Valuable Insights From The Most Sustainable Countries In The World

With consumer-driven climate change, it’s critical to use our collective resources to make a positive impact on our planet.
 
There’s no point reinventing the wheel if others are already doing the work to make their country more sustainable.
 
I recognise that the application of these ideas isn’t universal. Every nation has different resources, climates and challenges. But it doesn’t mean we can’t draw inspiration from shared knowledge and experiences.
 
I hope this post reminds us to keep sustainability front of mind when it comes to systemic change. Whether it’s through global policy, or competition to “be the best country in the world”, we need to move with urgency.

 Below I share five valuable insights from the most sustainable countries in the world.
 
Most of these insights are not only applicable at a systemic level but also at an individual level.
 
Note: If you’re more interested in how countries rank against each other when it comes to sustainability, check out the Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

Insight 1 – Switzerland’s approach to wastewater management

It’s hard to talk about sustainability and not address our global water crisis, especially wastewater.
 
Wastewater systems pump micropollutants into our streams and rivers—disrupting the ecosystem.
 
These micropollutants include things like:
  • Human waste
  • Pharmasuaticauls
  • Feminine products
  • Beauty
  • Toxic chemicals from cosmetics and cleaning products
  • Plastic
  • Pesticides from agricultural activities
Switzerland is a pioneer when it comes to preserving water quality. They solve wastewater problems through the National Surface Water Quality Monitoring Programme. They’re also aggressive in their expansion of wastewater plants across the country.
 
Wastewater plants are responsible for filtering out micropollutants, and turning it into useable consumable water, while also limiting the amount of wastewater going back into rivers and streams.
 
Establishing a network of quality of wastewater plants is a massive undertaking for any country. Yet, Switzerland has made it a priority, and are starting to see results.
 

Results from Switzerland’s wastewater implementation

In 1967, wastewater treatment was written into Swiss law. Formalising legislation shows that water quality has been a priority for many decades.

The Swiss followed through on their laws by building wastewater plants across the country. Creating access to more plants ensures high connection rates to their residents.

There are approximately 900 wastewater treatment plants across Switzerland. As of 2005, 97% of the Swiss population was connected to a sewage treatment plant.

Key takeaway: prioritise water preservation through legislation and research. Also, build wastewater treatment plants across the country. We can measure the results by tracking the percentage of residents connected to treatment plants, as well as the percentage of waste going into nature.

What can we do at an individual level? Limit our use of micropollutants in our daily lives.

Insight 2 – How the French address fashion waste

Big-name fashion brands have been incinerating unused inventory in an attempt to uphold scarcity.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Brands like Burberry dare to light 40 million dollars worth of product on fire. Even after considering all the resources and waste from producing their products in the first place!

Read more: The True Cost of a $10 Garment

Luckily, the growing population of mindful consumers are challenging fashion brands to move to more sustainable practices.

Deadstock waste comes from overproducing garments—miss calculating trends and forecasts.

France is a global leader in high-end fashion. According to Forbes, $730 million of unsold stock is destroyed each year!

So the French created a groundbreaking law to ban designer clothing and luxury goods brands from destroying unsold or returned items.

The bill requires producers, importers and distributors, including online firms such as Amazon, to donate unsold non-food goods except those that pose a health or safety risk.

Also, part of the bill encourages brands to be more transparent about the resources used to make their products. This includes the estimated lifespan of products to help consumers make better decisions at the point of sale.

Key takeaway: write legislation to make retailers reuse or recycle unused products to reduce waste. Challenge companies to use clear labelling about the sustainability of their products. We can measure results by tracking the percentage of remaining inventory saved within a given period.

What can we do at an individual level? Support sustainable fashion brands or opt to shop second hand. Additionally, ask retailers how they deal with their deadstock to spark a conversation through feedback.

french retail

Insight 3 – France, Italy and South Korea tackle food waste

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) a third of the world’s food is wasted each year including;

  • 45% of all fruits and vegetables
  • 35% of fish and seafood
  • 30% of cereals
  • 20% of dairy products
  • 20% of meat

It’s terrifying how inefficient our food waste systems are considering that 1 in 7 people on the planet is undernourished!

What’s interesting is that much of the food wastage in developed nations happens at a consumer level. Conversely, most food wastage in developing countries come from production.
 
In other words, developed nations have a robust infrastructure for food production but are picky eaters.
 

How the French approach food waste

To combat food waste, France has emerged as one of the leaders with what they’ve implemented.

In 2015, France passed a law that stops grocery stores from discarding food that is approaching the used-by date. Instead, stores must donate their food to charities and food banks.

France imposes contracts on supermarkets that, if violated, will lead to hefty fines and even prison sentences.

While this bill is a positive move in the right direction for food sustainability, there’s still work to be done. For grocery stores to meet the requirements of the French government, all they need to show that they have donated food within a period. This could be a little as 1 per cent of their total food wastage, to merely tick a box.

