out of the
trash and avoids the upstream waste created during extraction
But, buying less may be the best option of all.
Less pollution. Less Waste. Less time working to pay for the
stuff. Sometimes, less really is more.