Norway Runs Short of Garbage Needed to Make Electricity

Oslo burns garbage to produce energy. But with Norwegians producing less trash, the city is now importing junk.

05.01.13 4:13 PM ET

One man's trash is another man's treasure, and in Norway, that’s literally the case. But Oslo, the capital city, seems to be running out of this vital commodity.

Norway, Oslo, architectural landscape of city, elevated view

Richard Elliott/Getty,Richard Elliott

In Oslo, heat is generated from burning waste.

The New York Times reported Monday that Oslo, which has long burned waste to heat half of the city and almost all its schools, is lacking the materials need for fuel: household trash, commercial and industrial waste, and even hazardous junk from hospitals. With the rise of recyclable and reusable products, Oslo’s volume of trash just isn’t what it used to be. The city, which often accepts or at times buys garbage from other European countries, is seeing a similar scenario elsewhere.

Norway’s incinerating plants are built to handle up to 700 million tons of waste, but the population of northern Europe is producing only 150 million tons a year. With Europeans producing less garbage, trash has become a hot commodity throughout many northern countries. Cities like Stockholm have become competitors to Oslo, vying for trash from England and other countries that previously willingly gave their waste to Norway.

“There’s a European waste market—it’s a commodity,” Hege Rooth Olbergsveen, senior adviser to Oslo’s waste-recovery program, told the Times. “It’s a growing market.”

Cities in northern England are large benefactors of the trash demand. Leeds ships as much as 1,000 tons of garbage a month to countries including Norway. The move not only frees up land in small regions, but trash-wanting cities will often pay others for their trash to in turn save money off burning it for fuel. And that may create some strange incentives—the desire for one country to save on the amount of fossil fuels it uses could be pushing people in other countries to intentionally generate more waste.