Go to content

14. Waste management

14.1. Introduction and summary

The Nordic waste management sector emitted 6 million tonnes of CO2e in 2021, corresponding to 4% of the total Nordic emissions, including the LULUCF sector. Excluding the LULUCF sector, the waste management sector is responsible for 3% of total emissions in the Nordic region.
Emissions from waste management covers fugitive emissions from landfill, wastewater treatment and similar. Note that all GHG emissions from waste-to-energy, where waste material is used directly as fuel or converted into a fuel, are reported under the Energy Sector according to the IPCC Guidelines.
From 1990 to 2021, the GHG emissions from the Nordic waste management sector have been reduced by 8 million tonnes of CO2e, corresponding to a 59% emissions reduction in the sector.
Sweden and Finland in particular have been driving this reduction, with emission reductions in their waste management sectors of 76% and 65%, respectively, from 1990 to 2021. In the same period, Norway and Denmark have also reduced emissions substantially in the waste management sector with emission reductions of 46% and 37%, respectively, while Iceland has increased emissions in the sector by 10%.
Figure 19: GHG emissions from the waste sector across the Nordic countries 1990-2021
Across the Nordic countries, previous policies have focused on reducing the emissions from landfill and increasing the level of recycling, especially in households. This has led to large GHG emission reductions across most of the Nordic countries in this sector.
Future plans in this sector include reducing the total amount of waste, increasing the recycling rate and fostering circularity.
The tables below give an overview of the emissions and emission reductions across the Nordic countries and provide a summary of the main challenge(s) facing each country.
Emis­sions, 1990
Mt CO2e
Emis­sions, 2010
Mt CO2e
Emis­sions, 2021
Mt CO2e
Table 9: Emissions from waste management across Nordic countries – a summary
Summary of main challenge(s)
  • Increasing the recycling rates of waste
  • Moving to a circular economy
  • Increasing the recycling rates of municipal waste
  • Moving to a circular economy
  • Insufficient waste management infrastructure and lack of cost-effective options
  • Engaging businesses and consumers in reducing waste and enhancing circularity
  • Technical and cost-related challenges to mitigation of sewage
  • Insufficient systems and incentives for recirculation of many waste categories
  • The emissions from this sector are decreasing. Related challenges in other sectors, such as from incineration of plastic fractions of waste, are significant.
Table 10: The waste management sector across the Nordic countries – a summary of main challenges
Across the Nordic countries, reductions can still be made in the emissions from the waste sector. There is a need for both a reduction in the amount of generated waste, and a better handling of waste through increased reusing and recycling. Among other things, this will require investments in new recycling plants.