It’s not like retailers want to do the wrong thing. A lot of the issues around food waste in supermarkets is around the health risks of distributing food. These grocery stores are understandably trying to avoid lawsuits.

How Italy approaches food waste

Six months after the French law was established, Italy made legislation of their own.
 
Unlike the French law, which penalises supermarkets that fail to follow the rules, the Italian law focuses on making it easier for companies to donate unsold food.
 
The Italian’s have more relaxed regulations. For example, food passed the used-by date can be donated—giving food companies more confidence to reduce their food wastage.

How South Korea approaches food waste

 
While Italy is more subtle in its approach to addressing food wastage at a commercial level, South Korea has been far more aggressive to address consumer behaviour, and they have results to show for it!
 
Between 2013 and 2017, Seoul reduced its food waste by 10%!
 
How did they do it? Well, the government enforced a law that requires residents to pay for the amount of food waste they generate.
 
The people of Seoul must dispose of their waste in a special bin which is accessed using an identification card. The container weighs the waste and generates a bill to the resident based on the weight.
 
I can only imagine how motivating it would be to reduce your waste if you were charged for it.
 
With any leftover waste, the South Korean’s devised a recycling system that turns food waste into animal feed and biogas, which is burned to produce energy.
 
 
Key takeaways: at a commercial level, create laws to ensure grocery stores are recycling food products, and establish clear standards on how to do it. At an individual level, charge residents for the amount of waste they produce.
 
What can we do at an individual level? This easiest thing we can do is to eat all of the food we purchase. Don’t let any food go to waste, whether it’s in your pantry, fridge or on your plate.

Insight 4 – Denmark’s approach to sustainable heating

Providing adequate heating for our day-to-day lives is a huge consideration when it comes to sustainable living.

Heating dwellings using individual heat boilers are inefficient. That’s where district heating comes into play.

District heating is the process of using large centralised heating plants to distribute hot water through underground pipes to each property in the district.

These shared boilers are far more efficient than individual boilers.

District heating has been around since the 1870s and has evolved many generations over time.

The benefit of district heating is that you can combine electricity and heating in the same plants—enabling more efficient production.

What’s impressive about these heat networks is the ability to redistribute heat that would be otherwise wasted. For instance, the excess heat produced by electricity generating stations, factories, server farms, and public transport goes back into the network. This process helps reduce waste, lower carbon emissions and fuel consumption—all while saving everybody money.

Furthermore, the energy source in the heating plants can be adjusted, which makes it easier to add renewable sources.

While district heating has many benefits, the challenge remains the cost of implementation. This is particularly expensive when trying to retrofit properties to support the infrastructure. It’s more cost-effective to establish district heating when building new properties.

Results from Denmark’s district heating strategy

One country that has taken district heating to the heart is Denmark. Up until the oil crisis in the 1970s, 90% of Denmark’s energy came from imported oil. 90%!
 
So as you can imagine, once the oil stopped coming into the country, residents suffered.
 
From that moment, Denmark has invested heavily in district heating networks with a focus on renewables and efficiency.
 
Today 63% of Danish households are powered by district heating. That is an incredible turnaround, considering how dependent this nation once was on imported oil.
 
To put these results into perspective, only 2% of the households in the UK are powered by district heating.
 
A report by Buro Happold in 2013 found that the wasted heat in London alone is enough to meet 70% of the city’s heating needs.
 
Now that Denmark has established a heating network, they have plans of expanding to as many districts as possible. At the same time, the Danish are improving the sustainability of the fuels they use.
 

Key takeaways: many developed nations are already trying to increase district heating services, but it’s about putting a long-term plan in place to understand the return on investment and environmental impact over many years to come, and committing.

Insight 5 – Sweden’s controversial approach to recycling household waste

When you think of the most sustainable countries in the world, recycling usually comes to mind.

What percentage of waste does a nation recycle? That’s the metric used to measure how “green” a country is compared to others.

While there are many more factors to sustainability, it’s understandable why the measure of household waste is close to our hearts. After all, recycling is one of the first things we’re taught in school to help the planet.

When reviewing waste allocation, we’re looking at the lifecycle of waste with four different outcomes:

  1. Waste which ends up in landfill – this is the worst-case scenario, as burying waste emits an incredible amount of greenhouse gases.
  2. Waste which gets incinerated – it’s commonly argued that a better alternative to dumping waste in landfill is to burn out waste instead. Sounds crazy, I know! Landfills generate methane which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 due to biodegradable waste going in and decomposing without oxygen. While not ideal, incineration is another viable option for household waste.
  3. Waste which gets incinerated and then turned into energy – at least with this option the CO2 emissions are a byproduct of producing recycled energy. Again, it’s not perfect, but it’s a better path than landfill or incineration without the production of energy.
  4. Waste which is successfully recycled or composted – by far the most sustainable destination for waste is to recycle by reusing or composting completely.

