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Innovative Swedish Mall Embraces the Circular Economy

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What do you get when you cross a shopping mall with a recycling center? This town decided to find out.

By Shannon Cowan Posted May 10, 2017

Shopping mall
Sometimes a new idea makes so much sense, it’s hard to understand why no one thought of it before. That’s the case with ReTuna, the shopping mall located in Eskilstuna, Sweden, that requires all its retailers to sell used and repurposed goods.

But ReTuna isn’t just a haven of thrift. The mall also acts as a community education hub and recycling center, where residents of the municipality can drop off their recycling and donations for stores to resell or use to create new items with an invigorated purpose.

The genius of this model is in its simplicity: retailers have a dedicated, on-site source of used materials to fuel their business. Residents have a place to take used items that would otherwise end up as waste. Together, the inhabitants of Eskilstuna are creating a closed-loop system that adds value to waste and prevents unnecessary use of virgin materials.

ReTuna Origins

Center manager of ReTuna
“We want to save the world, or be part of its rescue,” says Anna Bergström, ReTuna’s manager. Summing up the project’s purpose, Bergström notes that while Sweden has flea markets and second-hand shops, ReTuna is something completely different. “This is a shopping mall, just like any commercial shopping center, but with a totally different supplier.”

The idea came to life in 2012, after the municipality board of Eskilstuna decided the community needed a new recycling center. After conducting a pilot study, the board determined the new center wouldn’t just help reduce waste, it would also create jobs and increase knowledge of circular economies.

Offering an antidote to the model of ‘take, make, dispose’ foundational to most modern economies, ReTuna seeks to create a regenerative system built on long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, and recycling. All these ideas come directly from the circular economy playbook.

Thinking Differently: Embracing the Circular Economy

That concept has been gaining momentum since the 1970s, when it emerged from a number of different movements that looked carefully at living systems. Like these living systems, the circular economy processes nutrients and waste, so they can be returned to the cycle and used again. In practical terms, businesses operating within this framework minimize waste and energy leakages by slowing and closing the loops where materials and energy are lost. The model is regenerative and restorative by design—meaning that in an ideal circular economy, waste has been ‘designed out’ of the cycle.

Linear vs. circular economy
Using waste as a resource while preserving and extending what’s already been created are just two of the ways ReTuna embraces circular economy principles. Founders of ReTuna also collaborated with a wide range of groups to create joint value.

Today, a municipal company runs the shopping mall. Taxes finance the recycling center, while the mall charges rent to tenants—just like any other shopping mall. “You could say we fill the role of property owners,” Bergström says of the municipal board.

With nine stores, three ‘pop-up’ shops, one restaurant, upcycle and exhibition areas, a conference center, and the recycling center, ReTuna is rapidly becoming a community hub. Within the complex, residents can shop for bicycles and sporting goods, housewares, furnishings, computers, other technology, handmade jewelry, pet supplies, and more. Bergström notes that all ReTuna’s stores are equally popular, and that most people are very positive about the concept and the stores. “Some are doubtful, of course, but they are few.”

Plant shop at ReTuna

Educational Aspirations

If the concept of a circular economy is new to you, you’re not alone. While the idea has been around for decades, it has only started to infiltrate the public consciousness. In the wake of climate change and other pressing environmental concerns, the idea of a circular economy has moved from possible to necessary—and its advocates are rapidly increasing.

In 2010, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was founded in Britain to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Two years later, the European Commission published a manifesto supporting this transition, saying “the EU has no choice but to go for the transition to a resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular economy.” In 2015, members of the Commission met in Brussels to introduce and discuss a Circular Economy proposal.

The size of European countries coupled with their dwindling natural resources has made the issue a priority for many governments. But despite identifying circular economies as the goal, most still have a lot of work to do to educate citizens and roll out plans for the transition.

ReTuna is part of this solution. In addition to closing loops in energy and material loss, the mall has an educational purpose. This includes hosting tours and sharing information about how businesses can operate within a regenerative framework. “We explain how easy it is to live in the circular economy, and discuss the value of things,” Bergström says. “We do this to help make people make conscious choices.”

Innovative Solutions to Old Problems

ReTuna’s success shows how forward-thinking communities can create innovative solutions to old problems. With a covered drive-through for drop-offs, a place for recycling items that can’t be repurposed or resold, and a popular café selling delicious food, the center makes it easy and attractive for residents to stop by and stay a while. Stores also find ReTuna a successful business model, with built-in perks—like the staff who pre-sort donated materials before delivering them to the appropriate store.

Combining the best of what citizens need with what they also want, the community of Eskilstuna has created a model for others to study and emulate, showing that the circular economy is not only possible, it’s here.

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ReTuna

Shannon Cowan
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Shannon Cowan is the blog editor at Eartheasy.com. She lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard poultry flock.
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