14.2. Status of the waste management sector across the Nordic countries

According to the DEA, the waste management sector in Denmark emitted a total of 0.78 million tonnes of CO2e in 2021 (excluding incineration of waste – accounted for in the energy sector - and methane leakage from biogas facilities
The accounting is thus different from the IPCC Guidelines and explains the difference between the numbers presented in the table earlier in this chapter at the 0.78 million tonnes of CO2e.
), accounting for 1.7% of Denmark’s total CO2e emissions. In 1990 the sector emitted 1.96 million tonnes of CO2e, and thus from 1990 to 2021 the total CO2e emissions from the waste management sector had been reduced by 60%
Energistyrelsen (2023, April). Klimastatus og -fremskrivning, 2023. Retrieved from, https://ens.dk/sites/ens.dk/files/Basisfremskrivning/kf23_hovedrapport.pdf
. There are no binding reduction targets specifically for the waste management sector. However, the waste agreement from 2020 presents a vision of a climate neutral waste sector in 2030
Regeringen (2020, June 16). Klimaplan for en grøn affaldssektor og cirkulær økonomi. Retrieved from, https://www.regeringen.dk/media/9591/aftaletekst.pdf
. In the Danish Energy Agency’s scenarios for 2050, the sector is expected to emit 0.6 million tonnes of CO2e.
Energistyrelsen (2022, September 23). Resultater for KP22-scenarier. Retrieved from, https://ens.dk/sites/ens.dk/files/Basisfremskrivning/resultater_for_kp22-scenarier_23-09-2022.pdf
In Finland, waste management covers about 3.8% of total emissions. Waste treatment emissions have decreased steadily and are down by 63% compared to 1990 levels, and by 38% compared to 2005 levels. Waste treatment emissions are expected to further decrease by 40% of 2019 levels by 2030 with measures already in place. The main reason is the decrease of methane emissions from landfilling biodegradable waste and increased use of waste for energy. Landfill gas recovery has contributed as well. This trend will continue due to the EU ban on landfilling organic waste, effective since 2016.
Ministry of the Environment Finland (2022, July 11). Medium-term Climate Change Policy Plan. Publications of the Ministry of the Environment 2022:20. Retrieved from,  https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/164274/YM_2022_20.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y   
The Icelandic waste sector was responsible for 2% of total emissions in Iceland, including emissions from LULUCF, but 6% if excluding emissions from LULUCF. Total emissions from the sector have increased by 5.4% since 1990. However, emissions have been on a downward trend since 2007 due to both actions in waste management, such as enhanced recycling, and changed consumption patterns after the financial crash of 2008
Keller, N., Helgadóttir, Á.K., Einarsdóttir, S.R., Helgason, R., Ásgeirsson, B.U., Helgadóttir, D.,Helgadóttir, I.R., Barr, B. C., Thianthong C. J. Hilmarsson, K.M., Tinganelli, L., Snorrason, A., Brink, S.H. & Þórsson, J. (2023, April 14). National Inventory Report. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in Iceland from 1990 to 2021. Environment Agency of Iceland. Retrieved from, https://ust.is/library/Skrar/loft/NIR/ISL_NIR%202023_15%20april_on_web.pdf
, leading to a decline in emissions by 18.6% between 2010 and 2021.
Waste currently accounts for 4% of Norwegian GHG emissions, mainly methane from (de-commissioned) land fills and CO2 from waste-to-energy plants
Miljøstatus (2023). Norske utslipp og opptak av klimagasser. Norwegian Environment Agency. Retrieved from,https://miljostatus.miljodirektoratet.no/tema/klima/norske-utslipp-av-klimagasser/ [Accessed 20.05.2023].
. The waste generated per capita in Norway is among the highest in Europe
Miljøstatus (2023). Avfall. Norwegian Environment Agency. Retrieved from,https://miljostatus.miljodirektoratet.no/tema/avfall/ [Accessed 20.05.2023].
. This means that the potential to recycle should also be high.
In total, Swedish emissions from the waste sector, with the exception of incineration of (non-hazardous) waste reported under the electricity and district heating sector, were 1 million tonnes in 2021. Emissions from waste treatment have decreased by around 75% compared to 1990 and by just over 50% compared to 2010. Two-thirds of the emissions come from waste landfills
Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (2023, April 6). National Inventory Report Sweden 2023. Retrieved from, https://unfccc.int/documents/627663

