TCS Daily

Sweden's Skeptical Environmentalist

By Waldemar Ingdahl - April 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Sweden has for a long time been a bastion of "green" ideology, and the EU and the rest of the world has monitored Sweden's environmental policies closely for new ideas and inspiration. One of the areas in which Sweden has been in the forefront is recycling, particularly for household waste. Most Swedes have to carefully recycle and separate their own waste for the refuse collectors on a daily basis. Even in the midst of winter, in raging snowstorms, you can see people (even the elderly and infirm) dragging themselves to the recycling stations with their household waste to perform the daily ritual of separating cardboard from plastics and glass from biological waste. Household recycling has been seen as a very important and highly advanced policy that both reduces environmental problems and builds "awareness" and acceptance in the population for environmental policies, as they can see how their own efforts improve the state of the environment.

Later this spring the Swedish government will codify new legislation about waste recycling and it is considering various options for new reforms. Earlier this year, the previously tranquil debate suddenly blazed, when an article was written in the leading morning newspaper, Dagens Nyheter. Its authors urged the government to reconsider many previous policies in the pending new legislation. They argued that burning cardboard, plastics and food leftovers is better for the environment and the economy than recycling.

The recommendation wasn't as surprising as who the authors were: Valfrid Paulsson, the legendary former director-general of the government's environmental protection agency; Soren Norrby, the former campaign manager for Keep Sweden Tidy; and K-G Mellbin, Per Selberg and Lars Lofstedt, the former managing directors of the three major waste-collection companies.

Paulsson was one of the most influential voices in the environmental debate back in the '60s and '70s when Sweden made its first environmental policies. It certainly was a blow to the government's official policy that one of its architects criticized it so significantly. The authors said in their article that the "vision of a recycling market booming by 2010 was a dream 40 years ago and is still just a dream". They added that incineration has an important role to play in the future. By quoting recent research they pointed out that technological improvements have made incineration cleaner and the process could be used to generate electricity, cutting dependency on oil. They rejected collecting household cartons as very unprofitable and time-consuming. Used bottles and glass cost glass companies twice as much as the raw materials, and recycling plastics was uneconomical, they said. "Plastics are made from oil and can quite simply be incinerated," they argued. Glass mixed with household waste improved the quality of slag residue and could be used for landfill. Tin cans could be removed by magnets and sent for recycling. They stressed, though, that the collection of dangerous waste, such as batteries, electrical appliances, medicines, paint and chemicals, must be further improved. Their final point was the controversial conclusion that protection of the environment can mean economic sacrifices, but to maintain the credibility of environmental politics the gains must be worth the sacrifice.

The reactions were massive from most of the establishment. The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency stated that it completely disagreed with the views of its former director-general, still stating that recycling is a better option than incineration. The Green Party's spokeswoman accused Paulsson and the co-authors for misleading the public. Many scientists and researchers at Swedish universities joined the debate by invoking computer models of rapid increases in pollution from incineration, and urging the public to continue recycling waste.

Although most of the mainstream media followed the criticisms of the establishment, the article elicited positive reactions from some debaters and also the public, probably because its topic is close to the experiences of everyday life. It is starting to become obvious for many in the public that the ubiquitous recycling stations are an environmental hazard in themselves. They are a rather unbecoming sight and the containers are not emptied regularly enough, so much of the waste lies directly on the street. Thus many Swedish cities that formerly prided themselves on cleanliness have actually become dirty. The populations of rats and other vermin are skyrocketing, and part of the explanation is the ample supply of food that the ill-kept recycling stations are providing them with. The recycling stations provide the public with a very direct, easy-to-see example of Swedish environmental policies, and that example does not exactly transmit the image of "environmentally friendly".

The authors have responded to much of the criticism in both television debates and new articles in Dagens Nyheter, repeating their points that good environmental policies require both sound economics and rational thinking. In fact, the debate has not been concluded yet in Sweden while the news has spread around the world about a possible change in direction of Sweden's environmental policies.

So, will Valfrid Paulsson become the Swedish skeptical environmentalist? Will the Swedish policies about waste recycling change now, in a more economically sensible and reasonable direction? Many foreign observers have hoped so. There is, unfortunately, reason to doubt it, once one becomes more acquainted with the nature of the Swedish institutions.

Paulsson fails to see that he has a different interpretation of the term "environment" than the present establishment. It is worth asking whether it is possible to think of the environment in a non-political manner, as Paulsson does. It seems that something happens to the concept of the "environment" once it moves from the scientific to the social discourse. Instead of being an object that is scientifically observed, the environment becomes an object of political discussion. This leads to the subordination of the environment to political preoccupations, and to the abandonment of an objective and neutral conception of it. And in Swedish politics the green ideology has defined what views are to be considered "objective" and "neutral" for a long time. Those definitions are not the same as Paulson's.

The present Swedish Environmental Protection Agency is a quite different administrative body than the one Paulsson led as director-general. In many respects it has turned from being an upholder of rules and regulations into a body that formulates goals for society to achieve, and that tries to build public appreciation for the present policies. It is telling that a present campaign from the agency about climate change and of the importance of applying the Kyoto treaty has a budget that is as large as the amount approved for the Euro-referendum in September.

Paulsson and his colleagues have certainly put environmental questions high up on the agenda in Sweden, but if those questions are to remain there, and lead to changes in the present policy, a deeper discussion will be needed.

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