‘Waste is a symptom, not the actual problem’

Sustainability master's student Alena Iuzefovich reflects on what she learned during a trip to one of Sweden’s most efficient waste-to-energy plants.

‘Waste is a symptom, not the actual problem'
Photo: Alena Iuzefovich

Some time ago I was lucky enough to be able to join a trip to Sysav, one of Sweden’s most efficient waste-to-energy plants. The tour was organized by members of the Lund Chapter Network for Future Global Leaders.

I was particularly interested in that tour, given that I come from Russia, a country that, despite being the most significant territory in the world, is now facing an escalating landfill crisis in its European part.

Being deeply involved in the Russian waste management issues for years (I was a co-founder of a battery recycling company), I was super excited to get some answers from Sysav, Sweden’s’ most efficient waste-to-energy plant in Malmö, owned by the 14 local municipalities.

Green lawn, bike lane, light plant building with a big logo ‘Sysav’. Apart from that, a typical suburban industrial environment surrounds me as I walk from the final bus stop to the facility. Rustan Nilsson, Sysav’s Environmental Educator, meets us at the entrance and walks us to the conference room for a  lecture before we see the actual plant.

Photo: Sysav, one of Sweden’s most efficient waste-to-energy plant

“Waste is a symptom, not the actual problem,” Rustan starts. While showing us the statistics about the dramatic decrease in the country’s landfilling rates – from 60 percent in 1980 to less than 5 percent in 2018.

He points out that it’s the absolute figures that matter, not the relative ones. The absolute ones are disturbing: even in Sweden with its efficient waste system and citizens’ sustainability awareness, there is more and more waste every year. Today it’s 500 kg of garbage per person per year, 19 times more than 80 years ago.

And this number doesn’t even include the ‘outsourced’ industrial waste, created in the earlier stages of product life cycles: raw material extraction, refining, production, assembling and transporting. “We, in Sweden, were too obsessed with the floor mopping techniques and we overlooked the leaking tap,” concludes Rustan.

Photo: Rustan Nilsson, Sysav’s Environmental Educator

As we go to see the plant, it’s the waste bunker that grabs our attention. A massive space the size of a football stadium, full of trash. I thought: is this what we collectively produce as a civilization? 65 percent of all those hundreds of tons of waste can be recycled, yet end up in a furnace, because of us being too lazy to sort it properly.

All those iPhone fake leather covers, toothpaste tubes, cheap summer sandals are wasted. These products are designed for this massive pile of trash. We even had a chance to look into the furnace, the 1000°C hell for our unwanted things.

Of course, I asked about the emissions treatment. Sysav complies with Sweden’s strict air quality standards, the air test documents are publicly available, and the building itself has two glass walls, indicating the maximum transparency of the plant’s operations.

Photo: Sysav's furnace

On my way back, I thought about the dead-end we all collectively created in Europe. Incineration kept us feeling good about the low landfill rates and hid the uncomfortable truth: there is no way we can maintain the status quo and keep up with this pattern of production and consumption.

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Lagom: The best way to achieve social health?

Ronoh Philip, who is studying for his masters degree in Infectious Disease Control at Södertörn University, explains why he thinks the Swedish concept of 'lagom' is the best way to achieve good social health.

Lagom: The best way to achieve social health?

During my one week orientation program on August 2019 at Södertörn University, we were presented with many aspects of Swedish culture and practices. One of the new aspects that I learnt was the “lagom culture”, As I quote one of the presenters about applying lagom to our studies, he said: ”Lagom will reduce your stressful burdens of hectic lecture schedules and ensure that you spend equal time of working and socializing in the university.”

So being a student with a background in public health and society, I got interested and searched for the deeper meaning of lagom, and how it can  apply to society and health. I found out that it is a Swedish way of life, it is a concept which means not too much and not too little, just enough. I learnt that it came from a Viking tradition laget om which means 'around the group' and was allegedly used to describe just how much mead or soup one should drink when passing the bowl around in the group.

If this concept is applied to achieve social health goals, it would really fit well. So, what is social health at first? Social health is how you interact with other people and adapt in different situations, it deals with how people in society deal with each other. It is important to note that there is a close link between good social health and improvement of the other aspects of human health, this can lead to the achievement of SDG goal of good health and wellbeing. It also leads to self-satisfaction and happiness; no wonder Sweden is ranked as one the happiest countries in the world. It is ranked 7th in 2019, according to world happiness report. I believe lagom has a big role in this achievement.

In the country where I come from, Kenya, one of the greatest challenges we face in our society, is the ability for people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to interact and form positive and cohesive relationships with each other. From my perspective, when I finish my studies and return, lagom will be worth implementing in the workplace, the place where I live and the society as whole, as it is the best way of finding simple, attainable solutions to our everyday worries like stress, eating better, having downtime and achieving happiness. It’s a balance of work and life, so everything is in sustainable existence with each other.

My goal during my entire university studies at Södertörn, will be to learn more about the lagom principle and also be able to apply it on our SI NFGL Local Network platform, because it is surely one of the best ways to achieve a good  work-life balance, reaching consensus with my colleagues and adapting a team minded approach in dealing with issues in an organization and the society.