Oslo, the city that buys waste

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Oslo is one of the top sustainable cities in the world. The capital of Norway has been investing in the development of technologies for the production of renewable energy and energy recovery for decades.

The goal is to progressively reduce CO2 emissions and thereby improve the quality of the urban environment. In order to achieve this objective, Norway is relying heavily on its waste-to-energy plants.

Whereas for most big cities around the world waste presents a major problem, for this Scandinavian city it has become a crucial resource. Indeed, over the last few years, a real “solid urban waste race” has begun; Norwegian incineration plants have imported increasingly large amounts of garbage from other European countries. This is the key to Oslo’s success: the ability to transform a potential burden into a financial and environmental benefit.

The first Norwegian incinerator was built in 1967 in Haraldrud, an industrial estate located 6 km from Oslo city center. Almost twenty years later, in 1986, the Klemetsrud plant was built. It is currently the largest incineration plant in Norway. In 2010, both facilities were expanded and improved through major structural changes (the largest optical sorting plant in the world was installed at Haraldrud, while the Klemetsrud plant was expanded with the addition of a third incinerator). Not only has the performance of both plants been significantly optimized as a result of these innovations, but their waste disposal and energy recovery capacity has increased enormously, currently amounting to 410,000 tons of waste per year.
The logic behind these innovations is clear: more waste disposal equals more energy output. Investments have yielded very powerful results: nowadays 84,000 households and buildings in Oslo―roughly half the city―are supplied with electricity and district heating generated from waste incineration at the city’s waste-to-energy plants. This virtuous cycle brought about a twofold environmental benefit: on one hand, it provided a solution to the issue of waste disposal (while some materials, such as plastic and glass, are processed and recycled instead of being burned); on the other, it helped minimizing the use of non-renewable energy and thus led to a significant reduction of CO2 emissions.

The ever-increasing importance of waste thermal treatment in Norway has triggered a “battle for waste” with the neighboring country of Sweden. As a matter of fact, there is a real waste market on which Norwegian and Swedish plants are competing for industrial waste (waste suppliers in Norway and Sweden are free to sign contracts with incineration plants from one of the two countries based on the best offer, especially in terms of logistics) and even for the tons of garbage produced by other European countries. For instance, in the mere 6 months between October 2012 and April 2013, the Waste-to-Energy Agency (EGE), the municipal body in charge of the Haraldrud and Klemetsrud plants, bought 60,000 tons of waste from England (mostly collected in the cities of Leeds and Bristol) and is still constantly looking for new suppliers abroad―Italy being often dismissed due to its inadequate sorting system.

This “battle for waste” is rooted in the fact that the service offered by EGE and its Swedish counterparts is anything but free of charge. In an interview with The Guardian, in June 2013, Pål Spillum, head of waste recovery at the Climate and Pollution Agency in Norway, declared that a good 50% of their income comes from the combustion fee they receive in exchange for taking waste, while the remaining 50% comes from the sale of the energy produced by incinerating it. In other words, environmental goals are not the sole driving force behind the efforts of the municipality of Oslo: significant economic interests are also at stake.
Thanks to its energy policy, it looks like the Norwegian capital is on the right track to achieve its long-established ecological objectives. Indeed, Oslo seems up to the challenge of reducing CO2 emissions by 50% by 2030 and by 80% by 2050. And if the challenge seems manageable, it is mainly on account of a strong citizen participation in urban sustainability strategies (71% of inhabitants expressed themselves in favor of renewable energy) and of Oslo’s clever waste management―now an invaluable resource for the city.


 Translated by Teresa Ciuffoletti

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