14.3. Pathways towards climate neutrality in the waste management sector

In Denmark, the DEA expect that national initiatives for reducing GHG emissions in the waste management sector will lead to an 8% reduction amounting to 0.06 million tonnes of CO2e between 2021 and 2030. In this scenario, the waste management sector will make up 2.4% of the expected emissions in 2030
Energistyrelsen (2023, April). Klimastatus og -fremskrivning, 2023. Retrieved from, https://ens.dk/sites/ens.dk/files/Basisfremskrivning/kf23_hovedrapport.pdf
. Furthermore, the DEA expects adopted regulation of methane leakage from biogas facilities to reduce emissions in the sector by 0.45 million tonnes in 2023. However, this is not included in the current projection as the effects are not yet fully documented
Klimarådet (2023). Sektorvurderinger, Baggrundsnotat til Klimarådets Statusrapport 2023, kapitel 3. Retrieved from,   https://klimaraadet.dk/sites/default/files/paragraph/field_download/Baggrundsnotat%20Sektorvurderinger.pdf
. Overall, the emissions are relatively small and expected to decrease further. Emissions reduction should still be encouraged but it is not clear how much emissions can be reduced in terms of what is technically and economically feasible. Thus, it may be necessary to accept, and thus compensate for, a minor residual emission in order to reach climate neutrality.
In the waste management sector, the overall target of 50% reduction by 2030 compared to 2005 levels set for the Finnish effort sharing sector by the EU will be achieved and overtaken due to measures already taken. The new Finnish waste law has strict obligations for separate collection of municipal waste and will also increase recycling thus reducing emissions of the sector in the long term. Additional measures include a Green Deal voluntary agreement under negotiation on emissions reduction from waste incineration, and a pilot project on CCUS technologies in waste incineration.
Ministry of the Environment Finland (2022, July 11). Medium-term Climate Change Policy Plan. Publications of the Ministry of the Environment 2022:20. Retrieved from,https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/164274/YM_2022_20.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y   
In Iceland, the overall strategy for mitigation from the waste sector has two pillars: to reduce food waste and to change waste management methods. The climate action plan includes three initiatives: a landfill tax, an EU mandated ban on landfilling organic waste and reduced food waste. The landfill tax was repealed by the Parliament citing lack of coordination with municipalities and thus has not been implemented. The ban on landfilling organic waste is in progress and a 24-item action plan has been set to reduce waste throughout the entire food value chain, resulting in 30% reduction by 2025 and 50% reduction in food waste by 2030
Umhverfis-, orku og loftslagsráðuneytið (2022). Stöðuskýrsla aðgerðaáætlunar í loftslagsmálum 2022. Retieved from, https://www.stjornarradid.is/library/02-Rit--skyrslur-og-skrar/URN/Stoduskyrsla_Adgerdaaaetlun_2022.pdf
. The Environmental Agency expects emissions in the sector, with current mitigation measures, to be 17% and 24% lower than 2021 emissions in 2030 and 2040, respectively
Helgadóttir, Á.K., Einarsdóttir, S.R., Keller, N., Helgason, R., Ásgeirsson, B.U., Helgadóttir, I.R., Barr, B.C., Hilmarsson, K.M., Thianthong, J.C., Snorrason, A., Tinganelli, L. & Þórsson, J. (2023, March 15). Report on Policies, Measures, and Projections. Projections of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Iceland until 2050. Environment Agency of Iceland. Retrieved from, https://ust.is/library/Skrar/loft/NIR/0_PaMsProjections_Report_2023_WITH%20BOOKMARKS.pdf
In Norway in 2021, 73% of the common waste fractions were recycled, but more than half of this was incinerated. The construction sector is responsible for the largest waste share, whereas the volume of household waste has been stable. New landfilling with biogenic waste became illegal in 2009, but existing landfills can remain, where methane emissions should be handled.
In many municipalities, plastics is a separate waste fraction for households and businesses, but more than half of the materials from households end up as residual waste and is not being recycled. 40% of the plastics materials in the waste have been used for packaging. A sizeable share of the plastics waste is exported to Germany and Sweden. Recycling of bottles for soft drinks is a success story, where 90% are being recycled and used for new bottles or other plastic products. There is a risk that most of the plastics materials are incinerated in the next use sequence.
Food waste in Norway is at 75 kg per capita and year (2020), out of which 40% is from households. 70% of the households can separate out food waste. From 2023, renovation companies will make waste separation into plastics and food categories available to households. Municipalities must achieve 70% recycling of food waste by 2035. Food waste is used for biogas production and compost, where the latter is used as fertilizer in agriculture.
In Sweden, the reduction in waste management emissions is mainly due to the fact that deposited organic waste has been reduced to low levels. This is in turn due to the landfill bans that were introduced at the beginning of the 2000s, at the same time as landfill gas recovery at the landfills continued and also increased in scope during the time period. Gas recovery volumes are now decreasing due to decreasing landfill gas generation at landfills.
Emissions from the waste sector are projected to continue to decrease, which is primarily due to the landfill bans for combustible waste and organic waste that have been introduced previously.

14.4. Challenges in the waste management sector on the way towards climate neutrality and opportunities for Nordic collaboration

