You’ve probably heard about how Sweden is running out of garbage. And it’s true: The country of just shy of 10 million people sends less than 1 percent of its household waste to landfills. What waste is generated is burned to create electricity and energy to heat homes.
The flip side of that is Swedish citizens have a real zest for recycling, too. Almost everything that can be recycled, is. It’s both these aspects of the Swedish waste system that have led to their reputation of generating so little waste.
Recycling is such a part of the culture that there’s even a mall — the ReTuna Återbruksgalleria — that contains only up-cycled and repaired stuff. The mall is located about 60 miles outside Stockholm in the town of Eskilstuna (the ‘tuna’ is short for the town’s name). There are 14 stores, a restaurant (see below), an exhibition area and an educational program so that interested Swedes can learn how to recycle even more.
The mall was created as part of the local municipal recycling center and includes a convenient dropoff center, so locals can drop off items they no longer need or which need fixing, and pick up things they need — all without ever buying new stuff.
The municipality owns the center, but the shops are all independent businesses, providing a place for local entrepreneurs and artisans to reach new customers. Just like a traditional mall (but better), this one has specialized shops for furniture, clothing, gardening, audio and video equipment, electronics and sports gear (including bikes).
A system to aspire to
Not only are the people of Eskilstuna recycling more and wasting fewer raw materials — and saving the energy needed to extract them and create stuff out of them — the center created 50 jobs. The variety of jobs include repair work, management of the mall, retail work in the shops, as well as roles for artists, teachers (for the classes in repair and upcycling), custodial staff and food preppers at the restaurant.
Looking at this project, we can start to see how waste doesn’t have to be a burden, something to be landfilled or something we pay to get rid of, as the video above explains. Instead, we can use circular-economy thinking to re-conceptualize what waste is. Rather than the linear model of take-use-dispose, the circular economy model is one where everything we make is part of a circle of resources and energy, just like how the natural world works.
Picture a pile of 25 garbage bags filled with household refuse. Rather than a pile of trash to be sent off somewhere and never thought about again (the linear model), look at them through a circular economy lens: They are bags filled with valuable resources. Some of what those bags contain can be broken down and reformed into new items of value. Other stuff in the bags can be composted, creating valuable fertilizer to grow food.
Others can be repaired and re-sold, providing more value, or given to those in need. What’s left might be burned to create electricity, so instead of extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels (each step a great expense of energy and money), free waste is used to get the same power.
There’s tremendous value in our garbage, if only we choose to see it that way. The town of Eskilstuna already does.