Why will Sweden’s plastic recycling rate be divided by two for 2020, and by four for 2021?

Sweden is perceived as a model for recycling around the world. The actual recycling statistics in Sweden and more generally in Europe are misleading for the public, building the wrong assumption that better waste sorting only can lead us to a circular economy. Plastic recycling rates for households in Sweden are actually overestimated by a factor of four hiding the actual gap between the current situation and a circular flow.
Plastic

How is waste and recycling rate measured?

Waste statistics are categorized by industries where households are also considered as an industry. Every two years, Naturvårdsverket (the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency) produces reports about the different industries (1). The wastes of the industries are separated in different streams (2): glass, plastic, metal, etc. Plastic is then divided into two streams: PET plastic which is managed through a deposit system and other plastics. This article focuses only on non-PET plastics generated by households for the year 2016.

On the sweden.se website (3), managed by the Sweden Institute, an article about “the Swedish recycling revolution” states that 47% of the plastic in Sweden is recycled. The official source is Naturvårdverket, who computes the statistics based on declarations from recycling companies.

What does recycled mean here?

The recycling statistics are computed according to the method used for reporting to the EU. Recycling here means that the collected material is either processed and made into new products (material recycling) or incinerated (energy recycling) (4).

Contrary to popular belief, incinerated plastic is actually being counted as recycled in the current statistics. What happens with the other 53% then? It is mostly incinerated too. What 47% refers to, is the collected part of the estimated total of all plastic on the Swedish market. 53% is how much plastic is left to be collected as general waste for incineration, littered in nature or still on the market.

The good news is that the European legislation has recently changed and starting from 2020, incinerated plastic cannot be counted as recycled anymore.

How much of the 47% is incinerated and which part is used to make new objects (material recycled)?

FTI (5) is the main company in Sweden taking care of packaging recycling. They are in charge of the waste collection and for recycling as much as possible of it. FTI explains on their website that about 50-55% of the plastic packaging Swedish people submit for recycling can be sorted and sent on for recycling (6). Again, sent for recycling doesn’t necessarily mean that the material is recycled, as some parts cannot be recycled and the market for recycled plastic is still low (recycled plastic that cannot be sold is incinerated). FTI estimates material recycling has a lower range: the proportion of plastic packaging that today becomes new plastic products is about 15-20 percent of the plastic packaging that has been put on the market by the affiliated manufacturers. 

From 47%, the recycling rate falls close to 15-20% which is a division by 3.1-2.4 of the official recycling rate. This is the update that will happen 2021 when the 2020 statistics will be released.

What does FTI mean by “the plastic packaging that has been put on the market by our affiliated manufacturers”?

The method used currently is to estimate it based on the industrial report through the producer responsibility system. This method underestimates the current quantity of plastic on the Swedish market, according to Naturvårdsverket. Naturvårdsverket estimates that an addition of 150,000 tonnes of plastic packagings are being introduced on the market without being included in the statistics (7). 

The main reasons for this difference of estimation are the so-called “free-riders” (producers not reporting their waste) and distance selling (not always covered by producer responsibility).

According to the official statistics (8), 217’400 tonnes of plastic packaging were introduced on the Swedish market in 2016. 150,000 tonnes is an addition of 68% of the total quantity! By adding the underestimated quantities of packaging, the recycling rate would go from 15-20% to 9-12% which is a division by 5.3-4 from current statistics.

 

Details of computation:

Tonnes of plastics recycled (217’400 tonnes are actually counted as put on the market)

15% of plastic is actually recycled : 15%*217’400 = 32’610 tonnes

20% of plastic is actually recycled :  20%*217’400 = 43’480 tonnes


Addition of the 150,000 tonnes of plastic not actually counted in statistics

32’610 tonnes recycled on (217’400 tonnes + 150,000 tonnes) put on the market  = 8.8%

43’480 tonnes recycled on (217’400 tonnes + 150,000 tonnes) put on the market  = 11.8%

 

From 2021, producers introducing packaging on the Swedish market will have to get registered with Naturvårdsverket and report quantities to them. This should decrease the uncertainty about the global quantities of packaging introduced and give a better view of the real material recycling rate. This update will happen in 2022 when the 2021 statistics will be released.

To go even further...

The recycling of plastic is not done in totality in Sweden, 83, 000 tonnes of plastic from different sources are exported to 28 different countries. Plastic is mainly exported to Germany, Poland and Hong Kong (9) where it won’t be recycled to 100%. The plastic is either recycled to make similar products or downcycled to lower quality plastic to make new objects that won’t be able to be recycled. The data available is not detailed enough to know which quantity of the non-PET plastics are sent abroad for recycling and which part is downcycled. We can only conclude that the percentage of plastic recycled to make similar products is lower than 8.8%-11.8%. 

Conclusion

Official recycling rates don't represent the actual reality due to mislabeling of incineration as recycling and the underestimation of plastic packaging quantities put on the market. Legislation changes will show recycling rates closer to the reality in the next two years and how far Sweden really is from its recycling target. 

The overestimated recycling rates are building a misleading representation of recycling capabilities for the citizens. Recycling rates for plastic packaging are really low and this must be communicated clearly. Social acceptance has to be built for a change of paradigm for packaging from single-use to eco-designed reusable ones. This will happen only if the actual limits for the current system are clearly explained.

 

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  1. "Avfallsstatistik för utvalda branscher - Naturvårdsverket." https://www.naturvardsverket.se/Sa-mar-miljon/Mark/Avfall/Statistik-utvalda-branscher/.
  2. "Återvinning av förpackningar i Sverige - SCB." https://www.scb.se/hitta-statistik/sverige-i-siffror/miljo/atervinning-av-forpackningar-i-sverige/
  3. "The Swedish recycling revolution - sweden.se." https://sweden.se/nature/the-swedish-recycling-revolution/.
  4. "Så här tas statistiken fram - Naturvårdsverket." https://www.naturvardsverket.se/Sa-mar-miljon/Mark/Avfall/forpackningar-returpapper/Sa-har-tas-statistiken-fram/.
  5. "Om FTI - Förpacknings- och tidningsinsamlingen, FTI." https://www.ftiab.se/148.html.
  6. "Frågor & Svar statistik - Förpacknings- och tidningsinsamlingen, FTI."  https://www.ftiab.se/2975.html.
  7. "Så här tas statistiken fram - Naturvårdsverket." https://www.naturvardsverket.se/Sa-mar-miljon/Mark/Avfall/forpackningar-returpapper/Sa-har-tas-statistiken-fram/.
  8. "Total tillförd och återvunnen mängd förpackningar uppdelat efter förpackningsslag. År 2012 - 2018" http://www.statistikdatabasen.scb.se/pxweb/sv/ssd/START__MI__MI0307/MI0307T1/
  9. "Plastflöden i Sverige - Naturvårdsverket." https://www.naturvardsverket.se/Miljoarbete-i-samhallet/Miljoarbete-i-Sverige/Uppdelat-efter-omrade/Plast/Plastfloden-i-Sverige/.