Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Denmark without waste, how a country changed the pattern of the amount of waste generated with an efficient recycling system.

By Muyu Xu

Denmark has become the lowest distributor of waste per 1000 tonnes of total municipal waste that is landfilled within all of

Recycling containers stationed on streets around Aarhus. Photo: Muyu Xu, Edit: Daphne Henning

Recycling containers stationed on streets around Aarhus. Photo: Muyu Xu, Edit: Daphne Henning

Europe, which is a shift from preceding years. Due to new legislation and the implementation of stricter recycling policies, Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark, has a total rate of 4 percent of waste that cannot be regenerated for other means. This is a trend that is being set all over Denmark and has enabled Denmark to rank first amongst other European countries in the lowest amount of household and municipal waste produced.

According to the data from European Environment Agency, in 2011 Denmark had the highest amount of waste generated in Europe with a total of 718 kilograms per person. Following the results, the Danish government developed a new environmentally responsible waste management and waste incineration system, which helped reduce household municipal waste.

Maja and Tim, a couple that live within a five-minute drive of Genbrugsstation Eskelund, the second largest recycling center in Aarhus, frequent the center throughout the year to deposit reusable household items. “We just love this place! We are re-decorating our house these days. Just dump things here, and get more space in our house,” Maja said. There are more than 30 different categories in the recycling center, including: glass, paper, wood, metal, sponges, stoneware, and glass windowpanes. The wide range of categories makes it easier for Danes to recycle an array of items, which helps save time and money in the disposal process.

More recycling, less waste

Bjarne, a strong advocate of recycling, has been working at Genbrugsstation Eskelund for 5 years. He works five days a week helping people allocate their items into the correct bins and tries to prevent the unnecessary loss of reusable resources. “86 percent of the waste in Genbrugssation Eskelund can be recycled. The rest of the waste will be sent to the heating company to burn for heat or seal to deposit,” Bjarne said. “People dump newspapers, magazines and books into this green machine. When it is almost full, we will press the red bottom next to the machine and all the paper will be smashed into pieces and squeezed into a cube, waiting to be delivered to the paper recycle company,” stating as he demonstrates how the paper recycling machine works. All the waste categories have a unique way of being disposed and will be transferred to different companies to be reproduced.

According to the Aarhus Kommune, the city collects 550,000 tonnes of garbage and debris a year. 64 percent of the collected trash and debris is recycled, while 13 percent of the garbage is burned to produce electricity and warm water for the district heating system. A mere 4 percent of the trash and debris cannot be used and will be dumped into a landfill.

According to Eurostat in 2013, when compared to other European countries, Denmark had the highest amount of incinerated municipal waste (54 percent of waste treated), while the recycle rate ranked number 7 at 31 percent. In November 2013, the Danish government changed its tune from favoring incineration to recycling, which is evident in a new policy, titled, “Denmark without waste”. The goal of the new policy strives to get Danes to recycle more than twice as much household waste within the next 10 years.

Fællesforeningen Brugsting and give away

Another main function of Bjarne’s job is to police the area at Genbrugsstation Eskelund.“I will stop people from picking up from the dumping place, unless they get the permission from its original owner,” Bjarne states.

Photo: Muyu Xu Edit: Daphne Henning

Photo: Muyu Xu Edit: Daphne Henning

Although, individuals cannot come to retrieve items directly, Bjarne explains that organizations with authorized “pick up” licenses are able to pick up things from the dumping site,“Actually we have staff collect well-preserved things from dumping categories everyday and save them for organizations to pick up.”

There is also a special container called “Fællesforeningen Brugsting” on location, which is for the association of volunteer organizations that run second-hand shops. Some of the items, for instance, balls or toys, will be cleaned and given directly to children in need; others will be sold in shops in order to fund local charities.

All homes have access to a refuse bin, which is used for things left after sorting  for paper, glass and any hazardous waste. The standard waste bin in Aarhus is 190-litre. There are normally larger underground recycle trash sinks established near compact settlements placed on many street corners in Aarhus. Meanwhile there is another special waste collection for bulky waste, which includes items such as furniture and larger waste materials.

It’s value, not waste

The deposit-return system for beverage containers has been carried out in Denmark since 1984. Drink retailers have to register on the VAT(value-added tax) system and take care of all the bottles that they distributed throughout Denmark at various retailer stores ad restaurants. For instance, when retailers deliver new beverages to the contracted barkeepers, it is the retailers’ duty to recycle the empty bottles.

Kristian, a voluntary bartender working in the Studenterhus Aarhus, thinks the idea of deposit-return system encourages people to recycle rather than throwing the reusable resources away and destroying the beautiful surroundings, “It is important for everyone to respect the nature and leave a clean world to new generations.”

According to Statutory Oder drafted by The Environmental Protection Agency, the recycling and treatment of packaging waste is the responsibility of private operators and local authorities. Following the container deposit legislation, the reusable packages are ranked into Pant A, B, or C, depending on its material volume. Consumers can get their deposit back after returning the reusable packages back to authorized redemption centers.

In Aarhus, there are vending machines in many of the local supermarkets where citizens can recycle aluminum cans and get a stipend for the return. Half-liter cans of beer are ranked as Pant A worth 1kr, while you can get 1.5kr from Pant B and 3kr from Pant C. Many people keep beer cans and a bottle for profit, but it is also common to see people pick up bottles or cans on the ground or even from trash bins.

According to Danskretursystem, in 2013, there was more than 137 million Danish Kroner of unclaimed deposits due to consumers not returning beverage bottles back to the authorized machine in order to get a deposit back. The Statutory Order also formulated that unclaimed deposits are used to improve consumers’ opportunity to deliver empty bottles and cans. For instance, the money can be used to improve the security of the deposit and return system and to create a better working environment in bottle handling rooms.

Danish people believe that they benefit from creating a green society and that it is their civic duty to protect the environment. Keeping garbage, sorting, and working to increase the rate of recycling within the Danish system is consciously embedded within the Danish mind frame. “There were some advertisements teaching people how to sort trash long time ago, but nowadays people no longer need the advertisements to remind them of doing that,” Maja said, “we went to the recycling station with our parents when we were kids and experienced the whole recycling process ourselves. Besides, there are some courses that explain the recycle system in Denmark in school. Everyone will learn that by heart.”


Muyu is a Chinese journalist, who previously studied journalism in China and Sweden. She is currently enrolled in Erasmus Mundus Journalism Master’s program at the Danish School of Media and Journalism.