I’m here to talk rubbish. That’s a bit silly, you think. I’m supposed to be talking about something underrated. But when you get a brief like that, to talk about something underrated, how do you choose? There are thousands of underrated things; books, movies, art. I thought rubbish was a safe bet. Rubbish is totally underrated. And I’m talking real rubbish here, the literal kind, the garbage that you throw in your bins at home every day. How could that possibly be underrated, you may ask.
Well, let me go back to the beginning. Because I am Swedish, and my book The Hum of Concrete which is nominated for this award, is set in Sweden I feel like I can make this tenuous connection. Not that the book is about rubbish. Not at all. It’s about love and sex and friendships and family. About cobblestone streets, cycle paths and parks full of ducks. About strong women and the choices they make. It’s about living life to the full in the space you have created for yourself and to open your mind to new influences. You’d have to read it to see what I mean.
Anyway, the point is that I grew up in Sweden and I think of myself very much as a product of that society. So when I arrived in Australia 15 years ago I never understood all the talk about landfill. What do you mean you just dump all the rubbish in big heaps somewhere and let it fester and leak methane gas? It didn’t make any sense to me. Not that I had a clear idea of what happened to rubbish in Sweden and I wasn’t quite interested enough to investigate it (we are talking rubbish after all…). I couldn’t justify it as research for my novel.
However, a few months ago a cute little Facebook picture started circulating the internet proclaiming that Sweden now has to import rubbish for its incinerators. Yes, it’s true. Apparently, even though Sweden is at the forefront of the recycling boom and there is hardly any rubbish left to burn, the stations are set up to provide heating for thousands of houses. So when the rubbish runs out, Sweden has to import more to keep the burning going. Rubbish arrives from Italy as well as Norway, providing excellent burning material for the Swedish treatment plants. And it’s not just about burning rubbish, it is also about letting rubbish rot and capturing the gas emitted to use as fuel for vehicles.
It is a green solution. In 2007, this way of treating rubbish reduced the greenhouse gas emissions by 500.000 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent. The carbon dioxide equivalent is a tricky measure but let’s just say that some greenhouse gases are worse than others. And they are all measured in comparison to carbon dioxide. Methane for example is a nasty one, causing 21 times the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in comparison to carbon dioxide. So the reduction from rubbish treatment in Sweden is roughly the same as car travel by 300.000 Swedes per year. That’s significant.
The main reasons for the reduction are:
1. The imported rubbish replaces other heating and electricity production, which in Sweden includes nuclear energy and imported energy from coal plants in Eastern Europe.
2. The main reason for the reduction, though, is that it means that the rubbish won’t be lying in a heap in its country of origin, spewing out methane, which as we all now know, is terrible for the environment.
Because most countries, Australia included, haven’t invested in treatment plants that can actually use our garbage in productive and beneficial ways, the world is filling up with rubbish. In our seas, rubbish is congregating into islands. Whales are found washed up on beaches with stomachs full of plastic bags. Is this really how we want to leave this planet for future generations?
The Hum of Concrete doesn’t have an obvious environmental theme. But its characters enjoy the outdoors and they all have children. Have children of my own, as I’m sure many of you do too. If we are all going to be able to enjoy our beautiful countries, be it Sweden or Australia, isn’t it time to seriously consider how we treat the earth today?
Rather than putting it in the too hard basket, why don’t we turn the spot light on rubbish? I suggest that just as these wonderful books shortlisted for this award tonight are underrated, so is rubbish. So let’s talk about literature. And let’s talk rubbish. Thank you!