Heroes

Sweden has a weird but awesome problem: They're running out of trash.

Garbage is a perennial problem, but Sweden's found a way to put their garbage to work.

I'm always a little surprised by how quickly my trash can fills up.

Unfortunately, this is a common situation. According to Duke University's Center for Sustainability & Commerce, the average American creates 4.3 pounds of waste a day. Nationwide, that's 220 million tons of trash per year! And about 55% of that ends up in landfills.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.


Landfills can be a problem, too: Contaminants can leach into groundwater, and landfills produce about 22% of our methane emissions (methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change), according to the Duke center. Granted, newer ones are much better and come with things like liners and gas collectors, but we're still filling them up pretty quickly.

Sweden doesn't have this problem, though.

The Swedes figured out something important: You don't have to dump trash in a landfill. You can put that garbage to work instead.

Inside a waste-to-energy plant in Sweden. Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.

Sweden built 32 waste-to-energy plants that burn garbage, providing heat and electricity to surrounding towns. According to the Swedish government, the plants heat about 810,000 homes and provide electricity to 250,000 more. That must be nice, considering Sweden can get pretty chilly during the winter.

But at the same time, Sweden's also really good at keeping things out of the trash in the first place. They just straight-up recycle about half their stuff. There are special trucks that pick up used electronics, and even the stuff sent to the plants get sorted first.

A recycling center in Sweden. Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.

All of this has led to a funny problem: Right now, Sweden doesn't have enough trash.

They're actually importing trash from other countries — about 800,000 tons of it in 2014. And the other countries are paying Sweden to take the garbage off their hands, so ... win-win.

It's not piles of money, but it might be just as good. Photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images.

Of course, there's some nuance here. The waste plants are burning stuff, after all, so it does produce some carbon dioxide and pollution, but the plants are designed to minimize this. There's also the argument that we should be focusing more on reducing our consumption in the first place instead of trying to deal with the collateral.

There could be some point in the future where nobody has trash to burn. Still, Sweden says they've got that version of the future covered: They'll switch to biofuels.

So there are still potential snags, but this is a problem that would be kind of great for every country to have.

By the way, America hasn't exactly been slouching when it comes to waste-to-energy plants, which is good news. As of 2014, we had 84 of them, according to the Energy Recovery Council. We're 33 times larger than Sweden, and we only recycle about a third of our garbage (compared to Sweden's about half), so maybe we shouldn't get cocky just yet. But still, we're on our way.

Garbage is a serious problem, and there isn't always going to be an easy solution.

But programs like this show how a little smart thinking can put our problems to work.