Cooperating to Increase Plastic Recycling

In 2018, the picture changed as China decided to stop its import of unsorted plastic waste. This was a challenge for the entire recycling industry, but also created possibilities for developing new operations at home. Our long-term financial stability and the fact that we don’t have to chase an ever-increasing profit enabled us to step in and guarantee the investment needed for Stena Recycling to build a brand new plastic recycling facility outside Halmstad in southern Sweden. However, encouraging an increased use of recycled plastic still poses some major challenges.

Plastic waste is traded all over the world. Generally, it tends to be rich countries exporting their waste to primarily Asian countries. Only three years ago, most of Sweden’s plastic waste was exported to China, as recycling plastic in Sweden was simply not profitable. Recycled plastic competes with oil and oil-based plastics, and as long as the price of oil is so low that oil-based end products are cheaper than the same products made from recycled plastic, it is difficult to make plastic recycling profitable.

As the price of oil is still comparatively very low, building a recycling plant that can handle all the plastic waste generated in Sweden still is still a risky undertaking. The investment may never pay off, as we don’t know today what policy instruments and subsidies will be in place in the future governing the trade with oil products.

The Challenges of Recycled Plastic

Today we can see advertisements and commercials claiming that their products have been made from partially recycled plastic. This is regarded as a marketing advantage and a step in the right direction towards more circular products. However, development is at an early stage and producers have expressed concern over three parameters: price, quality and volume.

  • Since the cost is higher than that of virgin plastic, using recycled plastic must give a competitive advantage.
  • Plastic is made for different uses and each has its specific qualities and finish. Ensuring this is much easier when using virgin materials totally free from pollutants.
  • Global producers need large volumes and predictable deliveries to be able to plan their production. The market for recycled plastic has not yet reached the point where it is as reliable as the market for virgin plastic with respect to supply and quality.

As things stand, something more is required to create a market for recycled plastic. It could be the requirement of particular producers. Alternatively, it could be done through legislation, either through financial subsidies or through demanding that a certain percentage of the materials used in production are recycled materials. In 2018, none of these incentives existed.

Developing Circular Plastics

At El-Kretsen, we didn’t feel we had the time to wait for more conducive market economy conditions. The move towards a more circular use of plastic is still at an embryonic stage, but we know it will have a firm place in our future society. Today, we find plastic everywhere: in products and packaging and discarded as waste in the oceans. Halting these flows and taking things one step further by being able to use the waste as a fully competitive alternative to oil or bioplastics must surely be the best action to take to push the development in the right direction.

The facility currently in operation outside Halmstad in southern Sweden can:

  • Secure a circular flow of the plastic used in electronics
  • Handle the import restrictions initiated by China and now observed by many other countries
  • Produce unpolluted plastic fractions
  • Turn plastic waste into plastic feedstock
  • Reach local and international buyers of plastic
  • Deliver a product that works as a substitute for virgin plastic (oil)

The facility’s capacity is 12,000 tonnes per year, or 3 tonnes per hour. This is needed. What we at El-Kretsen label “General Electronics” is the largest of all the fractions we collect. It comprises everything from mobile phones and leads to microwave ovens and TV sets. We collect around 70,000 tonnes of general electronics per year, and 21 per cent of this is plastic.

12,000 Facility capacity in tonnes per year.

The Future – What Does It Look Like?

Roughly speaking we are currently able to recycle around 50 per cent of the plastic in WEEE and turn it into feedstock. This is a good start, but needless to say a figure that needs to increase considerably in the coming decade. El-Kretsen looks forward to being a part in this task.

We need to see more “eco design”, which means taking into account a product’s need for recyclability at the design stage. At the same time, we need to improve the recycling process so that we, with the minimum use of energy, can recycle as many materials as possible to a quality that is on a par with virgin materials. Once we get that far, there’s no longer any need for economic instruments. But we are not there quite yet. To speed progress up, we need clear, long-term political rules of play. The next level of recycling could be promoted by politically introduced economic instruments relating to many different fields in society: education, research, tax alleviation, information campaigns to increase demand and many others. This issue does not just exist between producer and consumer – it is relevant to society as a whole.

Published 2021-01-26