The president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, recently announced that he plans to withdraw the USA from the Paris Climate Agreement, a global agreement between nations to reduce carbon emissions in an attempt to combat climate change.
According to Wikipedia: The Paris Agreement (French: Accord de Paris) is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dealing with greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance starting in the year 2020. The language of the agreement was negotiated by representatives of 195 countries at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Paris and adopted by consensus on 12 December 2015. As of June 2017, 195 UNFCCC members have signed the agreement, 148 of which have ratified it.
Whilst I am no eco-warrior, I like many people acknowledge that we all have a responsibility to do more to help the planet and to try to calm the effects of global warming. This is a complex and multi-faceted issue and, whilst I don’t claim to know all the facts, I do believe that global warming and other environmental issues, such as the amount of plastics in our oceans, are one of the greatest threats of our age.
Having climate change and the Paris agreement once again thrust into the spotlight also got me thinking about the Danes and their approach to environmentalism including issues such as global warming. There are so many things that the Danes do superbly well and for me, their commitment to renewable energy and their approach to recycling are right up there with their knack for design.
Recycling – The Danish Way
Many national and local governments across the world encourage recycling and have various programmes to assist/encourage their populus to recycle. In the UK, this most often consists of recycling centres and allocated bins (or wheelie bins). Recycling centres tend to be large facilities when anything from a plastic bottle to a TV can be placed in the appropriate area for recycling/repurposing. The wheelie bins, boxes or bags provided by local authorities are the more local approach.
The shame is that the approach varies from authority to authority. Where I used to live, for example, we had three large wheelie bins – one for general waste, one for plastics and glass and one for garden waste (oddly not including food). Paper and cardboard was placed in a large bag. In other authorities, where I have family or friends, there is a range of solutions from large plastic boxes to seemingly endless amounts of wheelie bins with different coloured lids.
As well as the dizzying array of receptacles for your recycling, there are also differences in what can and cannot be recycled – food waste, for example, was not allowed in my authority and yet is a top priority for others.
For the Danes, from what I have seen so far, it is much more simple – there seem to be pretty consistent rules about what goes in what bin and how.
One thing that I adore about Denmark’s approach to recycling, however, is the Dansk Retursystem. Put simply, you buy a bottle or container which is included in the retursystem scheme – let’s use a standard bottle of Cola in this example. You take the bottle to the checkout in the shop or supermarket and you are charged, say, 15dkk for the drink. You are also charged the ‘pant’ of between 1 & 3DKK (which translates to ‘mortgage’). You take the drink, enjoy it and then instead of throwing away the empty bottle, you keep it and then, as the name suggests, return it to a supermarket where you get your ‘pant’ or deposit back.
The bottles or containers are marked with the Pant symbol and this indicates the amount you will need to pay and how much you subsequently get back if you return the bottle.
It is not uncommon in Danish supermarkets to see people arrive with bags full of empty bottles or containers and feed them into the machine which scans the bottles and calculates the Pant to be returned. You then get a receipt which, when presented at the till in the supermarket, gives you the relevant discount.
Why is this so good, I hear you ask. Well, it actively incentivises you to recycle – you’ve paid for the bottle and you want that money back. In the UK, I would recycle plastics I used at home but wouldn’t think twice about throwing my Diet Coke bottle in the bin in the shopping centre. Now, the bottle goes in my bag and comes home ready for the next time we take them to the Supermarket.
Interestingly, on a trip to Copenhagen before we moved here, I also learned it has another effect…
We were visiting our friends in the city and had gone for drinks in one of the fantastic bars. I knew about the Retursystem already, having visited before, but paid no real attention to it. Whilst standing outside, taking in some ‘fresh air’, I noticed that many of the beer cans served in the bar were just being left scattered around, I asked why the bar didn’t clean them up and my friend said “because they don’t need to”. Later that evening, as the bar closed and we headed home, I saw why. Coming out of the bar and heading to the bus, I saw several people going from door step to window sill to bin picking out bottles and cans and collecting them up. We had been to Copenhagen a few times and on this trip had spent days exploring the city and I recalled having remarked that unlike UK cities like London, where I was living at the time, I hadn’t seen any homeless people and certainly no one begging. But here, in the dead of night, was a small network of people collecting the recycling from the city. I asked my friend what it was all about and she said simply; “they collect them up, take them to the supermarket and buy food and things with the money.”
So, not only does the retursystem encourage me to recycle, it provides those who are less fortunate to find food for themselves and seemingly, provides a municipal function too, keeping the cities clean. Only in Denmark.
What happens to the bottles? Well, they get collected up, taken away and recycled to make yet more bottles – the circle of life… or plastics…
I remember reading this article in the Guardian in 2015 and being completely blown away by it. The headline alone read:
“Wind power generates 140% of Denmark’s electricity demand”
The article goes on to discuss that the surplus energy was sold to neighbouring countries Germany, Norway and Sweden and that the Danes have a target to be 100% renewable, mainly from wind, by 2020.
Many don’t like wind turbines but I have to say that I rather like them; there’s an elegance about them, a romance almost and not forgetting a large amount of technology too. Denmark loves the wind turbine. They’re everywhere both in-shore and off-shore. Energinet’s website has a live map showing the electricity production, imports and exports too, I think proving how much the country is committed to it’s renewable energy supply.
Let’s be honest here, as a small country of around 5.7 million people, it is always going to be easier to produce 100% renewable energy than it would be for, say Russia, or the United States (even with, or indeed without, the Paris agreement). What I like though, is the ambition to prove that it can be done. And if Denmark can, so can the rest of the world too.
So until next time, keep recycling!