Sweden, a zero-trash heaven

Archana Singh | Updated on March 27, 2020 Published on March 27, 2020

Neat deal: Less than 1 per cent of trash makes it to landfills in Sweden   -  simon paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

Reduce, reuse, recycle: Sweden impresses a traveller with its zero-trash mantra

Through undulating landscapes steeped in natural and cultural history, I set out on a 13-km guided hike on the Pilgrimsleden trail, which is about 90 minutes north-east of Gothenburg, in western Sweden, by road. I am accompanied by Josefin Nilsson, who works as a nature guide at a visitor centre called Naturum Hornborgam. Passing through the lush countryside, we come across the ruins of one of Sweden’s oldest churches as well as one of Europe’s most important lakes for breeding and migratory birds.

Throughout the trek, the changing landscape keeps my camera busy, but there is something else that catches my attention. Despite hundreds of trekkers tramping down the trail, not a single piece of trash can be seen anywhere and, quite strangely, almost every hiker I spot carries a specific kind of a backpack --- rectangular and in bright colours. What’s with the backpack, I ask Nilsson.

“Oh, you are talking about Fjällräven Kanken. It is made from 95 per cent recycled material like pet bottles,” she replies.

She shares the deep bond that Swedes have with nature and how they choose products that have minimum impact on the environment.

I spend the next two weeks in Sweden learning more about the country’s sustainable development success story. I find out that Sweden has been importing trash from other countries. And the best part is, only less than 1 per cent of trash makes it to landfills. Fifty-two per cent is converted into energy, and 47 per cent is recycled. The power generated from waste heats one million homes and provides electricity to 250,000 households.

Eager to know more, I reach out to government officials, business heads, tourism boards and locals. I start with my friend Kicki Lind, a Gothenburg native and writer. The meeting venue she chooses further reinforces the fact that sustainable living is a conscious choice Swedes make every day. We meet at Taverna Averna, an organic, Krav (Eco) certified restaurant that grows vegetables on the roof.

Lind says the Swedish government was quick to recognise that people’s attitude towards sustainable development could only be influenced when educated about the environment from an early age. It started teaching kids in school about the importance of keeping nature clean. Several public campaigns and projects such as litter-picking days and clean-up coast were launched, while teachers underwent training to make environment education fun and action-oriented.

Remembering her childhood days in the ’80s, Lind says, “We grew up with ‘Keep Nature Tidy’ campaign that promoted recycling, and educated us never to leave any litter behind. And even if someone else did, we were taught to clean it up.”

Strict rules then supplemented environment education, and clear policies with well-defined structures and a robust infrastructure were put in place to make people sort waste and recycle it. Furthermore, Sweden started looking beyond non-renewable resources and made significant investments in sustainable alternatives. In the mid-20th century, the foundation of the recycling revolution was laid when the Nordic nation started converting waste into energy. Not only did it reduce Sweden’s dependence on fossil fuels but also brought down its carbon footprint.

However, the trash-to-treasure transformation did not happen overnight. Katarina Thorstensson, a sustainability strategist, credits the consistent and collaborative effort put in by the government, policymakers, businesses and locals for decades. Recycling became a default choice because it was made easy, accessible and convenient for everyone. Recycling stations sprouted everywhere — as close as 300 metres from any residential area — and every household started segregating and dumping waste systematically. There were separate bins and recycling plants for paper, plastic, metal, glass, light bulbs and batteries. For larger items such as furniture or electronics, recycling centres were set up outside cities.

Forward march

Today a new movement — circular economy — has caught the imagination of the Swedes. It encourages people to reuse everything from food, medicines, clothing and gadgets for longer duration and in smarter ways. For example, an app called Karma is trying to minimise food wastage by connecting surplus food from restaurants and stores to consumers for a lower price. It’s a win-win situation for both: Users get to eat great food for less and businesses receive an additional revenue stream. Similarly, 43 per cent of unused medicines are returned to the pharmacists instead of being thrown into a bin.

Apparel brands are changing the rules of the fashion industry in Sweden through a collaborative and creative approach. Copying is no longer looked down upon and using second-hand products make you look environmentally conscious. As a result, you find many second-hand chain stores such as Myrona, Stadsmissionen, Emmaus and Beyond Retro, throughout Sweden.

One store I fall in love with is Nudie Jeans, which claims to be the world’s only 100 per cent organically manufactured denim brand. In a fashion-obsessed world that idolises use-and-throw culture, Nudie Jeans has created a niche for itself by offering a lifetime repair warranty and buy-back option.

Across all my interactions, I find a common thread: Sustainability and recycling are not just buzz words in Sweden but a way of life.

Archana Singh is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Published on March 27, 2020

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