How Sweden makes international students recycling converts

Gaïa Jouan
Gaïa Jouan - [email protected]
How Sweden makes international students recycling converts
More than 99 per cent of all household waste is recycled. Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/

If there is one thing you need to know before coming to Sweden, it's that sorting trash is a serious matter. Swedes champion recycling, and within a few months you'll be a connoisseur too.


When coming from some other countries in Europe, sorting trash is sometimes seen as a chore, and we often stick to the bare minimum.

"I remember moving in my corridor at the beginning of the semester" says Cathy, from Austria, studying biology in Stockholm.

"I saw dozens of different bins. When I realized it was for recycling, it made me laugh: I immediately assumed that nobody would really respect these rules. I was wrong!"

"When I arrived in Sweden, I went to the 'miljöstation' (recycling station), and I was really amazed by how specific each bin was. I was used to throwing everything in the same bin or going to the dump," explains Maria, a 24-year-old computer sciences student from Germany who has been living in Sweden for two years.

"I think it took me three weeks to understand that tinted glass did not go to the same place as clear glass..."she adds. 

Read also: That's pant! The story behind Sweden's bottle recycling scheme.

Waste management and recycling is important in Sweden. Photo: Simon Paulin/

Sweden is so good at handling its waste it actually imports more from other European countries. Part of the country's electricity is generated by the combustion of rubbish, which produces enough electricity to supply 250,000 homes and heating for 950,000 homes.

Only 1% ends up in a rubbish dump. So Sweden turned to importing from other countries to keep the recycling plants going on. "Swedish people are quite keen on being out in nature and they are aware of what we need to do on nature and environmental issues" Anna-Carin Gripwall, director of communications for Avfall Sverige told The Guardian in 2016. 

That awareness is a common part of the image of Sweden abroad, and one Italian Erasmus student Matteo shared.

"Before coming, I saw Sweden as a green country, basically recycling everything and producing so much renewable energy that it was exceeding their needs. In Italy I recycled, but it's not that common."

The stereotypical image of environmentally conscious Swedes proved to be true:

"People and especially students really care about the environment. Lots of people use bikes or public transport.  Sometimes in students areas populated by foreign students those rules of looking after the environment are not respected (however)."

Maxime, a French student in politics studying in Uppsala, has had a similar experience.

"Before coming to Sweden I thought it was a very environmentally friendly country, quite aware of what is at stake today with global warming. I was not disappointed, Swedes have already adapted their habits."

It is common practice to separate household waste under the kitchen sink. Photo: Simon Paulin/

So does living in Sweden change our way of seeing things, transforming our daily habits towards a more conscious lifestyle? It could depend on our previous practices.

Matteo for example already had quite good habits before leaving Italy, but he feels that the "main difference is that in Italy, environmental awareness is supported by individuals more than by public services”.

Maxime's habits meanwhile will not change a lot since he was already focused on environmental issues before coming to Sweden, but he has drastically reduced his meat consumption.

It's different for Maria though, who wasn't familiar with sustainability issues. “

"My habits definitely changed! And I wish everyone could make a simple effort to promote a more conscious way of living," she concludes.


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