Almost exactly 100 years ago, Sweden opened its first waste incineration plant. Since then, waste reprocessing has become the main source of energy in the country, where it now outranks oil and gas and produces more power than nuclear and hydroelectric combined.

Biomass, composed of plant, animal and also human waste, is widely used to produce heat and electricity. It also provides fuel for transport and a raw material for industry. Most of Sweden’s cities are heated by thermal power stations that either burn waste or biogas produced from waste processing.

Today, most of the power required to heat the Swedish capital is provided by the Högdalen cogeneration plant and a number of secondary installations, located close to residential areas. So what about protests by angry locals?

In fact, there never have been any. The managers of the Högdalen plant are fond of explaining that the gas that rises from its chimneys contains about the same quantity of toxic substances as the smoke exhaled by three smokers in the street — an assertion affirmed by the local environmental protection agency.

In Sweden, only one percent of waste is not recycled — mainly highly toxic substances which are stocked in sealed containers to prevent any ground water or atmospheric contamination.

Green cities

In 2010, Stockholm became the first city to be designated as the European Green Capital, and the environmentally sustainable Hammarby Sjöstad redevelopment has since become a visiting card for ecological urbanism that is presented to experts and tourists alike. The neighbourhood, which is home to tens of thousands of residents, will soon be self-sufficient in energy.

All of its domestic waste and waste water is processed by treatment centres in the immediate area, where it is transformed into bio-fuel for the nearby thermal power station. Powerful heat pumps are used to extract heat from the surprisingly cold waters of the canal that links Lake Mälaren, which is just west of the capital, to the Baltic Sea. And all of this energy production takes place in the former harbour and industrial area just four kilometres from downtown Stockholm.

The waste management business, which benefits from very favourable tax conditions, has become so successful, that the country is running short of waste to process. For many years, Göteborg imported waste from the Norwegian oil capital Stavanger. But now, even though it has extensive oil and gas reserves, Norway has also begun to make use of waste as an energy source.

So the Swedes have turned their attention to Naples, which in recent years has been literally inundated by waste. What amounts to a burden for the Italians could soon become a goldmine for the the Swedish-Norwegian company which is planning to buy one million tonnes of Italian waste a year, at a cost of 90 euros per tonne. So almost 60 years after the eponymous cult movie starring Sophia Loren, waste is on the way to becoming “The Gold of Naples.”

The HEM energy company, in Halmstad (south of Göteborg), is eager to resolve waste management crises not only in Naples, but also in other European cities, explains senior manager, Per Aalund. In Europe, approximately 150 million tonnes is dumped in breach of European legislation. ”We would like to take it on,” he says.