2 Oct 2012

When Sweden Runs Out Of Rubbish

By Charles McPhedran
Sweden's waste-fueled power grid is so efficient it's run out of fuel. There's cash to be made importing rubbish - and a chance for organised crime to muscle in. Charles McPhedran on the rise of the ecomafia
While Northern Europe has secularised, and politicians rarely bring up religion in debate, echoes of the region's Protestant faith remain.

Take the Protestant-inflected insistence on saving, an article of faith for German conservatives. The consensus in François Hollande's Paris might be that "saving is ruining Europe", as one French journalist argued on the weekend, but Berlin continues to champion Max Weber's economics in The Protestant Ethic: namely, the idea that "man has a duty to his possessions" — that he must do all he can to hold onto what he has acquired.

The European debt crisis has offered Christian Democrats another opportunity to preach the virtues of savings. Angela Merkel, the "thrifty housewife", personifies the German tendency to champion saving over spending, wrote conservative German daily Die Welt back in February .

"Germany has become a consumer society, but not at the cost of saving," wrote one of the paper's leader writers. "The savings rate is remarkably constant, at 10 percent [of GDP]. Germany has never stopped promoting saving."

This penchant for frugal living, along with the growth in green politics, explains why recycling is such a popular pastime in Germany, and other parts of Northern Europe.

From a Sunday stroll through the flea market through to an intricate recycling program, which involves separating garbage into no less than five different categories, Germans adore recycling.

And so do Swedes, who were also protestant Lutherans by faith. Indeed, the ultra-efficient Swedish electricity grid, much of which is powered by domestic waste, has created a somewhat unique energy conundrum there of late.

Sweden, explains Belgium's Francophone public broadcaster RTBF, "is perhaps the only country on earth that has a shortage of rubbish".

So how did that happen? Well, whereas on average 38 percent of the rubbish that Europeans throw out ends up in landfill, in Sweden just one percent of domestic waste ends up on the scrapheap. Roughly half of Swedish trash is recycled or composted; the other half is turned into energy, RTBF reports.

That waste is burnt in incinerators, which power Swedish power or heating plants. The plants supply up to one in five Swedish homes every year with heat and 250,000 with electricity, says the Brussels broadcaster.

And that worked well for a while. But then energetic environmental programs led to a decrease in the amount of waste that Swedes were producing. Which inadvertently caused a problem — Sweden now needs to import trash.

"800,000 tonnes per year" are now being trucked in from other European countries, says Le Monde's environmental blog.

Most of that waste comes from neighbouring Norway, where running waste incinerators is considered too costly, says Le Monde. However, counters Algeria's El Watan, some of that waste originates in other European countries.

Now, the Algerian government is currently weighing introducing Swedish-style incinerators. And El Watan welcomes the idea. However, it cautions, authorities should take care and check the origins of the waste put into those incinerators:

"This spring ... 3000 tonnes of Neapolitan rubbish left lying around by garbage worker unions linked to the mafia were shipped via German rivers to Stockholm," where they were disposed of, the Francophone Algerian daily asserted.

(The Swedish power firm involved in importing trash from Naples has repeatedly denied doing business with the mafia. )

In Italy, where in Palermo and Naples piles of rubbish frame major roads, the mafia is gradually abandoning waste dumping, one of its traditional fronts, says anti-mafia journalist Lorenzo Bodrero in a recent article.

Unsightly piles of rubbish, and the damage they were doing to local residents' health attracted too much bad publicity, explains Bodrero. In some areas, such as in the "Valley of Death" in Naples' hinterland, rates of liver cancer were in some cases double the national average.

So instead of dumping that rubbish — often comprising ordinary trash mixed with toxic waste — the mafia are now "exporting it out" of Italy, Bodrero writes. And the green dons are getting involved in the recycling trade, too.

Italian environmental NGO Legambiente has christened those enviro-fixated Tony Sopranos the "ecomafia". A third of the mafia's gains now stem from agricultural and environmental scams. And those rubbish rackets are, surprisingly, one of the least common categories of ecomafia crimes.

Legambiente's 2012 report found that agricultural scams are the ecomafia's neatest little earner. These typically involve smuggling low quality food from elsewhere and labeling it "Made in Italy", or mixing low quality with high quality olive oil. Proceeds from agricultural rackets more than trebled between 2010 and 2011, writes Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

Agricultural scams were followed by commercially-motivated forest fires on Legambiente's list of environmental crimes, says the evening daily. Third on the list were crimes involving animals — such as trafficking of endangered species, fur, poaching and dog-fights. Meanwhile, trafficking of Italy's archeological patrimony was up significantly last year.

Yet the issue of waste dumping, popularised by Roberto Saviano in Gomorrah, remains synonymous with the ecomafia.

There are new calls for a thorough enquiry into the death of an Italian investigative journalist in Somalia nearly two decades ago, writes Estense, a newspaper serving Ferrara, a town near Bologna.

Journalist Ilaria Alpi and another employee of Italian news bulletin TG3 were murdered on assignment in Mogadishu, says the paper.

The two were investigating arms trafficking to Somalian warlords. But "it's now been proven that that the journalist had discovered ... agreements according to which waste could be disposed of by sending it off to the African underworld — in exchange for supplying arms".

An enquiry in 2006 concluded that investigative journalist Alpi's death was a result of a "holiday in Africa gone wrong" — and that "media hype" was behind reports about what she had found.

But investigative journalists cited by estense believe that enquiry didn't examine all the facts. And they are backed by at least one Italian lawmaker.

"There is much still to discover about the waste question," Alessandro Bratti from the Democratic Party said.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST:
It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it
but not always in English. And not surprisingly,ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories. 

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Olivier
Posted Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 14:57

I'd love to hear more on how they create energy from rubbish.
Is it polluting like coal, or toxic like nuclear, or clean?

Rose_whip
Posted Wednesday, July 17, 2013 - 17:38

This new initiative will sure be a great advantage to the country. Garbage will be lessen, while creating enough energy source. - David Contarino