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:
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:
And here’s another photo, showing the underground sorting room, where all the tubes end up (yes, it stinks a bit):
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:
Aside from this, Sweden is chock-full of solar panels:
And it has tons of wind farms:
Here’s proof of just how windy it is by those turbines:
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:
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.