Just days after Denmark put through its much-heralded energy plan, resulting in plenty of back-slapping among politicians and more than a fair amount of praise in the international press, Eurostat figures revealed that the average Dane produced 673 kilos of garbage in 2010, putting Denmark behind only Cyprus and Luxembourg when it comes to trash. The figures also revealed that a mere 23 percent of Danish household trash is recycled, about half as much as the Germans.
These numbers were not in the least bit surprising. Ever since my first visit to Denmark, I was struck by how hard it was to recycle, particularly plastic. I was so accustomed to recycling my plastic one gallon milk containers (that’s roughly 3.8 litres, my European friends) that I found it incredulous that milk here came in cardboard packages destined for the trash. Though, to be fair, I found it even more unbelievable that the said containers only hold one litre of milk, meaning a lifetime of going to the store every second day.
Like most of the outside world, I came here having bought into the notion that Denmark was a green paradise. Why then, was I throwing things in the trash that back home were recycled? “Bare rolig du,” I was told. In Denmark, everything is burnt and the energy is then used to heat homes. It’s a beautiful system, can’t you see that?
Actually, no. A study by the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) last year revealed that Denmark’s carbon dioxide emissions were double what was originally thought and the nation was exceeding the carbon dioxide goals under the Kyoto Protocol. The culprit? That same rubbish incineration programme that had been praised to the heavens.
But, but, but, it’s not the incineration that’s the problem, experts argued. It’s that too much plastic gets burnt – that same plastic that is incredibly inconvenient to recycle.
Being a good, environmentally-conscious world citizen, I tried to do my small part. For months, I had been dutifully separating my plastic and cardboard, placing them in the requisite clear plastic sacks, and storing them in the shed until the infrequent storskrald (big trash) pick-up days.
Only when my wife happened to be outside on pick-up day and struck up a conversation with one of the collectors, did I come to realise that all of that was just burnt anyway. Yes, my plastic that had been rinsed and separated, my cardboard that had been neatly bundled. Burnt. All of it. In incineration plants that, according to DTU’s numbers, produce some 700,000 more tonnes of carbon dioxide than previously thought.
Rather ironically, with the amount of emissions this incorrectly-labelled ‘green’ solution pumps into the atmosphere, there sure are some particular rules about it. Just last week, the collectors refused to take my trash because there was loose kitty litter inside. Gosh, did I feel terrible that I hadn’t put it in an extra unnecessary plastic sack to put within the larger sack so that it all could be burnt and added to the air pollution. My bad, y’all.
Hopefully, though, the attitudes towards incineration and recycling are beginning to change. A year-long pilot programme in Amager revealed last summer that up to 30 percent of the household rubbish currently being burned is recyclable or unfit for burning. Based on that programme, Copenhagen’s technical and environmental department, Teknik- og Miljøforvaltningen (TMF), announced a new sortable recycling programme that it expects will reduce carbon emissions by 1,400 tonnes per year. The programme was due to begin this month, but a call to TMF last week revealed that it had been pushed back to sometime in the autumn.
Denmark has done an amazing job of presenting itself as an environmental leader. The strategy seems to be that if you dot your countryside and shorelines with enough wind turbines, you’ll convince the world that you’re ‘green’. Largely, it’s worked. And with the newly-announced plan to wean Denmark off fossil fuels by 2050, the country will continue to be perceived as on the cutting edge of green technology. But when residents can’t conveniently recycle in their homes and instead pile up obscene amounts of trash that, once incinerated, produce an emissions-laden carbon bomb, it gives a whole new meaning to the line so proudly displayed on DSB’s trains: “It’s not a question of green, but how green.” And just how green can a country be when in the year 2012 it still hasn’t fully embraced recycling?