And that’s where the Swede’s come in…

Sweden has long been a pioneer of household waste, with less than 1% of waste ending up in the landfill.

At a consumer level, Sweden has installed recycling stations no more than 300 metres from any residential area. These stations have far more options than bottles and cans.

They have separate bins for plastic, paper, metal, glass, electric appliances, light bulbs, and batteries.

It’s through these stations and focused media attention about the importance of sustainability; Sweden has developed a culture of recycling.

With this implementation, Sweden now successfully recycles 50% of its waste.

What happens to the other 50% of their waste?

This waste gets incinerated in fire chambers and then turned into energy thus almost no waste going to landfill.

If you’re interested, check out this video showing the Swedes philosophy when it comes to recycling.

Key takeaways: install recycling stations within walking distance to residents with options to distribute household waste. Weigh up the pros and cons of incinerating leftover waste and turning it into power.

What can we do at an individual level? Make it our top priority to reuse and compost our household waste where possible.

Half-insight – Germany, Denmark, Sweden considering a meat tax

Whether its greenhouse gases, deforestation, water quality, or air quality, meat (particularly beef) is a huge contributor to many of our environmental issues.

In an attempt to combat the detrimental impact of meat production, nations such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden are entertaining the idea of introducing a meat tax, to reduce the consumption of meat.

I’ve added in this strategy as a half-insight, as of the time of publishing this post, meat tax hasn’t been fully developed.

We’ve seen the effectiveness of taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and soft drinks to control consumer behaviour. The basic premise is if you want to reduce the consumption of a good, make it more expensive.

Germany seems to be the most outspoken about their plans to increase their meat tax from the reduced rate of 7% to a standard rate of 19%.

However, there’s still much debate on the effectiveness of raising the value-added tax on meat as nations continue looking at creative ways to reduce meat consumption.

In the meantime, a study from The University of Oxford found that going vegan is the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact on the planet. The study is the most comprehensive analysis to date when it comes to reviewing the detrimental effects of animal agriculture on the environment.

A study by The University of Oxford found that going vegan is the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact. Click To Tweet

Meat tax or not, we have the power to dramatically help the future of our planet by adopting a vegan lifestyle. Luckily, it’s never been easier to become vegan. Check out my comprehensive guide below to help you get started.

Read more: How To Go Vegan: A Guide On How To Transition To a Vegan Lifestyle

There’s so much to learn from the most sustainable countries in the world

The race to a more sustainable future is well on its way, and while not any strategy is perfect, the insights shared in this post show that nations are really trying to solve environmental problems.

And the most exciting part is, this is only scratching the surface. So many countries are doing incredible things to create a sustainable future.

Again, if you’re interested, check out the complete ranking of the most sustainable countries in the world via the Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

I hope this post has given you hope that change is happening at a systemic level, and your individual efforts to reduce your footprint is not a complete waste of time.

I’d love to hear from you now. Did you learn anything new in this post? Is there anything your country has implemented successfully to improve sustainability? Let me know in the comments below.

Valuable Insights From The Most Sustainable Countries In The World

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  • Dominic 16/02/2020 Reply

    Great to hear from you again! I was worried about you guys for a while. These other nations put the US to shame, unfortunately. I didn’t even know district heating was a thing, and I am a scientist! It seems like a great idea, but I fear many people here would not even consider it because it would take away your freedom and patriotic duty to keep the thermostat as high as it goes. Sounds crazy, I know, but that is how some people think here.
    It is sad because we have the desert southwest which is blasted with sun, and the very windy plains of the midwest. Between the renewable energy sources in these two areas, we could power the entire country If we really wanted to, but instead there is a push for more coal.
    The disfunction in the US is, among other things, a result of the Senate which is not representative of the nation. 40 percent of senators represent only 10 percent of the population, so this small population of the nation spread across many rural states has much more power than than any highly populated states such as California. A similar problem is the Electoral College which again, favors low population states. So a majority of the US population does want to see a more efficient infrastructure, but because of the distribution of people, national policies are moving in the opposite direction.
    As for me, I have recently moved much closer to work so unless it is raining heavily, I ride my bike to work. It’s only about 1.5 miles (2.4 km). I timed it, and biking is actually faster because there is almost no traffic for bikes!

    • Hey Dom! Haha, yup, we took a 6-week break to recharge and move cities—but we’ve been back for a few weeks. We’re currently living on an eco-friendly farm in Tasmania, and it’s been great so far 🙂

      Yeah, I must admit that there weren’t many forward-thinking case studies coming out of the US regarding sustainability, but I’m sure some parts of the country are doing incredible things.

      Wow, what an untapped resource in the midwest! I bet you’ve racked your brain around all of the inefficiencies, but I love how you keep fighting to do what you can.

      Michael

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