By Waldemar Ingdahl (04/23/2003);
                      as reported in Swedish newspapers;Tech Central Station

Sweden has for a long time been a bastion of "green" ideology, and the EU and the rest of
the world has monitored Sweden's environmental policies closely for new ideas and
inspiration. One of the areas in which Sweden has been in the forefront is recycling,
particularly for household waste. Most Swedes have to carefully recycle and separate
their own waste for the refuse collectors on a daily basis. Even in the midst of winter, in
raging snowstorms, you can see people (even the elderly and infirm) dragging themselves
to the recycling stations with their household waste to perform the daily ritual of
separating cardboard from plastics and glass from biological waste. Household recycling
has been seen as a very important and highly advanced policy that both reduces
environmental problems and builds "awareness" and acceptance in the population for
environmental policies, as they can see how their own efforts improve the state of the
Later this spring the Swedish government will codify new legislation about waste
recycling and it is considering various options for new reforms. Earlier this year, the
previously tranquil debate suddenly blazed, when an article was written in the leading
morning newspaper, Dagens Nyheter. Its authors urged the government to reconsider
many previous policies in the pending new legislation. They argued that burning
cardboard, plastics and food leftovers is better for the environment and the economy than
The recommendation wasn't as surprising as who the authors were: Valfrid Paulsson, the
legendary former director-general of the government's environmental protection agency;
Soren Norrby, the former campaign manager for Keep Sweden Tidy; and K-G Mellbin,
Per Selberg and Lars Lofstedt, the former managing directors of the three major
waste-collection companies. Paulsson was one of the most influential voices in the
environmental debate back in the '60s and '70s when Sweden made its first environmental
policies. It certainly was a blow to the government's official policy that one of its
architects criticized it so significantly. The authors said in their article that the "vision of
a recycling market booming by 2010 was a dream 40 years ago and is still just a dream".
They added that incineration has an important role to play in the future. By quoting recent
research they pointed out that technological improvements have made incineration
cleaner and the process could be used to generate electricity, cutting dependency on oil.
They rejected collecting household cartons as very unprofitable and time-consuming.
Used bottles and glass cost glass companies twice as much as the raw materials, and
recycling plastics was uneconomical, they said. "Plastics are made from oil and can quite
simply be incinerated," they argued. Glass mixed with household waste improved the
quality of slag residue and could be used for landfill. Tin cans could be removed by
magnets and sent for recycling. They stressed, though, that the collection of dangerous
waste, such as batteries, electrical appliances, medicines, paint and chemicals, must be
further improved. Their final point was the controversial conclusion that protection of the
environment can mean economic sacrifices, but to maintain the credibility of
environmental politics the gains must be worth the sacrifice.
The reactions were massive from most of the establishment. The Swedish Environmental
Protection Agency stated that it completely disagreed with the views of its former
director-general, still stating that recycling is a better option than incineration. The Green
Party's spokeswoman accused Paulsson and the co-authors for misleading the public.
Many scientists and researchers at Swedish universities joined the debate by invoking
computer models of rapid increases in pollution from incineration, and urging the public
to continue recycling waste. Although most of the mainstream media followed the
criticisms of the establishment, the article elicited positive reactions from some debaters
and also the public, probably because its topic is close to the experiences of everyday life.
It is starting to become obvious for many in the public that the ubiquitous recycling
stations are an environmental hazard in themselves. They are a rather unbecoming sight
and the containers are not emptied regularly enough, so much of the waste lies directly on
the street. Thus many Swedish cities that formerly prided themselves on cleanliness have
actually become dirty. The populations of rats and other vermin are skyrocketing, and
part of the explanation is the ample supply of food that the ill-kept recycling stations are
providing them with. The recycling stations provide the public with a very direct,
easy-to-see example of Swedish environmental policies, and that example does not
exactly transmit the image of "environmentally friendly".
The authors have responded to much of the criticism in both television debates and new
articles in Dagens Nyheter, repeating their points that good environmental policies
require both sound economics and rational thinking. In fact, the debate has not been
concluded yet in Sweden while the news has spread around the world about a possible
change in direction of Sweden's environmental policies. So, will Valfrid Paulsson become
the Swedish skeptical environmentalist? Will the Swedish policies about waste recycling
change now, in a more economically sensible and reasonable direction? Many foreign
observers have hoped so.
There is, unfortunately, reason to doubt it, once one becomes more acquainted with the
nature of the Swedish institutions. Paulsson fails to see that he has a different
interpretation of the term "environment" than the present establishment. It is worth asking
whether it is possible to think of the environment in a non-political manner, as Paulsson
does. It seems that something happens to the concept of the "environment" once it moves
from the scientific to the social discourse. Instead of being an object that is scientifically
observed, the environment becomes an object of political discussion. This leads to the
subordination of the environment to political preoccupations, and to the abandonment of
an objective and neutral conception of it. And in Swedish politics the green ideology has
defined what views are to be considered "objective" and "neutral" for a long time. Those
definitions are not the same as Paulson's.
The present Swedish Environmental Protection Agency is a quite different administrative
body than the one Paulsson led as director-general. In many respects it has turned from
being an upholder of rules and regulations into a body that formulates goals for society to
achieve, and that tries to build public appreciation for the present policies. It is telling that
a present campaign from the agency about climate change and of the importance of
applying the Kyoto treaty has a budget that is as large as the amount approved for the
Euro-referendum in September. Paulsson and his colleagues have certainly put
environmental questions high up on the agenda in Sweden, but if those questions are to
remain there, and lead to changes in the present policy, a deeper discussion will be
Note by WTERT: WTERT believes that both recycling and Waste-to-Energy are important tools for
Integrated Waste Management, depending on cost of collection, properties of materials, and available
markets for the sorted materials. The problem is that some people by insisting on recycling non-recyclable
materials, they succeed in sending combustible materials to landfills. This was the case in NYC, as a 2001
stduy by the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University (C. Todd, May 2002) showed: It was found
that 85% of the plastics set aside by the citizens and collected at great cost by the City at the "recycling"
stations were bundled into big bales and were sent to landfills; yet these materials have nearly the same
value as fuel oil.

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