Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians don't just nod to the green revolution, they live. Awed by disposal techniques, Daniel Butler makes comparisons.
Remember The Good Life? It was the '70s sitcom about self-sufficiency in Surbiton and 15 years on it still makes Britain laugh. While today we may feel good using lead-free petrol or visiting the bottle bank, most of us still think of Tom and Barbara Good when we see a Friends of the Earth tee-shirt.
The attitude is deep-rooted. As the birthplace of the industrial revolution, for the last 250 years our statesmen and industrialists have adopted a 'We-didn't-get-where-we-are-today-by-worrying-about- pollution' approach. And with justice. Despite the claims of 'dark greens', we live in a country that is fairly clean, drink safe water and breathe non-toxic air.
Our attitude horrifies Scandinavians. All, young and old, Left and Right, believe in the green lifestyle and have put it into practice for years. Scandinavian pollution controls are among the strictest in the world. Oslo's streets are spotless and Copenhagen's inhabitants hardly seem to need pavement litter bins.
The Scandinavians have been concerned about rubbish since the beginning of this century. Just as we were realising there might be a limit to how much one could tip into the Thames, the Danes were trying to find alternatives to burying the stuff. And the picture is the same today. What little the Danes bury goes into carefully selected sites lined with 20 feet of impermeable clay. Once sealed, the water inside is monitored by scientists.
The Scandinavian approach is as thorough as their lavatories are spotless. It was in 1931 that the Danes opened their first incinerator. Its job was to cut down on the volume of rubbish buried and reduce the amount of material that might leach out. From the start an eye was kept on costs. The plant also produced heat which, fed into a hot water loop beneath Copenhagen, helped heat the city. That plant was decommissioned in 1971, hut its replacement, at Amagerforbraending just outside the city, is far larger, dealing with 315,000 tonnes of rubbish each year and generating about 600,000 megawatt hours of energy. Together with a sister plant, it burns 70% of Copenhagen's domestic waste and only 2% of the original volume ends up being buried. In 1993, the city expects to bury only 14% of all its domestic and industrial waste, with 48% being recycled and 38% being burned. The plant is fully computerised and needs no fuel other than rubbish (there is an on-site generator, powered by the refuse).
Fourteen hours ferry ride to the north, near Oslo, there is a similar approach. Domestic and light industrial rubbish is collected at a plant in Grinda, home of Norway's oldest industries. It is sorted in a state of-the-art machine which bounces the lighter paper and plastic out of the detritus of modern life. This is dried and turned into pellets which can be burnt by neighbouring hospitals and factories. After a magnet has extracted any recyclable metal, the remaining rubbish is buried - but the Norwegians still haven't finished with it. As it rots, it gives off methane. This is collected to fuel the plant's drying process, and - the plant managers hope - to be sold off to local industry. When exhausted fast-growing willows are planted on the sealed dumps, to be harvested and sold as domestic fire-wood three years later. After this the dumps are sealed permanently under a topsoil made from the composted food scraps sieved from the refuse.
By burning in kilns the Scandinavians are merely harvesting the energy of the decaying process. The waste gases from the incinerators are also filtered, producing air that is purer than that in the centre of Copenhagen say the plant owners. In doing so they are also saving vast amounts of fuel that would otherwise have to be imported (the Amagerforbraending plant alone saves the rough equivalent of £20 million a year in fossil fuels).
So why aren't we turning rubbish into energy, cutting our balance of payments, and saving the Green Belt? The answer lies mainly in national temperaments. Despite the advanced technology, Scandinavian rubbish still needs some sorting at source. Every Dane, Swede and Norwegian puts his or her domestic waste into at least two piles. Unless someone finds money for a massive educational campaign it is difficult to see a nation still sniggering at the eccentricities of Tom and Barbara Good following that lead.
Daniel Butler is a freelance journalist.