There’s møre tö Sweden thån IKEA ånd Volvo

Hello! (Waving sheepishly) Apologies for the prolongued absence… there’s this thing called the Toronto International Film Festival that sucks up all my time for two weeks every September, and as soon as this year’s fest ended, I immediately hopped on a plane to Sweden for a week-long sustainable housing tour, which I’m writing about for the Post. Those who’d like to ream me out for flying across the Atlantic, feel free to do so now and move on — after all, Elizabeth Kolbert has already pointed out that I’m a slut who loves to fly, so it should come as no surprise (and yes, I made sure to offset the trip for $23.80 at TerraPass).

Anyway, I won’t go into great detail about my trip because there is simply too much information to convey and, frankly, it’ll probably be overwhelming, if not a little boring. So instead, I’m going to point out some highlights, throw in some photos and conclude with the Single Most Important Lesson I learned while in this country, which is best known as the home of IKEA and Volvo and meatballs.

First highlight: Bike paths. Everyone knows that Scandinavian countries kick ass when it comes to bicycle infrastructure, but it’s quite something to actually see it in action. In Stockholm, bike paths are EVERYWHERE; I honestly could not find a single road that did not have a bike path — and trust me, I tried. What’s interesting, too, is that they run on the sidewalks more often than the street, which makes it safer for the cyclists (although pedestrians have to watch where they’re going). Plus, because it’s Europe, there are no road bikes or mountain bikes; everyone rides those cute upright numbers with Art Deco headlamps, and some of the bicycle paths are even marked with fancy brass inlays. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of this, but here’s what they generally look like:

bike path Stockholm

Second highlight: Localised energy and waste management. In Sweden, they take a very holistic approach to environmental do-gooding — so instead of dealing with water, waste and energy separately, effort is made to create systems that combine all these issues at once. Example: In one housing development, there are three pneumatic waste disposal units (one for organic waste, one for paper recycling and one for glass/plastic recycling); you put your low-grade cardboard packaging in the paper hole and shut the door, whereupon it gets sucked through a tube into a nearby sorting and processing facility and, eventually, gets sent with all the other packaging waste that can’t be recycled to a local incinerator, which burns it, sending the heat back into the community to warm up the houses, the water and even sidewalks during winter. The emissions from this process aren’t very toxic because they’re filtered through various scrubbers and cleaning mechanisms before getting released back into the air. Here’s a photo of the units above ground:

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And here’s another photo, showing the underground sorting room, where all the tubes end up (yes, it stinks a bit):

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And just how does everyone know which types of cardboard can be recycled and which types have been recycled so many times that they must go into the general garbage hole? Well, here’s the next point:

Third highlight: General public knowledge. According to my friend, who lives in Gothenburg (one of the greenest cities on the planet and home to the Volvo plant, which is accessible by transit and runs entirely on wind energy), most Swedes will easily be able to sort their trash into 11 or 12 different streams, so the waste diversion rates are pretty high. And speaking of Gothenburg, one neat fact about the restaurants here: Most of the patios come with a fleece blanket on the back of every chair, so if you get cold, you can wrap yourself up and there’s less of a demand for heat lamps. Here is my friend, Duncan, in his blanket:

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Aside from this, Sweden is chock-full of solar panels:

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And it has tons of wind farms:

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Here’s proof of just how windy it is by those turbines:

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On the flip side, we didn’t see many green roofs during our trip, and while there is a good level of density to the cities, there aren’t many high-rise buildings. In terms of water efficiency, I’m not sure how much greywater technology there is, but I did get to make use of this wicked toilet at an eco-education centre that’s separated into two components: A front bit for #1 and a back part for #2 — the pee is diverted to a treatment plant where it’s turned into natural fertilizer for local farms, and the poop goes into the regular sewage. Take a look:

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But perhaps the Most Important Lesson I learned was that we really need to start taxing the heck out of ourselves if most of this sustainable infrastructure is to be developed and implemented. The Swedes pay crazy taxes (about half their income), and the majority of these funds are delivered to the municipal governments (which handle things like waste, water and energy). Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that North Americans will ever consent to coughing up this much money to local bureaucrats.

Still, if we start paying more attention to how other cities are addressing climate change — especially when it’s successful and holistic and cost-effective — maybe there’s hope for us yet.

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26 Responses to There’s møre tö Sweden thån IKEA ånd Volvo

  1. I drool every time I see a Swedish bike path. Seriously drool. Not only does it make it safer for bikes to route the paths of the road, but it keeps cars from PARKING in them or people putting their garbage pails in them on pick up day (two of my pet peeves).

    Thanks for the summary of your trip!

  2. Sandy says:

    Loving the cartoons for the potty.

  3. Tyler says:

    Great little tour! I spent a couple months over in Europe last summer and made it through Stockholm & Gothenburg. It was quite pleasant to see all the bike paths and funny recycling centers.

    A friend I was staying with lived on one of the small islands off of Gothenburg and, to encourage pedestrian and bike traffic over car travel, the ferry you must take to get there allows free rides to walkers and bikers.

