Published 2019-01-10

This post is also available in Swedish

New insights on Swedish waste from a European perspective

Nils Johansson was funded by Mistra Fellows to study the politics behind European waste management, at the Oeko Institute for Applied Ecology in Berlin.
His dominant conclusion was that Swedish waste management does not work as well as it should.

Mistra wants young researchers to gain an international outlook and in-depth understanding of European and international policy processes. This was why the Mistra Fellows programme was created.

One person who has seized the chance to go abroad as a Mistra Fellow is Nils Johansson of KTH Royal Institute of Technology, who has been working in the Mistra Closing the Loop programme. With a focus on waste issues relating to sewage sludge and bottom ash, he chose to work at the Institute for Applied Ecology (Oeko-Institut) in Berlin.

This period was both instructive and disturbing, not least because he realised that Swedish legislation and practice concerning disposal of residual waste are not as good as many people think.

‘When we talk about the circular economy, there’s a clash between the goals of a non-toxic environment and more recycling and recovery. The legislation on resources and risks is illogical, and lacks coherence and flexibility. The consequence of today’s waste policy is that we fail to achieve both goals,’ Johansson says.

To clarify what he means, he first points out that it is possible to use contaminated sludge as a fertiliser in parks with no restrictions on its contaminant content. On the other hand, waste-based filler materials that could be used in roadbuilding — in a setting that gets dirty — have to be very clean according to official requirements. In other words, waste is not used as a material in road construction, while spreading of sludge in our parks is unregulated.

‘The problem is that different laws on waste regulate its use in parks and roadbuilding. In several European countries, there is a consistent body of legislation ensuring that clean material is deposited in fields and parks, while higher degrees of contamination are accepted in locations that are already polluted.’

To Johansson, this situation was nothing new. But it became clearer when he found the time to investigate how other European countries manage the same problem.

‘The key difference is that it’s the origin of materials that determines the requirements for circulation of waste in Sweden. In contrast, most countries in western and central Europe don’t care where the material comes from. Instead, their regulations are based on how and where the materials are to be used. This allows them to steer clean materials to parks and other sensitive settings, and dirtier ones to more contaminated land, such as road areas.’

Johansson is not alone in seeing the illogical aspects of Sweden’s current system. The government agencies responsible, too, are in favour of the origin of recycled materials being less important and used on a larger scale.

‘When I talk to officials at ministries and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, they understand what I’m saying. At the same time, they’re investigating, on the Government’s behalf, how to shorten the process for getting environmental permits. That’s surely a good thing as such, but if nothing is done about the mistaken bases of waste policies the result may rather, speed up the rate at which we make mistakes.’

However, perfection is not the rule elsewhere in Europe either. In several countries in southern Europe, huge quantities of contaminated sludge are still being spread on arable land although it is what we in Sweden would regard as highly toxic. This is a worry for us too, since the sludge is used as fertiliser for growing vegetables that later find their way to Swedish shops.

‘I don’t think consumers are aware of this. Considering the high mobility on the market, it’s becoming increasingly important for waste issues to be resolved multilaterally as well.’

Other insights from Johansson’s period in Berlin include the perception that Germany’s organisational culture differs from Sweden’s.

‘German organisation, with its strict hierarchies, is not something I miss.’

Despite this clash of cultures, Johansson is very glad he took the opportunity to go to Berlin. And he recommends others to do the same.

‘Mistra Fellows is an excellent initiative. For me, it was also important that the family were able to accompany me, which Mistra helped me with in various ways.’

Facts — Mistra Fellows

The Mistra Fellows programme seeks to establish collaboration and boost exchange of knowledge between Mistra’s various research groups and international research organisations.

The plan is to give up to four researchers a year the opportunity to work for an international organisation, with a focus on policy issues.

The programme caters primarily for young researchers engaged in an existing Mistra programme. Through the initiative, each Fellow gets a chance to spend up to a year at a think tank or international organisation abroad, Europe or North America being the primary destinations.

Researchers who want to go abroad need to get their Mistra programme to make an application to Mistra. This must specify who the intended researcher is, which foreign institution (s)he has in mind as a base and what the programme and researcher are expected to achieve by means of the stay.

‘Our criteria for approving the award are that the researchers must be working in a high-priority subject and have a connection with one of our programmes. There must also be a need for information exchange between Mistra’s activities and the host institution, which is often some form of think tank,’ says Christopher Folkeson Welch, Programmes Director at Mistra.

Read a previous interview with Nils Johansson in a Mistra newsletter.

Nils Johansson’s report How can conflicts, complexities and uncertainties in a circular economy be handled?