Don't waste your waste

This quote represents Swedish waste management system, which I am going to tell you in the following text.

So, about two weeks ago, on May 4, I joined a field trip that held by a student group for their course project in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science (LUMES). I knew the event from Zahra, an Indonesian student who studies that programme. Zahra and her friends run this project as an assignment for one of her courses. The idea of this project is to connect the academic and wider stakeholders and apply the theory into practice. For this purpose, her group contacted the SYSAV, the waste management company to have a company visit. According to her group, the information is also important for the international students who come from various countries and background. They believe that international students also want to know more about the Swedish waste management system and take a lesson learned from this country and share their experience in their countries of origin. The visit itself is free of charge because the SYSAV provides the company visit program as part of their responsibility.

A short introduction about the SYSAV; it is a public-owned company, run by the Skåne municipality. It is a non-profit company. However, it tries to self-sustained. It applies what people call as an eco-cycle perspective. It manages all the collected wastes, recycle those wastes and generates heats for whole Municipalities and sells the recycled waste when it is possible. Even, they import the wastes from London. So, it gets more advantages. First, importing waste means generating more resources to produce electricity and heat for people in the municipality. Second, it also means income generation from the Brit’s government actually pays to get rid of its own waste. So, this import is a win-win solution for both governments.

Then, the question what did make the system in Sweden work while on the other part of the world, even for the other developed countries such as America or other European countries this program is not happening? According to the SYSAV’s representative (someone with Nilsson as his last name, sorry to forget his name), the Swedish government enforced its regulation in the 1970s to ban landfill from its citizens’ waste. After that, people tried to find an innovative way to manage their wastes. The government itself build the super fancy waste management facilities throughout the country. He argues as long as there are money and political support, it can work. In this point, I do agree.

On the other hand, reflecting back to developing countries, for instance, this super eco-cycle and sustainable waste managements are hard to occur in the short time. First, the developing countries have countless problems in their economic life. According to the SYSAV, to build one of four lines of the sustainable plant for a waste processing like the SYSAV, it needs about 2 billion SEK (or approximately 250 million USD). You can imagine how expensive it is to build the whole company. For the developing countries, the investment is jus too much. The governments in the third world will put greater concern to other things that urgently need to be solved before they can even think about sustainable waste management. For instance, the governments focus on the high poverty rate, unemployment, income insecurity, you name it. Thus, currently, as long as they can minimise their investment and get the highest return, they will definitely choose that option.

Second, no political will from the authorities to impose this kind of policy is also the hinder to put people’s attention on the waste management issue. Obviously, waste management is not ‘politically sexy’, I can say. Thus, none of the politicians put their attention and money to campaign about waste. Who will care? Nobody, I can argue. So, why do they need to spend their money on it? In less and least developed countries, the public put their thought more into an economic security rather than waste management. It actually goes back to the first reason. Thus, there is no point for most of the politician to convince the public to vote for them based on this issue. It will not work out to win the election using this issue.

In the 1920s, average waste per person in Sweden was 30 kg. Moreover, guess, how much is the average waste person now? Data from the European Commission (EU), in 2014, a Swede had 438 kg waste per year (EC, 2016). It has been increased dramatically, indeed. Nonetheless, does it reflect a high number? The answer depends on the comparison country, of course. If we compare to, let say to Indonesia, who has an average per person about 250 kg (Jong, 2015) or to average Sub-Saharan Africa countries with average 0.65 kg/day per capita or about 237 kg (WB, 2012), the number is higher of course. However, if we compare the Swede to Danish with an average per year is 759 kg, for instance, the number is just nothing (EC, 2016).

The above numbers clearly show how an economic in a country influences the number of waste generation for its citizen. Back then in the 1920s, Sweden was still poor. The country did not have much money to spend, nor its citizens. However, after the industrial revolution in the mid-1900s, the country has been continuously growing so well and become one of the top wealthy countries in the world. The growth rate of its consumption has been following the economic growth. More money implies more spendings. It directly means on more waste generation activities though people do not realise they actually they bought the waste with their consumptions. For instance, Nillson gave an example of a mobile phone. When it is already obsolete, people will throw it and look for another one. The waste for discarding of one mobile phone is perhaps only 100 grammes. Nevertheless, this number does not represent the actual waste generated per person. Do not you actually think when we buy a thing like mobile phone; we also bought its waste for its production.

Hence, let’s make it more clear and detail. To have an iPhone, for instance, we need many materials, such as copper, glass, aluminium, silicon, gold and much more. In order to get these materials, mining companies need to do exploration to dig hole in the earth; the materials need to be processed and not all parts can be used. So, the companies may throw the waste ones. Moreover, the costs for digging holes in the earth is much more than even you can calculate. Not to mention the transportation cost, the fuel needed to operate the factories and much more. Thus, the average number per person does not fully represent the real number of waste generated.

I believe many people aware of it, but they do not do anything. They try to blame others. I am not saying I am not part of this person. Indeed, I am. It is hard, I can say. A simple example, for women, in general, to reduce their clothes shopping is such a difficult thing to do. While, we as a woman aware more clothes mean more production, more waste generated but we cannot stop ourself to stop to buy a new one. Another example, I know many people aware that meat and dairy products’ productions contribute to global warming. Yet, do they reduce their meat or dairy products? I do not think so. They have many excuses to justify what they are doing. In this case, I have been trying to reduce my meat intake. I do not do it intentionally to contribute less to global warming, honestly. I do it for my personal health reason. If I can avoid meat intake, I opt for that option.

Evidently, we need more innovation to manage the waste in our lovely earth. Otherwise, the current civilisation in this earth will be missing in the near future. The innovative idea such as a plastic bottle village by Robert Bezeu is incredibly useful innovation (see more on this link: Plastic Bottle Village). This can be a short-term solution, for sure. The hierarchy starts with the proper disposal with a minimum of landfill disposal. It is followed by energy recovery. The next step to recycle so the waste becomes useful. It can much more efficient if we can reuse what we have already. The highest is to reduce the consumption of course so that no waste will be generated. This plastic bottle village is already on fourth place in the hierarchy.

Furthermore, if we can reflect and contemplate in ourself, the best one is actually to reduce our consumption. Be mindful of our consumption means aware of the number of waste generated by our consumption. The more mindful we are, the more we realise to reduce our non-necessary consumption. By so doing, it does not only for the outer self but also for the inner self to reduce our greediness and live more content and grateful for what we already have. Don’t you think live that way is much happier? If you agree, we can take a little step to remind ourself and it will be so impactful, we can spread out the message to our circle.

Moreover, if the political system supports the waste management effectively, there will be a way to reduce the consumption. In Sweden, for instance, with the library card, people can borrow a screwdriver rather than buy it because perhaps you only use it for once in a while. Don’t you think this simple idea is really effective to reduce people’s consumption? If each of us can think a very simple and practical thing, it is definitely will reduce the earth carrying capacity.

So, let's be mindful with our consumption. And, long live, Earth! Long live! :)

Lund, May 17, 2016



EC (European Commission). (2016). Municipal waste statistics. The European Commision., accessed: 2016–05–10.

Jong, H. N. (2015). Indonesia in state of waste emergency. The Jakarta Post., accessed: 2016–05–10.