Oslo Runs on Garbage, And Now It’s Running Out

When you burn garbage for as fuel, you can find yourself in a tricky spot

Photo: Bo Eide

Whether burning coal, pulling kinetic energy from the wind, or harnessing the power of the atom, every fuel source has its resource, the thing it uses to make electricity and heat. In Oslo, Norway, the thing they use is garbage. The city runs a pair of huge incinerators which supply around 1.5 terawatt hours of power.

“A significant share of Oslo’s district heating comes from waste incineration, biofuel facilities and heat pumps that extract heat from sewage,” says the Hafslund Group, a Norwegian power company.

These are resources that would otherwise be lost or considered waste. Today’s investment in district heating saves Oslo from annual GHG emissions corresponding to more than 100,000 cars each driving 15,000 km. The goal is to replace all fossil fuels for peak loads by 2016. This will make a substantial contribution to Oslo’s environment and cut carbon emissions.

But Oslo has run into a bit of an issue, says the New York Times: the city’s running out of garbage. Waste incinerators are sort of common across Europe, and the competition is driving this odd problem.

“The fastidious population of Northern Europe produces only about 150 million tons of waste a year, he said, far too little to supply incinerating plants that can handle more than 700 million tons,” says the Times. To get around the shortage, they’re looking to import trash. They’re even considering shipping it in from the U.S.

“For some, it might seem bizarre that Oslo would resort to importing garbage to produce energy. Norway ranks among the world’s 10 largest exporters of oil and gas, and has abundant coal reserves and a network of more than 1,100 hydroelectric plants in its water-rich mountains. Yet Mr. Mikkelsen said garbage burning was “a game of renewable energy, to reduce the use of fossil fuels.”

The quandary, says the Times, is leading some to fret about an even weirder concern: that people might feel pressured to make more garbage to feed the waste-to-energy beast.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Open-Fire Stoves Kill Millions. How Do We Fix it?
British Architects Plan to Build a House Entirely From Waste
Converting Energy Waste into Electricity and Heat