  4. Lucas says:

    Wonderful. As one of Swedish descent, I hope to be able to visit one day.

    On the subject of bike paths:

    I do believe that the US and Canada (in general, and some cities are better than others) need to invest more in cycling infrastructure; but theses separated bike paths are not the way to do it. My city has some of these “sidewalk” style bike paths (as well as “normal” on-street paths) and in my experience, theses side-walk style paths are more dangerous for cyclists. Not only is there the issue of pedestrians (as you mentioned) but being removed from the roadway means you are LESS visible to cars, and it also fosters the attitudes and idea that bikes are not vehicles (which they are) and are more akin to pedestrian traffic (which they are NOT). Many times, while traversing these side-walk style paths, I have had to evade errant pedestrians walking 2,3,4 or more abreast, and cars turning into driveways and sides treets without regard for me because they could not see me behind the trees and pedestrians.

    Like Green Me Alison says above; people treat on-road paths like expanded parking or loading zones (and this is also a peeve of mine), but I think the solution is more public awareness (and citations to those that don’t respect the sovereignty of the bike lanes ;) rather than removing the cyclist from the road.

  5. BirdieNumNum says:

    I love me the Sweden. My best friend in the world lives there, and I hope to visit sometime soon!

    Lucas, treating bicycles less like vehicles is not so much of a problem if the infrastructure completely supports them being separated from vehicles (and pedestrians too). I agree that putting together cyclists with pedestrians may be a bad idea (although this mixture seems to function just fine at my university campus), but when your paths are built city-and-country-wide (as in Sweden) so that pedestrians know where to go and cyclists know where to go, there won’t really be to much of a problem. The only people who step in front of cyclists in Europe are tourists :)~

    I also think that mixing cyclists with vehicles is an even worse idea. Cars and trucks and buses are just going to be way bigger and faster than bikes no matter what. Even if it is possible to cycle safely as though you’re a vehicle, it’s really not pleasant, because if you have to take the lane then you may hold up drivers behind you and that’s never fun, and vehicles are just loud and brash and spurt out fumes in your face. Keeping the bikes separate will make a lot more people FEEL safer about cycling as well, which is crucial if we want to get more people to cycle.

  6. Elin says:

    I come from Sweden!

  7. Lara S. says:

    Hi Vanessa,
    I’ve heard that Canada is one of the countries with the biggest roles in mining industry. As mining causes a huge deal of environmental issues, it would be great if you did some research about it, specially the role of Canada (a country which seems kind of eco-friendly if you don’t count the mining problems).
    An interesting thing I heard in a conference about minuing is that other countries obligedly have to hire Environmental Consultants that have their stocks in the Canadian stock market, to make the environmental impact report for the mining projects.
    I hope I made myself clear, I’m argentinian and it’s hard to translate some things of which I know nothing about (like stocks…).

  8. Lara S. says:

    Hi Vanessa,
    I’ve heard that Canada is one of the countries with the biggest roles in mining industry. As mining causes a huge deal of environmental issues, it would be great if you did some research about it, specially the role of Canada (a country which seems kind of eco-friendly if you don’t count the mining problems).
    An interesting thing I heard in a conference about mining is that other countries obligedly have to hire Environmental Consultants that have their stocks in the Canadian stock market, to make the environmental impact report for the mining projects.
    I hope I made myself clear, I’m argentinian and it’s hard to translate some things of which I know nothing about (like stocks…).

  9. Ecogrrl says:

    Great article, thanks for continuing to inspire. As a Portland bike commuter, I’m luckier than a lot of areas in the country, but still cannot completely access all areas of town by bike due to lack of bike lanes. Trails are fantastic but starting out with simple lanes on every road to accommodate bikes would be great. I do agree that bikes are vehicles and the more that cars get used to seeing them, and the more people we have bike commuting, the more familiar (and empathetic) this will be for everyone. Also thank you for noting the taxation, and I’ll add that the passive aggressive mentality that is all too prevalent in our American society, where we must have everything immediate and customized to us rather than for the community at large / greater good, is continuing to hinder us. Like gasoline, here we don’t pay the actual cost of the item because of mass subsidies to oil companies,etc. It was fantastic to me when gas went up to $4/gal because we finally saw some forced change in habits. How tragic that there is so much opposition to taking care of our planet.

  10. Gloria says:

    Hey Vanessa,
    I got your book from the library and devoured it. It was really interesting. I’m going to read your blog religiously now. You are a really entertaining, funny, charming writer. I felt like I knew you, from reading your book. I couldn’t put it down. I just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it really made me think. I kind of really doubt that I could ever be anywhere near as green as you, but I’m definitely going to be making some changes. Keep up the good work. And by the way, you are beautiful. Uh, I don’t want you to think I’m some creepy lesbian trying to hit on you through the internet..just wanted to tell you you are gorgeous and inspiring.

