Sustainable Sweden—The Natural Step

January, 2006

by Amanda Porter

Plymouth State students explore Sweden's Viking heritage at Tegelviken School in Eskilstuna.

Plymouth State students explore Sweden's Viking heritage at Tegelviken School in Eskilstuna.

Could Plymouth, N.H., ever become free of fossil fuels? Or the state of New Hampshire? Or the entire United States? Maybe someday they could, by following “The Natural Step” like several communities in Sweden. Last May, a group of us had the opportunity to see The Natural Step process in action in three different-sized Swedish cities: Kungsor, Eskilstuna and Stockholm.

The Natural Step is being used by businesses around the world to ensure that they are working towards sustainability. The guidelines state that in a sustainable society, nature shouldn’t be subject to increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust, degradation by physical means or increasing concentrations of substances produced by society, but that human needs should also be met.

“Sustainable Sweden” was a three-credit course offered during the first summer session of 2005 by Steve Whitman, who teaches geography in PSU’s social science department. He says he was “really interested in exposing the students to a framework used to make more sustainable decisions.” Of the 15 undergraduate and two graduate students in the class, most were from Plymouth State and a few came from UNH for the class. We met on campus three times to prepare before leaving for Sweden. For our textbook, we used The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns Can Change to Sustainable Practices by Sarah James and Torbjörn Lahti.

Anticipation for this trip was very intense for me. I had never traveled out of the country before. Having lived in a degraded urban area my entire life, I was excited to see what other communities were doing to change their future.

These city busses run on bio-gas made from recycled waste.

These city busses run on bio-gas made from recycled waste.

Our first stop was Eskilstuna, a city of about 57,000. Here, Torbjörn Lahti spoke to us about creating The Natural Step. He said he “wanted to change the world,” so he went out and did it. At the end of his lecture, he told us that it was our turn to change the world. Indeed, if one man could do it so easily—why not us?

At the Eskilstuna city hall, speakers talked about what was being done in the municipality to ensure they were moving towards complete freedom from fossil fuels, other resource extraction and pollution. Such steps include producing less waste, recycling as much as possible and using alternative energy. The people were very excited to meet with American students, and an American flag had been raised in front of the city hall to welcome us.

The next day, we visited what may be the most beautiful school I have ever seen. Tegelviken is a completely nontoxic school, hosting about 250 students between the ages of one and 16. Tegelviken is entirely free of toxins, including all building materials. The school processes their grey water (from sinks and showers) on site in a manmade wetland that empties into the Malarden River. Dirty water is filtered by plants in these holding lakes. By the time it empties into the river, it is completely safe and better quality than the river itself. The black water (from toilets) is composted and spread on agricultural fields for non-edible crops.

Another impressive feature of the school was its ventilation system. Air is carried through the school by means of natural air ducts, fueled mostly by gravity. Large, deliberately placed windows allow for maximum natural light, reducing the need for artificial light. There are no motors running. The “hum” of computers, lighting and air conditioning that Americans have grown to ignore doesn’t exist here. The students at the school are educated about these processes, with the hope that they will continue such sustainable practices into adulthood.

Nearby is the Eckby Wetland, a 13-acre, manmade wetland that processes about 80 percent of Eskilstuna’s human waste. Solid waste, known as “sludge,” is pressed and the methane extracted and used to run city buses in the form of bio-gas. A few buildings are also heated with this bio-gas. Grey and black water are filtered through a series of eight wetlands, using gravity and natural leeching, so no electricity is needed. Seven days later, when it reaches the Malarden River, the treated water is cleaner than it may have been before it arrived in residents’ houses!

The Eckby Wetlands are the largest manmade wetlands in the world, and I can’t help but wonder, can they last? Certainly, they seem to be doing fine so far. There are hundreds of different plants, and bird watchers travel great distances to view rare species that are commonly seen around these wetlands. There is little trace of the stench that lingers at most treatment plants. As we walked around the wetlands, I never would have known they treated more than three-quarters of Eskilstuna’s waste.

