“As a Swede I get to hear a lot of the myths of how wonderful a country Sweden supposedly is – the ‘prosperous socialism‘ it stands for, a role model for the rest of the world. For instance, quite a few friends from around the world have commended me on Swedish recycling polices and the Swedish government’s take on coercive environmentalism.
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So what do you do with your waste? Most homes have a number of trash bins for different kinds of trash: batteries in one; biodegradables in one; wood in one; colored glass in one, other glass in another; aluminum in one, other metals in another; newspapers in one, hard paper in another, and paper that doesn’t fit these two categories in a third; and plastic of all sorts in another collection of bins. The materials generally have to be cleaned before thrown away – milk cartons with milk in them cannot be recycled just as metal cans cannot have too much of the paper labels left.
The people of Sweden are thus forced to clean their trash before carefully separating different kinds of materials. This is the future, they say, and it is supposedly good for the environment.
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Their first measure was to redesign all containers so that it is more difficult throwing the ‘wrong’ trash in them. For instance, containers for glass have only small, round holes where you put your bottles, and containers for hard paper and carton materials have only letter-slit shaped holes (you need to flatten all boxes before recycling – that’s the law).
Well, that didn’t do the trick. People kept on cheating. And the more difficult the authorities made it to cheat, the more difficult it was to get rid of the trash even if you intended to put it in the right place. So people went to these centers and simply put everything next to the containers instead – why bother? The authorities responded by appointing salaried ‘trash collection center spies’ (!) to document who was cheating so that they could be brought to justice. (There have actually been a few court cases where people have been tried for not following recycling laws.)
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The structure works the way all centrally planned structures work: it increases and centralizes power while the attempted (expected) results do not materialize. In this case, the structure works: people do sort their trash in different bins – they have no choice. Also, government garbage collection companies do not have to do as much work while getting paid more than ever before.
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What is interesting about this Soviet-style planned recycling is that it is officially profitable. It is supposed to be resource efficient, since recycling of the materials is less energy-consuming than, for instance, mining or the production of paper from wood. It is also economically profitable, since the government actually generates revenues from selling recycled materials and products made in the recycling process. The final recycling process costs less than is earned from selling the recycled products.
However, this is common government logic: it is “energy saving” simply because government does not count the time and energy used by nine million people cleaning and sorting their trash. Government authorities and researchers have reached the conclusion that the cost of (a) the water and electricity used for cleaning household trash, (b) transportation from trash collection centers, and (c) the final recycling process is actually less than would be necessary to produce these materials from scratch. Of course, they don’t count the literally millions of times people drive to the recycling centers to empty their trash bins; neither do they count, for instance, energy and costs for the extra housing space required for a dozen extra trash bins in every home.
Economically, Swedish recycling is a disaster. Imagine a whole population spending time and money cleaning their garbage and driving it around the neighborhood rather than working or investing in a productive market! According to the government’s books, more money flows in than flows out; therefore recycling is profitable. But this ignores the costs of coercion.
. . . people’s garbage piles up next to the overflowing containers while the government contractors sit idle: they are only paid to empty the containers on schedule, not to pick up the trash sitting next to these containers. The result? Disease and rats. Newspapers have been reporting on a ‘rat invasion’ in Stockholm and in other Swedish cities in recent years.
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Interestingly enough, the system is too socialist even for Sweden’s number one socialist newspaper, Aftonbladet. In an op-ed on January 4, 2002, Lena Askling wrote on the public garbage collection system:
We [consumers] are supposed to sort, compost, parcel, store, and transport the trash. We are supposed to keep on with this cockamamie of storing compost garbage in small containers in apartments and villas and then transport the stinking, leaking trash to dedicated bins or collection centers, which seem to always be brim-full.
Why in the name of the Lord cannot the government introduce ‘market incentives’ to stimulate industry and producers to develop rational packaging and garbage disposal systems enabling recycling, energy production and future import revenue? And perhaps a consumer friendly and hygienically acceptable system instead of the current trash and filth chaos?
While I’m waiting, mice are scurrying around in my garbage compartment.
Even Askling, who writes socialist propaganda for a living, knows the Swedish recycling scheme doesn’t work; and she concludes it is in need of more market.
Please enlighten me, wherein lies the so-often-acclaimed success of this system?