  11. Emies says:

    I’ve been following your blog for a while now after reading your book. Both are fantastic! I don’t know if you know this, but a a documentary was recently released call “The Age of Stupid”. It’s set in the year 2055 when we’ve ran out of oil and forests and the human race is in danger. Climate change is in full swing, and people are dying. It looks back to the present time and how we ignored the warning signs and could have saved ourselves, but didn’t. It’s a great movie, and I think you should definately look into it. It hasn’t been released in Canada yet, but a few teachers and students, including myself, at school started an NGO called Students Bridging Borders and we just bought rights to the movie for one year. We will be showing it in Hamilton very soon, and hopefully it will be available to the rest of Canada next year. Definately worth checking out.

  12. BirdieNumNum says:

    Emies, that sounds like a slightly more serious version of the film “Idiocracy” (set about 500 years from now, in which all the stupid people have had lots of stupid children who have had lots more stupid children and so forth and they have no crops and no one knows how to fix roads or perform medicine and absolutely everything comes out of vending machines). Though Idiocracy is supposed to just be a silly Hollywood film about the future, I think it’s actually quite a cutting satire of today’s world :P

  13. Veganka says:

    I think having bike paths is a good idea because it lessens air pollution, no fuel usage, saves money, a good way of exercise and also safer to bike around the place. Using those solar panels and waste management is also a good way of conserving energy and great way of recycling. I hope we can have this all over the world and of course, it’s the best way to take care of our planet.

  14. Emma says:

    I’d like to own that toilet :)

  15. Alopecia says:

    love the comic!!
    jajaj really good!
    cheryl

  16. nofunnynamebooforme says:

    That toilet contraption is the greatest thing I have seen ever. I just finished your book, borrowed from a friend-how green of me, and I am nerdishly excited to actually see the website I was reading about. You have inspired me among other things to at least give the Diva Cup a try!

  17. I would like to visit Sweden after reading your post. The toilet photo made me laugh…will to try and incorporate that into conversation at the dinner table tonight. lol I am going out today to find your book since I enjoy reading your blog so much. Laura

  18. Melody says:

    Thanks for the tour of Green Sweden. I really liked the toilet. I wonder how much money and time it took to switch over all the pipes. Did they do it as they put in new infrastructure?

  19. Yoga Witch says:

    Very exciting to see what others are implementing! Thanks for the info!

  20. urban girl says:

    I would gladly pay more in taxes for a more eco-friendly city/country!
    (First I would like to see our current US tax system cleaned up a bit.)

    And I love the picture for the toilets. Hysterical.

    Your blog has really provided some food for thought on little things that we can all easily do…and that a bunch of little things really adds up.

  21. Fit Gizmos says:

    Thanks for the post.Scandinavian regions are great delight for me.The toilet shown here is really an Eco friendly.

  22. OH MY GOD, you were in Sweden! My boyfriend read about your book somewhere and asked the local library to buy it which they did and so, when we went on our three week holiday to Central America (I know, we’re horrible…) we brought the book and both laughed our asses off reading it. That is, we loved it.

    Anyway, as you might have guessed by now, we’re Swedish and reading your comments about Swedish systems for recycling and our frequent biking and the rest makes me laugh again. Sorry to disappoint you guys but we have ordinary water toilets like the rest of you. I guess that the picture of the urine-separating closett is from Ekocentrum, right? That’s a demonstration place for how we could better our society, not of how it is.

    I never thought of Sweden being so “eco-friendly”. Especially not as Gothenburg, my home city, as being so cool. To me, it’s a pretty ordinary place. If you want to see eco nerds you should visit Germany. They are, as so far as I know, the best at recycling and saving energy and promoting an organic lifestyle. And they have a huge amount of eco villages where people loathe cell phones, build houses from recycled materials & clay, and promote open relationships ;).

    And by the way, we do NOT pay half our income in taxes. We usually pay a third for which we get a very good subsidized health care system, social insurance for everyone and free education up to university level. Unfortunately, the present conservative administration is doing all it can to downsize the welfare state by reducing the tax level and thereby giving less to the poor but that is a whole other discussion…

    Take care! /Your Swedish fans ;-D

  23. [...] that a Scandinavian country stands out as an eco-example, but Vanessa from Green as a Thistle recently visited Sweden and was very impressed with, among other things, the country’s bicycle infrastructure. As [...]

  24. catobbsessedteen says:

    cant wait to get to sweden in a year or two to visit my greatgreat aunt and see those intresting toilets haha

  25. Rebecca says:

    Hi,
    I think having a bike path on the sidewalk is much safer than on the street. I live in one of the bike-friendliest cities of Germany, Muenster, and here about 40 % of ALL rides in the city are taken by bike. Almost every road, if it is not very small, has a bike path and we even have our so-called bike “autobahn”, an alley that runs around the inner city and is only for bikes. When I get into other cities I immediately miss the bike traffic.
    Also the number of accidents is reasonable because people take care and you feel safer if parking cars are between you on your bike and the cars driving past. The only annoying part of it are the tourists visiting which tend to walk on the bike paths.
    Greetings from Muenster

  26. aisle says:

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