How Sweden is Kicking the Rest of the World’s A!$ When It Comes to Sustainability

Written by Julia Hoffman, ESLLC 2016-2017

Don’t get me wrong, America is a pretty cool place and I am extraordinarily lucky to have been born in such a “prosperous” country. However, when it comes to sustainable efforts there isn’t anywhere in the world quite like Sweden. From policy to patron participation to implication, Sweden is doing a pretty darn good job. If sustainability were a race, Sweden would be lapping all other countries and probably just go grab a coffee and then come back and finish the race before anybody else even had a chance. There are many, many, many, things the people of Sweden are doing to promote sustainability throughout their country. From wide scale policy change to the individual mindset of the inhabitants, things are changing over there and it’s time for the US to start playing catch up.

One thing Sweden specializes in is the prominence of renewable energy. . Sweden has the highest percentage of renewable energy in the EU. With over 52% of energy in Sweden coming from renewable sources, it’s no wonder Sweden spends the least amount of money of any country on energy production; most of this energy comes from hydropower. According to the Swedish Energy Agency’s predictions, that share can be boosted to 55% by 2020.


In 1995, Sweden became one of the first countries in the world to initiate a carbon tax. The tax is placed on companies that burn car­bon-intensive fuels such as oil and natural gas. Since its implication, the tax has heavily cut down Sweden’s depend­ency on fossil fuels. In 2012, Sweden’s environmentally relat­ed tax revenue was 2.52% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), compared with the OECD average of 1.54%.Through instituting a carbon tax, Sweden found a cost-effective way to lessen CO2 emissions as well as motivate people to seek out more sustainable energy sources.

Sweden also has a much more effective way of reducing and reusing. Swedish people produce about the same amount of waste per year as any other European country but, less than 1% of trash ends up in landfills: this because of the waste-to-energy plants that have been set up all around the country. These plants burn over two million tons of trash annually! (That’s almost 50% of the waste produced by the country).

As the name suggests, the garbage doesn’t go to waste but is used to generate energy. WTE plants contain huge incinerators for the trash. As it’s burnt, steam is produced that spins generator turbines which produce electricity. This energy is then transferred to transmission lines and distributed across the country by a grid. WTE plants provide close to a million homes with heating and over a quarter of a million homes with electricity. So not only is it reducing the amount of trash that ends up in landfills, but it also helps to reduce Sweden’s reliance on fossil fuels. The two million tons of waste incinerated each year produces around 670,000 tons worth of fuel oil energy. Sweden even helps to clean up other countries in the EU by importing their trash and burning it.

Many people think that this process is harmful to the environment because they think it will release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. However, over the years Sweden has significantly improved the process and the byproducts are cleaned up, meaning that only a tiny amount of dioxins are dispersed into the atmosphere (which is significantly better than all the CO2 emitted into the air by the burning of fossil fuel in other countries).

One last key factor that makes Sweden so much more eco-friendly than basically everywhere else is the fact that its citizens are genuinely passionate about sustainability. In Sweden it is very common for people to make “green” choices. A study by the European Commission found that 40% of Swedes have purchased eco-labeled food and consumer products in one month, higher than the European average. Swedes are also super conscientious about recycling beverage containers: 88% of all aluminum cans are recycled in Sweden which is significantly higher than the 60% of can we recycle here in the US.

Swedish people are also really good about recycling clothes too. The market for used clothing has steadily grown in Sweden over the last few years. Vintage fashion has become such a huge trend that established chains are actually competing with small vintage boutiques that sell second-hand items.

In general, people in Sweden just care a lot more and as a result, air pollution in Sweden is at 10.2 micrograms per cubic meter, compared with the average of 20.1 in other rival countries. Sweden is taking a step into the future of sustainability. The question now remains… when are we gonna start trying to catch up?


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