Norway's capital city has a serious waste management issue—they're way too good at it. Half of Oslo's 1.4 million residents rely on a steady stream of refuse to power their appliances and heat their homes. Problem is, there just isn't enough trash to go around.
Burning municipal waste—everything from household trash and industrial scrap to toxic, hazmat, and medical refuse—is big, big, business in Northern Europe. “Northern Europe has a huge generating capacity,” Pal Mikkelsen, head of Oslo's waste-to-energy agency, told the NYT, with more than 400 waste-to-energy plants currently operating in the region thanks to a multi-decade boom in plant construction. “There’s a European waste market — it’s a commodity,” Rooth Olbergsveen, senior adviser for Oslo’s waste recovery program, added. “It’s a growing market.” Unfortunately, this glut of capacity far outpaces the area's rate of trash production.
Overall, Northern Europe only produces about 150 million tons of burnable trash a year and yet they've built out their incineration capacity to support 700 million tons. The trash shortage has gotten so bad that municipalities have taken to not poaching disposal contracts from neighboring counties but importing it from other countries—England alone exports some 1,000 tons of trash annually. “I’d like to take some from the United States,” said Mikkelsen. “Sea transport is cheap.”
No matter how it gets to Oslo, the trash always ends up the same way: a pile of ash and a puff of flue gas. Incinerators burn municipal waste as a fuel source to produce heat, which boils a large amount of water into steam which then drives an electricity-generating turbine. This system is roughly 14 to 28% electrically efficient but with cogeneration systems that recycle the process waste heat into hot water for homes and flue gas condensers which recycle the fumes for biogas (which powers some of Oslo's metro bus lines), overall system efficiency jumps to between 80 and 100 percent. What's more, it reduces the garbage's mass by about 80 percent and its volume by about 90 percent, all while cooking contaminants and destroying toxins at high heat.
Unfortunately, there's no short term solution to Oslo's crippling trash shortage. Of course if city officials get really desperate, they can always check in with Naples, those guys are still digging out from the city's waste management crisis in 2011.