With its giant sorting plant, Sweden wants to recycle all plastics

(Motala) Bags of chips, bottles of ketchup, trays and airtight boxes circulate on conveyor belts as far as the eye can see: Sweden is banking on a giant sorting plant called “Site Zero” to improve the recycling of plastic, lagging behind in the country.


“Here we use infrared lights, lasers, cameras and artificial intelligence,” describes Mattias Philipsson, CEO of Sweden Plastic Recycling, a non-profit organization owned by the industry.

Operational since the end of 2023 in Motala, 200 km southwest of Stockholm, the installation is presented by its owners as “the largest and most technologically advanced in the world”.

The fully automated site can process 200,000 tonnes of waste per year and can isolate twelve types of plastics, compared to four in traditional factories.

Its operators hope to take advantage of new European directives which will impose a percentage of recycled plastics in the composition of new packaging from 2030.

“We receive the packaging that was put in the plastic bin by Swedish families,” the site’s boss told AFP. “Here, we have the capacity to process the equivalent of all the country’s plastic waste.”

PHOTO JONATHAN NACKSTRAND, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mattias Phillips

By the thousands, the packages progress through a maze of machines where they are identified and separated gradually into around ten distinct categories or “fractions”.

On one of the belts, an infrared light scans the packaging in real time, an automatic bellows then propels the pieces of plastic in different directions depending on their type.

Not exemplary

“Many of these fractions such as polystyrene or PVC had never been isolated before during sorting, which means that they will be able to be reused as such for the first time.”

“The idea is to be part of a circular economy and to limit the use of fossil fuels,” emphasizes Mattias Philipsson.

“Previously, more than 50% of plastics were incinerated because they were not identified. Now it’s less than 5%,” he adds.

The Scandinavian country is not exemplary when it comes to recycling. In 2022, 35% of plastic waste will have been recycled, according to the Swedish Environmental Agency, compared to 40% on average in the European Union.

PHOTO JONATHAN NACKSTRAND, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The incineration of plastic waste contributes around 7% to greenhouse gas emissions in the country, according to the organization.

“The Swedes are strong in recycling metal, paper and glass because we have had this habit for a long time and we have an industry that is interested in these materials, but this is not the case for plastic” , analyzes Åsa Stenmarck, expert for the government agency.

“Sorting is a real problem, plastic waste is not separated enough in homes and businesses, that’s what we need to work on.”

Three times more plastic waste by 2060

Recycled plastic struggles to attract manufacturers, because its price is on average 35% higher than new raw materials.

“Some of the categories at the Site Zero plant are very unusual in the recycling market. It’s quite courageous to launch into this segment without there being any outlets yet,” underlines Åsa Stenmarck, who believes that the legislator must encourage this market.

“One solution is to impose recycled content requirements in new products. This is the case with the proposed Regulation on packaging and packaging waste at European level,” she says.

PHOTO JONATHAN NACKSTRAND, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Twenty-Seven reached an agreement on March 4 for plastic packaging to incorporate between 10% and 35% recycled product, depending on their use, by 2030.

“It will completely change the situation for the industry,” reacts Mattias Philipsson. “The only way to achieve these objectives will be to improve sorting.”

While the OECD anticipates a tripling of the quantity of plastic waste by 2060, environmental stakeholders are passing a harsher judgment on the sector.

“We have the feeling that this talk of improving technical performance above all supports the idea that we can continue as is,” underlines Henri Bourgeois-Costa, plastic waste specialist for the Tara Ocean foundation.

“The challenge is not to sort them better to recycle them better (…) but to replace them and eliminate them. We must not reverse the point.”

Other projects based on the Site Zero model are being designed elsewhere in Europe, two in Germany and one in Norway.


reference: www.lapresse.ca

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