June 7-9: Brand-Led Culture Change Virtual Event

Waste Not
Plastics Recycling Worldwide Takes One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

While the circular economy hits its stride in Sweden, recycling comes to a standstill in the US as it comes face-to-face with the realities of China’s new scrap ban.

US shopping malls may be in fatal decline, but in Sweden, shopping centers are helping push the envelope on the circular agenda.

Located 100 kilometers west of Stockholm in the Swedish city of Eskilstuna, the ReTuna Återbruksgalleria is revolutionizing the concept of retail. Aesthetically speaking, the shopping center boasts many of the same elements as a traditional mall — 14 shops, a restaurant, an exhibition area and conference facilities — but there’s one crucial difference, everything on offer is either upcycled or repaired. Opened in 2015, ReTuna Återbruksgalleria is the first of its kind both in Sweden and the world.

To stock its shelves, the center boasts its own recycling depot where people can drop off goods they longer want or need. Items that can be repaired or refurbished are put to the side, then sent to workshops where they are repaired, later finding their way into one of the center’s 14 specialist boutiques. Consumers can find everything from furniture to electronics, building materials and clothes.

The in-house restaurant offers a myriad of organic options and there’s even a training college on-site for studying recycling.

The concept might be a new one, but it falls in line with Sweden’s position as an emerging sustainability powerhouse. The country was one of the first to impose a heavy tax on fossil fuels and in 2012 reached its 2020 goal to source 50 percent of its electricity from renewables. Currently, 99 percent of the country’s household waste is recycled and Sweden has even begun importing trash from other countries to keep its incineration plants going.

Meanwhile, new scrap import regulations in China are having far-reaching effects, leaving municipalities along the West Coast of the US scrambling to come up with new solutions for mounting recyclable materials.

Back in July, the World Trade Organization (WTO) announced that China was planning to stop accepting imports of 24 types of solid waste materials by the end of the year, including certain kinds of scrap plastic, paper, textiles and slag from manufacturing iron or steel. At the time, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) suggested that the ban could be catastrophic — a fear that is now coming to fruition.

Municipalities in Oregon and Wisconsin are already beginning to feel the effects — curbside recycling has been suspended for plastic items and cartons in Lane County, OR communities, where service is no longer deemed viable due to contamination risk and low market value. Portland’s Far West Recycling and providers in Madison, WI have stopped accepting rigid plastics and, according to Waste Dive, Oregon’s Jackson County has been forced to run single-stream materials through sorting lines twice to reduce contamination. Across the West Coast, baled materials are beginning to pile up in warehouse and ports.

The growing issue serves as a warning to the rest of the country, which is slated to begin feeling the effects of the ban in coming months. Service disruptions are projected, but stakeholders in the already-effected markets hope that the critical situation will help prompt a shift towards cleaner chemistry, as well as greater investment in domestic processing facilities. But in the meantime, with the full effects of the issue unknown, more instability is expected.


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