(when you can’t refuse, reduce or reuse)

When you’re thinking about reducing your waste, recycling usually goes down the priority list while you’re busy refusing, reducing and reusing. However, not all of us are able to follow the zero-waste Rs to a one-jar-of-trash-a-year extent and to a point where we don’t have anything to throw away. There’s likely to be some trash in your home, even if it is less, so then the recycling step comes into action. But how much do you know about what should go in which bin? And do you know what happens to the contents of the bin once it gets collected? 

In Sweden we have one of the most sophisticated waste management systems in the world, but knowing what material belongs in what recycling bin still gets confusing, especially with mixed-material packaging like milk cartons. It’s even more confusing if you’re new to Sweden and used to another country’s sorting system, like Germany for example where there is one bin for cans, plastic and drink cartons (nope, in Germany cartons don’t go in the cardboard bin!). Even in Sweden there can be slightly different rules in different municipalities, so the best thing is to check your local municipality website where you can usually find a sorting guide. We’re concentrating on how it looks in Malmö, since that’s where we are. 

The household recycling system in Sweden is managed by the packaging and newspaper association (Förpacknings och Tidningsinsamlingen), and is governed by an extended producer responsibility system, where packaging producers must pay a fee towards the collection and recycling of waste. In this way the waste burden is not put solely on the local government, but on the companies that produce the waste. In Sweden each person produces 473kg of household waste per year*. That then gets treated in various ways – 33.8% is recycled and some materials are turned into like products again, or downcycled such as plastic bottles which after a certain amount of recycling are used to make plant pots or refuse bags. 15.5% is biologically treated, this is food and organic waste that goes through anaerobic treatment and is converted into biogas, which is used to run the busses and garbage trucks, and bio fertiliser to be used in agriculture, cool right! 50.2% goes to waste-to-energy/incineration, this is residual waste** plus items diverted from recycling due to non-recyclability and is a process that produces heat for homes and electricity for the plant itself***Just 0.5% goes into landfill.  It is estimated that 60% of waste in the residual bin could have been diverted from incineration and recycled. For plastic recycling the official figure is that 48% of what is sorted and collected is recycled. However, an independent report commissioned by Naturvårdsverket (the Swedish Environmental Agency), found that the actual amount is closer to 26% once you account for plastics that can’t be recycled and losses during sorting. So, reducing your plastic consumption is the best action, and for everything else, recycle. 

Just 27% of private houses in Sweden have their own full set of sorting bins, so what you can’t sort at home needs to be taken to an “återvinningsstation” located on curbsides. Most apartment buildings have access to sorting with separate bins for plastics, cardboard, glass, metal, food and residual waste. This might sound straight forward, but there are still some items that cause confusion, which usually mistakenly end up in the residual bin for burning. Here are some of the things we think are most tricky to know what to do with:

Tetra paks: Tetra Paks, or similar liquid cartons, are constructed of six layers of material, four of plastic, one aluminium and one cardboard. The majority is card, so they go in the cardboard bin and then the material parts are separated during the recycling process. The lid goes in plastics. 

Drinking glasses: If you smash a drinking glass, where do you put the pieces? Not in the glass recycling! Nope, the glass is a different quality than glass used in packaging as it is made to be more durable and can contain materials that contaminate the recycling process. So it goes in the residual waste.

Margarine tubs: They look like plastic, they feel like plastic, but they are not entirely plastic. Most margarine tubs should be put in the cardboard recycling and the lids in plastic, but check the small print on the carton as it can be different depending on the brand. 

Toothbrushes: Again, pretty plastic looking, right. But they have to go in the residual waste as they are non-recyclable. If you use a bamboo or wooden toothbrush these should also go in the residual waste as they are too hard for the organic/food waste to break down. 

Food waste: In the food waste bin obviously. However, in Skåne you can’t put your food waste in a plastic bag, not even a biodegradable plastic bag, as it contaminates the organic material. Paper bags only!

Plant waste: Old flowers or potting soil goes in the residual waste not the food waste as plants often have chemicals on them that mess with the food waste. 

Plastic bottles and drinks cans: Save them up and take them to a “pantautomat”, which you can find in most supermarkets. You get your deposit back, plus you help to make the recycling process much more efficient. (And remember not to crush the cans or bottles or the machine won’t accept them).

Large items: Take them to a larger recycling center.

Electronics: Electronics are also managed by a producer responsibility system, so they can be taken back to a larger electronics store or to a recycling center (but think about trying to get it fixed before you give up on your electronics).

To wash or not to wash?: How clean do your food containers have to be before sorting? They just need to be emptied, they don’t need to be washed.


Find out more:

In Skåne, our waste is processed by Sysav and they recently made a great quiz to test your sorting and packaging-material knowledge. Have a go and see how much you know!

A great resource site for recycling tips and advice. 

Search for an item and it tells you how to dispose of it.

*All figures are from Avfall Sverige, 2019, Swedish Waste Management 2018
**Residual waste means anything that can’t be recycled. In Swedish it is referred to as restavfall or brännbart.
***There is a lot that can be said about the merits and criticisms of burning trash, but that’s for another post – we’re just talking about sorting here.
Image: Freepic