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What Wisconsin Could Learn From Sweden's Handling of Waste

Grace Heffernan
Recycling station at an apartment building in Hammarby Sjöstad."

According the the EPA, American's generate roughly 254 million tons of trash a year, approximately 35 percent of which is recycled or composted. Meanwhile, Sweden boasts that more than 99 percent of all household waste there is recycled.

Swedish native Veronica  Lundback arrived in Milwaukee in 2001 to attend graduate school at UWM. Back at home, conservation was a way of life.

“I grew up with infomercials on TV about water conservation and you take showers not baths, you turn of the lights when you leave the room, you don’t turn the heat up too much,” Lundback says.

Credit Susan Bence
Veronica Lundback

Sitting in her cozy apartment on Milwaukee’s northwest side, Lundback says those habits have stuck with her.

“Because as you can see I rely on natural light a lot, and Swedes like light – that’s why there’s no heavy covers over my windows,” Lundback says.

She has established a makeshift recycling system – a hodgebodge of cardboard boxes and plastic bags.

“There wasn’t much recycling going on and that was hard to get used to. So I think I was hoarding a bit at the beginning, because I couldn’t make myself throw things out,” Lundback says.

Back in Sweden, people don’t simply separate glass from plastic.

"Plastic, soft plastic, hard plastic, glass, colored glass, clear glass, paper, cardboard. All of those go in different things," Lundback says.

“Things” means bins. Their contents are funneled into larger collection stations.

“The apartment building I lived in Stockholm had all of that in the basement, some have it in the backyard and others have sort of a shed. If you don’t have that there are also stations, so you just take it there,” Lundback says.

According to Sweden's official website, “with its 32 incineration plants, Sweden is considered the world leader in the field of waste to energy.” In fact, Sweden does such a good job turning waste to energy, the country imports trash from countries including Norway and the United Kingdom.  

From time to time, Lundback leads UWM students to Sweden for summer immersion experience, including time spent in Stockholm.

“The main reaction is it’s so clean and the air is clean. And you know that we waste in Stockholm, the waste that they burn, which is also the waste that we import from Norway, is used for the district heat. But also they’ve also started collecting food waste which is turned into biofuel, so that is what the city buses run on,” Lundback says.

Back at her adopted home, Lundback says she sees evolving behavior on campus.

“More and more, and especially among my students just getting recycling habits on campus. Because it’s not hard to do. I remember my parents, I think it was in the 90s when we really started sorting garbage. There were grumblings, but they did it and then you get used to doing it,” Lundback says.

As Lundback points out, Sweden’s recycling revolution didn’t happen overnight. 

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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