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Lessons From Trashing My Waste in Sweden

Updated: May 29

I have focused on my thesis leaving me with little time but I thought I write something about trashing your waste in Sweden. That should be pretty easy since my research is on plastic bags, so it works all the same. Living in Sweden is fascinating in the way that everything works perfectly you would think there are no errors anywhere. Before coming to Sweden, I have read so much about Sweden and you would think certain things are overhyped, but the reality is even better in many cases. The system is impeccable and it continues to amaze me.


Sweden has mastered the art of recycling (This is not news), it would seem like they have zero trash because almost everything is recycled. Recycling is a big part of waste management in Sweden and sorting your trash is a culture on its own, even school children grow into that lifestyle. I did a short video on recycling within the Swedish Panta system, you can watch my YouTube video on PET recycling here. The Panta system is common in Sweden as you would see labels on many PET bottles giving you an idea of how much you get back when you take an empty PET bottle to the machine. The recycling pant tradition goes far back as “1984 for aluminum cans, and since 1994 for plastic bottles”.

Uppsala Vatten“In Sweden we have a recycling deposit system based on having small deposits on bottles and cans. By returning your bottles/cans and “panta” them at the local supermarket we get great recycling of bottles and cans which saves large amounts of energy and resources. The amount of 1-2 kr per bottle might seem like a small amount, but when you start collecting them you can get quite a bit of money in the end”.

Data from the Swedish EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) gives “beyond expectation” figures for 2018 vs 2020 recycling targets as:

Infographics on Swedish recycling goals and achievement

The 99% recycling headline about Sweden has been debunked as mostly incineration but that does not mean you can’t give the country credit for the top-notch waste management system. As a Nigerian, I cannot be out here arguing when I know how much we have to do with our municipal waste management systems. I also understand the issue of greenwashing, the deliberate use of misleading language in documents, labels, and advertisements in the age of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by governments and companies could mean the reality is far from what you read (a story for another day). However, I am writing this based on my own lived experience, and what I see is commendable.


Now about trashing your waste, you will realize if you live in Sweden long enough how sorting your trash promotes and sustains the recycling system built within the waste management system. Every municipality has a waste sorting and management system that is effectively managed by the agency. In Uppsala where I live, Uppsala Vatten is the government agency that manages any form of waste and recycling. The system is so effective, that the organization’s website has information that can educate newcomers to the county on how to sort their waste. There are annual reports on targets and achievements which is made available to the public. The amount of effort and resources that go into public enlightenment says a lot about the success achieved. The agency recently distributed paper bags and little plastic buckets to encourage students to sort food waste and reduce the cost of recycling. Sorting your trash personally saves the agency time and precious resources in achieving the overall goal of a sustainable city plan.


What i love about sorting your trash in Sweden is how much the citizens are involved. There is a willingness to sort their trash, it is common in households, offices and public spaces to see the different colors of dustbins with labels on what sort of trash you should throw in a particular dustbin. Nobody needs to harass you or police you, people are willing collaborators. This approach to trash sorting means relying on punitive measures to get the public involved in something as huge as waste management is not always effective.

Interestingly, there are dustbins everywhere….you cannot claim that you did not sort your refuse because there are no dustbins and even though some people still litter the streets with cigarette butts, overall, Sweden is doing amazingly well with waste management. You hardly find dustbins that are overflowing with trash, the trash truck will be there long before you know it (this too, is a big factor in better waste management). It will be unfair to compare Nigeria with the whole of Sweden but at the municipal level (local governments and state levels), Nigeria can do better. A willing public works like magic and that can be achieved with a lot of targeted public enlightenment and engagement. This inherent mindset that Nigerians cannot behave unless they use brutal force and punishment will continue to be met with resistance.

For example, the recent plastic bag prohibition bill which has already been passed by the lower house of the Nigeria legislative arm is an example of something being dead on arrival. I will have more details on that after my research is completed (Fingers crossed). The use of the right nudges can make governance easier because once people can trust that you have their best interest, they will cooperate. In Sweden, people queue for everything and even the COVID -19 vaccines are done in batches. People wait for their turn, nobody ever thinks they will miss out because I am last on the line, this is the same way, people sort their trash because they feel they are contributing to something big.


The question now is what other options do we have? What can learn from countries doing it right? how can that be designed to fit within our context? (I don’t mean copy and paste). Citizens must understand how their sorting of trash at home can become a part of the big picture and this can only be achieved if people with the right knowledge and expertise contribute to policies at all levels. The government should look for the right people and have them draw a workable plan that can be implemented, not some lofty, over-the-top designs that will cost so much but something fitting well within the complexity of a particular Nigerian society/city/community.

For example, in the case of the yearly flooding in Lagos during the rainy seasons, when someone empties their dustbin inside the gutter during heavy rainfall, they are probably doing so out of ignorance because they are not seeing the big picture of how that ends up blocking the drainage and the expressway everyone uses. They cannot understand how the poor trash behaviors of someone in Egbeda can affect someone in Oshodi during flooding or how what happens in Agege becomes a big environmental problem in Ikeja. These are some of the issues at the root causes of flooding in Lagos putting pressure on already weak drainage systems.

The public must be willing and their cooperation will do wondersSweden is very clean and it is not an exaggeration

As it is now, it is no longer about proper refuse disposal, sorting your trash is another step higher. Since coming to Sweden, I have understood in practical terms the importance of sorting your trash and I imagine how that becomes an effective massive collective behavior of many residents in overall waste management. The bigger picture means we can understand how our behavior can make a huge difference.

I have also seen first hand living in Sweden how public enlightenment can help leaders achieve compliance with the use of zero force. These things are doable, they are possible. No, It is not rocket science!

Do you sort your trash?

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