Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Castle, the Cathedral and the Smokestacks

I originally published this in 2003, I believe. A shorter form of this also appeared in the Anchorage Daily News.

In a beautiful city whose skyline boasts the distinctive shape of a castle of Swedish kings and the soaring spires of the flagship cathedral of the Church of Sweden, the very tall smokestacks of Uppsala's Vattenfall seem at first a little out of place. But I came to understand over the course of a year spent there recently that they, like the castle and the cathedral, are monuments in their own right.

The purposes of the castle and the cathedral were fairly obvious, but I did not for some months understand the purposes of the smokestacks. They were not far from our house, and each time I stepped out, I could see them over the tops of the trees near our house. I thought they were simply industrial smokestacks. A neighbor explained them to me one day in excellent English.

The heat always on during cold days and nights in our multi-unit house was piped to us from the Vattenfall (= waterfall) plant, he said. Electricity comes from the same source; augmented, of course, by a regional electric power grid. What surprised me about what he said was that waste burnables are also burned here, and contribute to heat and light. It was a cool afternoon, but even so, the smoke was not very visible. Efficient scrubbers cleaned most of the particulates out of the smoke stream.

Nearly all of Uppsala is heated from the plant at the base of the Vattenfall smokestacks. Steam radiates out through the community in subterranean corridors. Radiators in the floor or along the walls or in heat exchangers are always on in inverse proportion to outside temperature. Individual radiator controls allow for variation within a building.

We had pieced together much of the rest of the system over our preceding months in the community. We had learned early on that trash must be separated before disposal: source sorting it is called. The signs - in Swedish -- on the garbage containers outside our row house were cryptic at first, but my lexicon clarified that the biggest was for burnables. Another was for organic material - compost. Others were for cardboard or heavy paper, hard plastic, and metal. Disposal trucks came on a regular schedule to haul away one or the other. Our house association paid for this.

We could throw away plastic drink containers if we wanted, but the fact was we were strongly motivated to return them to a grocery store. The bigger containers had a return deposit fee of about $0.40. Besides….it was fun to put the bottles in the automated return devices. We put them in headfirst, waited for the green light and put in the next bottle. Crates of beverage bottles could be returned for credit in specialized machines in larger stores. Beverages packaged in aluminum cans had automated machines, too, and printed credit slips just like those for plastic. We would hand the bar-coded credit slip to the cashier, and reduce the overall price for our grocery items.

If you looked at my list above closely, you might have noticed the absence of glass waste, newspapers and magazines. Glass items we cleaned and brought to large round-top containers scattered around the community marked "colored" and "clear." Swedes use more glass in packaging food than we do. Light bulbs had to go into yet another container, as did dry cell batteries. Newspapers and magazines we placed in a central location in the common area of the house. They were bagged monthly and left out for the recycling trucks.

We never threw away anything large, like a television set, a car, or a computer, but each of these have disposal procedures as well. I think the largest item I disposed of was our small Christmas tree. I cut off its limbs, cut the trunk in half and placed it among the burnables. Sometime later it returned to us in the form of electricity and heat.

There is more to the recycling system than I have indicated here. Our limited command of the language kept us from more fully understanding its intricacies, but what we saw impressed us with its integration and completeness. We never thought it onerous or complicated. We quickly adapted to life with multiple disposal containers.

While we observed a bit of litter in some particularly public places, by and large, Sweden is an exceptionally clean country. A well-entrenched recycling system contributes to that, but I believe it is also true that most Swedes are temperamentally inclined to keep their surroundings clean.

Pollution is a fact of life wherever people live, but Swedes have done an impressive job of reducing the fouling of their air and water. The waters of Lake Mälaren flow in several channels through Stockholm, the capital and largest city. In the summer months, some Swedes fish right downtown - and the fact that they can and do eat their catch is a remarkable testament of their national commitment to clean air and water.

While I recognize great differences exist between Sweden and Alaska, there may be some lessons for us here. Uppsala is about the latitude of Homer, and the climate is somewhat similar to Anchorage, although a little warmer in winter.

People in Uppsala don't seem to think much about recycling and sorting their waste…it's just the way these people live. It is an obviously more expensive system than that here, but seems to me to have advantages in reducing waste and energy costs.

My first glimpses of Uppsala took in with admiration the huge spires of the cathedral. Built beginning in the 13th century, it is a national treasure and a testament to the Christian heritage of the nation. Only slightly newer, the castle occupies a commanding hill nearby. Unusual in shape, it is still obviously a building of significance in the community. While I admire these two edifices, I find my imagination returning again and again to the tall Vattenfall smokestacks and the carefully organized system of recycling and reuse they represent that is so well applied in this ancient Swedish city.

1 comment:

  1. Hi David!

    Found your blog through Twitter. You might not remember me, but we took one or two courses together at Livets Ord University.

    All the best,