Second, we visited Kungsor, a town of 8,200, which was at one time economically devastated when many industries left the area for the big cities. The municipality was struggling, and the younger generations were moving out, leaving Kungsor with a dismal and uncertain future. Residents of Kungsor decided to market what they had, an abundance of nature. Today, Kungsor thrives on tourism, attracting residents of Swedish cities eager to escape their hectic lives.

Kungsor is taking deliberate steps to ensure that the wilderness lasts here. Many meadows and forests are managed under a close eye. In Swedish municipalities, there are no “private property” signs such as Americans are familiar with. Provided you are not in view of someone’s house, you may camp or hike wherever you want. Because Kungsor is sparsely inhabited, it’s popular with campers and hikers.

We also saw an incredible machine that processes an alternative fuel. Gravity filters rapeseeds into the machine (which, ironically, is made in the U.S. to process vegetable oil). These seeds are squeezed, pressing out 38 percent of their oil. This oil can be used to heat homes. The remaining seeds are given to local farmers, who use the grain to feed their animals. Not only does this eliminate waste coming from the factory, but it helps local farmers as well.

Last on the itinerary was Stockholm, a city of 1,705,000 and capital of Sweden. I am an environmental planning major and my main interest is in urban planning and redevelopment, so this is what I was looking forward to most. Everything is very fast paced, much like American cities, but Stockholm is much cleaner than places like New York.

Students tour Understenshojden ecological house development, Stockholm.

Students tour Understenshojden ecological house development, Stockholm.

Here, we visited Understenshöjden, a neighborhood built over a former parking lot. Grey and black water are processed on site, most food is locally grown, and buildings use natural materials, like untreated wood and egg-based paints. Houses are accessible by car, but vehicles are generally left on the outside of the neighborhood.

One would never know this site was once a parking lot—there is incredible vegetation, water, pathways and wildlife. I found this to be most inspiring. In America, I could not have imagined such a lush community over pavement—and just a five-minute walk from a train station. I turned one way and saw walkways through dense trees. I turned around and saw high-rise apartments in the distance. Sweden is creative in many aspects. No land is a “lost cause” to them, as this neighborhood demonstrates.

Transportation in Sweden is unlike anything in the U.S. Thousands of people bike year-round—there is hardly any consideration for personal vehicles in many areas. Bikes were very common in Eskilstuna, but less so in Stockholm, as biking is difficult in many large cities. The buses and trains are fast, on time and fairly cheap to ride. It is also easy to switch from one mode of public transit to another, which I feel is one of the main problems with public transportation in the U.S.

This trip demonstrated how dedicated many communities are to sustainability. I feel the Swedish stand out from even the most environmentally savvy Americans. For the Swedish, low-impact living is practically subconscious—they eat, think, work and travel with the environment in mind. Sweden is decades ahead of the United States in many ways. They are demonstrating firsthand that opting for the more expensive initial costs of sustainability has a big pay off in both the immediate and distant future.

Returning to the States, I felt overwhelmed and a little depressed. How was I supposed to change the world when my hometown was still in debt, plagued with violence and desperate for affordable housing? How was I supposed to make a difference, when others tossed plastic bottles out of their car windows and dumped bags of trash into local rivers?

Since the trip, I have learned that for now, while there is little I can do about the behavior of others, I can make changes in my everyday life. I think about the energy I use, where the food I eat comes from and what happens to the products I dispose of. I shop for local or American-made products when I can, and I am much more aware of what goes into the food I eat. As Steve Whitman says, “Changing our own behavior and leading by example is a valuable step toward being a more sustainable society.”

While I can’t afford to shop locally and use recycled materials as often as I would like to, I believe that thinking and learning are the first and most important steps in the sustainability process. I talk about what I learned to anyone who will listen. Just writing this article means my words are reaching across the country. As college students, this is one of the best things we can do.

Amanda Porter is from Springfield, Mass. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental planning.

[Editor’s Note: Before we went to press, Steve Whitman informed us that in May and June 2006, Plymouth State students will be traveling to Iceland and Scotland to learn about sustainability practices in these countries.]

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