Why Don't We Burn Our Trash?

Sweden is able to recycle 99% of their trash, some of which they burn. Why isn't this practiced in the United States?

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Sweden has gained a great deal of attention for its approach to garbage--specifically, burning it. A mere one percent of trash in Sweden ends up going into a landfill. The rest is either recycled or burned for energy. By burning the disposed materials, plants generate steam and power turbines. In total, the country gets about 9 percent of its electricity from burning trash. It's become such a major energy source that Sweden actually imports some 700,000 tons of trash from mainland Europe to keep these fires lit.

What are the environmental benefits of burning trash? For one, it means less debris is going into landfills, which notoriously produce great amounts of methane. Methane is one of the major greenhouse gases, capable of trapping great amounts of heat and contributing to global warming. In the U.S., 18 percent of the methane produced by humans comes from landfills the microbes that feast on our garbage there. Burning trash is an effective way to reduce methane emissions drastically. While burning all this trash definitely creates a ton of carbon dioxide, proponents will quickly point out that this method is much more in line with the earth's carbon cycle-but that's a topic for another episode.

Still, there are some caveats when it comes to burning trash. Although it cuts down on the total amount of methane and other greenhouse gases, there are some toxic by-products, including sulfur dioxide, trace amounts of mercury, and dioxins. The U.S. has been less inclined to adopt trash burning because of these byproducts. It's also hard to convince people to live anywhere near a trash-burning site. Ultimately, the best tried and true practice we can all adopt is to reduce how much trash we produce as much as possible.

Learn More:
99 Per Cent Of Sweden's Garbage Is Now Recycled (The Huffington Post)
"There's a "recycling revolution" happening in Sweden - one that has pushed the country closer to zero waste than ever before. In fact, less than one per cent of Sweden's household garbage ends up in landfills today."

The sensible Swedes burn a lot of their garbage. Why can't we? (Slate)
"The Swedes generate a decent amount of garbage, just like everybody else-465 kilograms per capita of waste in 2010, or about 1,070 pounds per person. Aggressive recycling programs that hoover up about 50 percent of the country's waste have helped radically reduce the amount of junk going to landfills."

Energy Recovery from Waste (EPA)
"Energy recovery from waste is the conversion of non-recyclable waste materials into useable heat, electricity, or fuel through a variety of processes, including combustion, gasification, pyrolization, anaerobic digestion, and landfill gas recovery. This process is often called waste-to-energy."

Air Emissions & Clean Energy (EPA)
"Although municipal solid waste includes renewable resources, its use as a source of energy has been met with controversy."