For a country blessed with bountiful oil supplies, it may appear incongruous. But Norway is importing as much rubbish as it can get its hands on, in an effort to generate more energy by burning waste in vast incinerators. The Eurotrash business may sound like an unpromising enterprise, but it's one that is increasingly profitable. The UK paid to send 45,000 tonnes of household waste from Bristol and Leeds to Norway between October 2012 and April this year. "Waste has become a commodity," says Pål Spillum, head of waste recovery at the Climate and Pollution Agency in Norway. "There is a big European market for this, so much so that the Norwegians are accepting rubbish from other countries to feed the incinerator." He refuses to divulge the sums involved, saying only that the market is growing. Spillum is "considering requests" to burn waste from other UK towns. "As a rule we generate about 50% of our income from the fee we receive to take the waste and about 50% from the sale of the energy we create," he says. Norway is not alone. Waste to energy has become a preferred method of rubbish disposal in the EU, and there are now 420 plants in Europe equipped to provide heat and electricity to more than 20 million people. Germany ranks top in terms of importing rubbish, ahead of Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands. But it's Norway that boasts the largest share of waste to energy in district heat production, according to Danish government-funded State of Green. Oslo's waste incinerator was built with extra capacity to cater for future growth. "With more and more countries in Europe moving away from using landfill, we assume that there will be growth in waste to energy," says Christoffer Back Vestli, communications adviser for the Oslo municipality. "At the moment, the city of Oslo can take 410,000 tonnes of waste a year and we import 45,000 tonnes from the UK. Europe as a whole currently dumps 150m tonnes of waste in landfills every year, so there is clearly great potential in using waste for energy." Spillum adds: "It is cheaper [for some UK towns] to pay for us to take their waste than to pay landfill fees." The incinerator only takes "clean trash" and the municipality is careful to filter out anything that could be hazardous. Norwegians are meticulous about their waste and divide household rubbish into three bags – blue for plastic to be recycled, green for food waste to make biogas and white for everything else that goes to the waste plant. But many are concerned that the rubbish being imported from the UK and Ireland may not be so carefully sorted. "We have no way of knowing whether the rubbish coming in from Bristol or Leeds or Ireland has been properly sorted or is 'clean'," says Henning Reinton, head of Greenpeace in Norway. There are worries that burning rubbish may discourage recycling. Julian Kirby, of Friends of the Earth, says: "Waste for energy isn't as green as it's made out to be. We estimate that 80% of what's in the average waste stream is easily recyclable." Kirby argues that the incineration system creates confusion: "If you think your waste being burned is a good thing then you are more inclined to just chuck things away rather than recycling them." Some Norwegians also view the waste-to-energy plant as a blot on the landscape. "People in the city find it quite ugly," says Reinton, who is campaigning against the use of incinerators to generate energy from waste. "The modern facilities are far less polluting and damaging to the environment than the older incinerators, but burning waste is just a shortcut. We need to think about longer-term strategies for minimising it." But most residents seem comfortable with the idea of burning waste to create fuel, with 71% of the population supporting the renewable energy source. Ove Merg, an electrical engineer in Oslo, says: "We certainly think it's positive that we use an environmentally friendly energy source. It's great that waste can be useful, and that it actually heats our house." Øistein Thomassen, a photographer from the city, adds: "We produce insane amounts of waste every day, so why not use waste as fuel for heat? As long as the benefits outweigh the risks, I think that using waste as an energy source is brilliant."
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