Emissions from the waste management sector have declined significantly across the Nordic countries. The largest remaining issues are thus not related directly to emissions but instead other waste management issues such as waste generation, sorting and circularity.
Denmark is among the countries in Europe that generate the most household waste per capita
Eurostat (2023, August). Municipal waste statistics. Retrieved from,  https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Municipal_waste_statistics
although Denmark’s total waste generation is below the EU average. Emissions from the treatment of waste is minimal compared to the rest of the sector, but the production and use of materials consumed in Denmark have a major climate and resource footprint
Circle economy foundation (2023). The Circularity Gap Report Denmark. Retrieved from, https://www.circularity-gap.world/denmark
. Therefore, a main challenge for all types of waste is to reduce the amount of waste generated and at the same time increase recycling rates of sorted waste. A recent report concluded that Denmark is 4% circular and could increase circularity by applying a range of methods including opting for more resource-efficient lifestyles, minimising waste in the building sector and shifting to more resource-efficient diets with less waste
Circle economy foundation (2023). The Circularity Gap Report Denmark. Retrieved https://www.circularity-gap.world/denmark
In Finland, the main challenge in further reducing emissions lies in the relatively low recycling rate of household waste: 37% in 2020.
Finnish Environment Instiute (2022, December 15). The recycling of household waste has become more efficient in many municipal areas in Finland. https://www.syke.fi/en-US/Current/The_recycling_of_household_waste_has_bec(64499)#:~:text=The%20recycling%20rate%20of%20municipal,65%20per%20cent%20by%202035  
 Despite increasingly strict requirements for separating and collecting recyclable municipal waste streams, reaching recycling targets is challenging. The broader transition to a circular economy would require a large range of policies and measures, but few of them are being actively considered.
In Iceland, emissions from the waste sector have declined in recent years, in particular due to improved management of waste. Opportunities exist in more holistic treatment of waste, focusing not only on the management side but also on the amount of waste produced in addition to fostering circularity. The challenges to ensure effective mitigation from the waste sector include: i) the need to improve the waste management infrastructure, ii) engaging both business and consumers to reduce waste amounts and iii) to enhance circularity.  This requires, for example, better access to information, prevention of planned obsolescence and enhanced access to repair services. Finally, there are technical and cost-related challenges linked to mitigation from sewage and challenges related to cost effective treatment of solid waste in general.
For Norway a main challenge for reducing waste-related GHG emissions are insufficient systems for recirculation of many waste categories, including repair and re-use, leading to unnecessary resource use and high life cycle GHG emission. More recirculation requires that less waste ends up in the residual category. Since landfills are not allowed anymore, waste is incinerated in many plants in urban areas to produce energy for district heating. Due to capacity and cost conditions, a sizeable share of Norwegian waste is exported to Germany and Sweden, where GHG emissions depend on emissions reduction measures at these waste facilities. Given government support to CCS facilities and the high cost, CO2 emissions from waste-to-energy plants can be reduced, and possibly CO2 removal from biogenic waste generated.
In Sweden there has been a reduction of emissions from landfills, as more waste is being sorted to not end up in landfill and landfill gas recovery has increased. Emissions from landfills are, however, still the main contributor of emissions in the waste sector. The recovery of landfill gas is declining as the quantity of waste at deposits is going down.
It is important that policy instruments, as far as possible, reward circular carbon flows. Therefore, it can be seen as questionable to, e.g., equip waste facilities with CCS. This is because around 30% of what is burned up in waste incineration plants consists of various plastics produced from fossil raw materials. Solutions for recycling plastics in refineries are being developed where the plastic – unlike today's recycling processes – is returned to its original monomers (and such a recycling process would mean that new plastics can be manufactured that have not lost their properties). This would enable a fully circular system to be achieved
Cañete Vela, I., Berdugo Vilches, T., Berndes, G., Johnsson, F., Thunman, H. Co-recycling of natural and synthetic carbon materials for a sustainable circular economy (2022) Journal of Cleaner Production, 365, art. No. 132674, DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.132674
The treatment of sewage water and sludge also contributes to a large part of the emissions from this sector, accounting for 25% of emissions from waste treatment in 2021
Naturvårdsverket (2023, June 15). Avfall, utsläpp av växthusgaser. Retrieved from, https://www.naturvardsverket.se/data-och-statistik/klimat/vaxthusgaser-utslapp-fran-avfall/ [Accessed 20.05.2023].
Across the Nordic countries, reductions can still be made in the emissions from the waste sector. There is a need for both a reduction in the amount of generated waste and a better handling of waste through increased reuse and recycling. This will, among other things, require investments in new recycling plants. All five Nordic countries have some degree of separate biowaste collection, which is an effective way to be able to recycle more. There is, however, still a challenge in increasing the recycling of biowaste further in all countries as there is still biowaste that ends up in mixed residual waste. Furthermore, there is also a challenge in developing the infrastructure for recycling and biowaste treatment, to ensure that there is a capacity to treat all sorted waste, so it does not end up in incineration.
According to the Circularity Gap Report there is generally a low degree of recycling materials in the Nordics. Norway, Sweden and Demark all score low on the Circularity Metric, meaning that only between 2.4-4% of all consumed materials make it back into the economy as recycled materials in these countries. Moving towards a more circular economy is also a topic being discussed at an EU level with a new Circular economy action plan
European Comission (n.d.) Circular economy action plan. Retrieved from, https://environment.ec.europa.eu/strategy/circular-economy-action-plan_en [Accessed 20.05.2023].
setting out to ensure less waste and create more sustainable products in the EU. The need for a more circular economy is a cross-sector challenge, in terms of increasing the use of sustainable materials, extending maintenance and improving resource recovery.
Unlike the other sectors, there are no major shared Nordic challenges in reducing emissions in the waste management sector. The issues described above touch broader environmental issues and are thus outside the scope of this report.