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To most, Denmark brings to mind popular TV dramas, sweet pastries and Lego. But there is one part of the nation’s identity that those in Borgen (the real-life seat of government, that is) are keen to eradicate. For some decades now, Danish waste management has been dominated by municipal incinerators. Plants were common in the small dormitory towns that popped up in the 1960s, but it was the energy crises of the 1970s that persuaded the Danish government to promote district heating, reducing dependency on oil and increasing supply reliability. This district heating, created by waste- burning plants, now provides around 20 per cent of energy to Danish homes, and up to 98 per cent of households in Copenhagen.

It is perhaps this reliance on incineration that is behind the staggering amount of household waste produced: it’s currently hovering around the 2.5 million tonnes per year mark (as of 2011), after exceeding 3.5 million in 2008. In a nation of 5.7 million inhabitants, that’s around 450 kilogrammes (kg) per person. Indeed, according to Eurostat, Denmark’s municipal waste generation per capita is the highest in Europe, 747kg per person in 2013 (compared to a Europe-wide average of 481kg). Around 80 per cent of this household waste, including high-calorific organic waste, is sent straight to the nearest incinerator (only three per cent is sent to landfill nationwide), with seemingly little appetite or need to develop more efficient processes.

Although the Danish brand of incinerator might not be the ozone clogger that you envision – high filtration and cleaning standards see to that – it was this vicious circle of generating waste for energy that former Environment Minister Ida Auken aimed to cut off when her department introduced the ‘Denmark Without Waste’ plan in November 2013. The plan signals a move away from incineration and towards a more recycling-oriented system.

With the plan comes a relatively bold target: to double household recycling – from a paltry 22 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent by 2022 (although, strangely, the European Commission’s revised Waste Framework Directive requires this target to be met two years earlier).

Auken admits that in trying to solve a problem by building the country’s network of 26 incinerators in the second half of the 20th century, Denmark created a new one for its future: “I think the true story of Denmark is that we were on the wrong track, basically. We’ve been on the right track in so many other areas, but in this one we were solving a previous problem and trying to find renewable energy – but we could see the plastic streams coming up and up. Calling waste a renewable fuel source is wrong, and it’s becoming more and more wrong.”

The plan’s focus is on getting more out of waste. Measures include separate collection of organic waste for biogas and other biomass uses, higher quality recycling of construction waste, and an increased focus on developing recycling technology. It aims to reduce the amount of waste sent to incinerators from over 2.5 million tonnes in 2011 to just 820,000 tonnes by 2022.

With household waste making up such a large proportion of incineration feedstock, however, the change must start at home. “There’s been a paradigm shift and it’s been important for us to really explain the story”, says Auken. “That’s why we changed from saying we make waste plans to saying we make resource plans. We’ve really tried explaining to the people why we ask them to separate their waste now.

“We’ve focused a lot on resource scarcity and how the prices have come up in the last 15 years more than they went down in the previous hundred. We’re trying to show that there are jobs and new technologies combined with this change.

Denmark without waste
The front cover of Denmark’s new resource plan makes clear the government’s intention to move away from incineration in favour of more recycling

“[Residents are] used to getting paper, glass, batteries and electronics out, but besides that, they would [previously] put everything in the trash, basically. So it has been a big paradigm shift.”

Changing the mindset of the people is just the first step in initiating change, and Auken is confident that Denmark is ready for a new way of operating centred around creating a circular economy. New business models are popping up all over Denmark and are, she says, “very appealing to people”.

But creating a collection system and the infrastructure to put these materials to best use is another issue altogether. Auken’s ministry suggested a focus on more waste streams – for example, better collection and separation of WEEE and higher quality recycling of construction waste – but for the time being municipalities have the freedom to develop their own methods, as long as they’re working towards the government’s targets. “Setting a recycling goal that’s twice as high [as current levels], it was important municipalities didn’t just point to the government and say: ‘They said it.’ They really have to take responsibility, so we gave them the freedom to implement the way they start”, Auken explains.

What happens to the waste once it’s been collected, though? Auken acknowledges that creating waste streams that are valuable enough to create a market is a challenge that requires everyone to chip in. “You need government’s priorities, you need private companies with the technologies, you need private buyers of the recycled materials, you need to bring all these interests together.” But Denmark is ready, and the response from businesses has been positive, according to Auken; already, some municipalities have created biogas plants to treat organic waste, and the government hopes that their success will encourage more to follow suit.

So now that Denmark is seemingly on its way to kicking its incineration habit, how does government ensure that it doesn’t make a similar error and commit to new practices that seem wonderful now but are obsolete or burdensome in a few years? Flexibility, Auken insists, is key: “You can never ensure that you don’t create a new problem when you solve an old one. You need to solve several at a time – that is normally the best way to go around. That, and being a politician in a leadership that is not afraid of changing tools on the way. If we have a goal that is Denmark without waste in 2050, we should not predict the extent of available technologies” – a lesson learned from the past few decades.

Denmark’s waste management landscape is changing enormously, now that government has decided to drastically cut back on incineration. As Auken says: “Until you change the rules, you cannot ask somebody to play by other rules.”

This evolution is already evident. The Ministry of the Environment, now headed by Kirsten Brosbøl after a change of cabinet last February, plans to follow up 2013’s waste plan with ‘Denmark Without Waste II’ this year. The sequel takes a step up the waste hierarchy, addressing the prevention of waste.

Auken is looking forward to a proactive future: “We should try to say this is the goal and make sure that tools at all times are as good as possible and that political regulation is as good as possible to get there, changing things whenever we see problems. That’s my philosophy.”

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