Today I celebrated the joys of recycling.
Let me be clear, Kiruna is no role model when it comes to caring for the environment. There’s a wildly wasteful use of electric lighting, every street glaring into the night, scaring away the northern lights. Then there’s the favourite local pastime of pointless burning of fossil fuels on leisure snow scooters, just because you can. And let’s not dwell too long on all those very charming husky dogs, and all the meat they consume to be able to provide tourists with their winter sled dog rides.
You can perhaps partly understand a lackadaisical approach to energy use in the winter here. It’s cold, and dark, and to live here you feel the need for home comfort. Lighting is a luxury indulged in by many, and lights left on all night make house look cheerful, occupied, comfortable. But then, lighting up the town ski slope with massive high energy use lamps when there is no-one there exposes a general lack of concern about energy use. In a number of places in town this week I spotted leaking underground hot water pipes, still steaming heat into the cold winter air a week after the local council maintenance company, Tekniska Verken, started to mend them.
All the above doesn’t mean Kiruna can’t sometimes do the right thing. It has a system for recycling, and this winter a new Swedish law requires food waste to be added to the list. Every household has a food waste bin, collected once a month. To pay for the extra collection and costs, the general waste bin is now also only collected once a month. As in most other countries, we are encouraged to recycle as much as possible, taking plastics, glass, metals, paper and cardboard to local recycling stations.
The local council, though, has had to inhale a very deep breath setting up this new arrangement. This is because here in Kiruna we have a very useful waste-burning plant which provides the energy for local hot water and heating systems (hence the underground pipes with hot water). This method of producing energy is efficient, and relatively environmentally-friendly because it is designed not to be polluting. However, the plant needs waste to burn, and the existing problem is that Kiruna doesn’t produce enough so it has to import waste from other places to keep the plant burning, the heat coming. So, while recycling more in Kiruna is good thing in general, it creates an even bigger refuse deficit here.
Meanwhile we have to bear in mind that the food waste is driven – ah, here’s the rub – to the giant swallowing monster in the town of Boden, 235 kilometres (146 miles) away.
But back to recycling. This morning a full, glowing sun rolled along the horizon and I knew I had to go out and make the most of it. We’re fast approaching ‘polar night’ on 11th December, when there will be no daylight for a few weeks, so the sun is a kind of God right now. You might imagine a walk into the hills, or a trip down by the lake or out on the river would be my choice. What took my fancy, though, was a trip to the recycling station.
I got my kicksled ready, carried it down the steps and tied my bags of plastic and glass onto its front seat. The air was crisp – minus ten degrees – and the sun blinding, very low in the sky. My route was across a road and down a side street – a blissful, slippery, downhill street. The kicksled ( or ‘spark’ as it’s called here) glided effortlessly down, and accelerated alarmingly. You need a lot of flattened snow, and a downhill run, but once those conditions are met a kicksled is the most environmentally-friendly way of transporting things and people I can think of.
The thrill of the run ended rather too soon. I had arrived at a sun-lit, sun-warmed, peaceful sort of spot, next to an empty, white park. I sorted my rubbish in the warmth of the sun’s low rays, pushing each item into the right container. It was rubbish, but in its own frozen way, it was beautiful.
When I walked away from the area I saw a swirl of rising steam on the next street. Another burst hot water pipe, not yet fixed by Tekniska Verken. There were gangs of birds fluttering around it – having a steam bath perhaps or looking for defrosted worms in the ground.
Which reminded me: Tekniska Verken have just signed a contract with the mining company to use the energy that’s lost into the air from the mine’s industrial processes (called ‘spillvärme’ in Swedish). This energy will now be fed into the communal heating system so we who live in Kiruna will reap the benefit. Or will we? There’s no mention of reduced bills for local residents, though Tekniska Verken will be getting energy at a reduced cost.
It’s complicated, the world of recycling – who wins, who loses, where the money goes, and whether it achieves what it sets out to do. I like the idea of ‘spillvärme’ though, and I can always enjoy recycling if I’m allowed to use my ‘spark’.