As a Swede I get to hear a lot of the myths of how wonderful a country Sweden supposedly is — the "prosperous socialism" it stands for, a role model for the rest of the world. For instance, quite a few friends from around the world have commended me on Swedish recycling polices and the Swedish government's take on coercive environmentalism.
The way it has been presented to me, Sweden has succeeded with what most other governments at best dream about: creating an efficient and profitable national system for saving the environment through large-scale recycling. And the people are all in on it! Everybody's recycling.
The latter is actually true: everybody is recycling. But that is the result of government force, not a voluntary choice. The state's monopolist garbage-collection "service" no longer accepts garbage: they will only collect leftovers and other biodegradables. Any other kind of garbage that accidentally finds its way to your garbage bin can result in a nice little fine (it really isn't that little) and the whole neighborhood could face increased garbage collection rates (i.e., even larger increases than usual — they tend to increase annually or biannually anyway).
So what do you do with your waste? Most homes have a number of trash bins for different kinds of trash: batteries in one; biodegradables in one; wood in one; colored glass in one, other glass in another; aluminum in one, other metals in another; newspapers in one, hard paper in another, and paper that doesn't fit these two categories in a third; and plastic of all sorts in another collection of bins. The materials generally have to be cleaned before thrown away — milk cartons with milk in them cannot be recycled just as metal cans cannot have too much of the paper labels left.
The people of Sweden are thus forced to clean their trash before carefully separating different kinds of materials. This is the future, they say, and it is supposedly good for the environment. (What about the economy?)
But it doesn't end with the extra work at home and the extra space in each and every kitchen occupied by a variety of trash bins. What do you do with the trash that isn't collected? The garbage collection service (which nowadays doesn't offer collection too often, usually biweekly or monthly, even though the rates mysteriously seem to be much higher than before) only accepts certain types of garbage, generally only biodegradable food leftovers. But do not worry; it is all taken care of.
The authorities have established trash collection centers in most neighborhoods where you get to throw away your trash. These "centers" offer numerous containers where you can throw away your trash — there is one container dedicated for each and every kind of trash and they are all neatly color-coded to help you find the right one. But this means you better have separated your aluminum from your other metals and your newspapers from your soft and hard papers before you get here. You wouldn't want to throw away dirty milk cartons or unsorted paper, would you?
But it seems people do just that: they cheat if they believe they are better off doing so. So the authorities have responded by making it more difficult to cheat. Their first measure was to redesign all containers so that it is more difficult throwing the "wrong" trash in them. For instance, containers for glass have only small, round holes where you put your bottles, and containers for hard paper and carton materials have only letter-slit shaped holes (you need to flatten all boxes before recycling — that's the law).
Well, that didn't do the trick. People kept on cheating. And the more difficult the authorities made it to cheat, the more difficult it was to get rid of the trash even if you intended to put it in the right place. So people went to these centers and simply put everything next to the containers instead — why bother? The authorities responded by appointing salaried "trash collection center spies" (!) to document who was cheating so that they could be brought to justice. (There have actually been a few court cases where people have been tried for not following recycling laws.) Need I say the attempt to appoint spies didn't work either? After a rather hot-spirited debate in the media, all spying at trash collection centers was abolished.
But the real question here is not to what degree the authorities are ignorant of what spurs human action. We already have numerous examples of this ignorance being quite huge. The question is: does this recycling structure work? The answer is that, from a government point of view, while it can probably be thought of as working, from an environmental point of view, the answer is definitely "no."
- Per Bylund, writing for Sweden's Ludwig von Mises Institute