Denmark is immensely proud of its green credentials – and rightly so. Copenhagen is on track to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025 and Denmark aims to be independent from fossil fuel by 2050. This is a nation of bikes and electric buses, surrounded by clean waters. Its cities are dotted with ground-breaking sustainable architecture, gleaming with solar panels and green roofs. High taxation on petrol-fuelled vehicles makes people think twice before buying and using cars. Aarhus is arguably the global hub of the wind energy market. The Danes have even halted the march of the plastic carrier bag, with the lowest use in Europe – just three bags per person per year.
So, is Denmark the perfect example of a forward-thinking, environmentally aware nation? Well, of course, there’s no such thing as perfect. Denmark’s well on the way to achieving something remarkable, but there have been challenges along the way.
Like getting to grips with waste, for example. Denmark used to have a bad record for generating rubbish and, in particular, chucking out food. According to Stop Wasting Food (Stop Spild af Mad
) Danish consumers used to throw away around a quarter of the food they bought. In 2008, Stop Wasting Food launched a public awareness campaign. They also persuaded supermarkets to sell more products by weight rather than pre-packaged and to discount out-of-date items instead of binning them. In a particularly nice touch, they set about breaking down the stigma associated with asking for a doggy bag in restaurants, since Denmark’s professional kitchens waste about 140,000 tons of food per year. A Gallup poll has revealed that half of Denmark’s population have now actively reduced how much food they discard.
The Danes have also taken a while to work out the best ways to deal with rubbish and recycling. One policy that works and has stuck is the system of deposits on bottles and cans. Automatic receptacles at supermarkets offer cash for recyclable waste, and modern-day Wombles scrape together some pocket money by gathering empties from alfresco drinkers who can’t be bothered to claim the deposit themselves.
Recycling other materials and reducing general waste has proved more troublesome. Municipality-owned incinerators reduced the amount of rubbish going to landfill to a minimum and have the bonus effect of generating low-cast power and heat for communities, and waste reduction is also now being encouraged.
Danes are generally happy with the principle of incinerators being sited within urban areas, believing them to be cleanly and efficiently run. Operators court further approval by making sure their plants offer additional benefits. Some incinerators double as recycling and education centres and Copenhagen’s massive, cutting-edge, low-pollution Amager Bakker plant, due for completion in 2017, will be topped by artificial ski slopes and hiking trails – a boon for this mountain-starved nation.
However, there’s a growing realisation that relying on incineration at the expense of recycling doesn’t make sense in the long term. A government plan released in late 2013 set out new priorities, including increased use of garden and food waste to produce biogas and compost. Watch this space.
What you can do
- Since the Danes have been good enough to invest so heavily in clean, efficient ways of producing power, heat and clean water, it seems extra important not to be wasteful while you’re on their turf.
- When you’re eating out, it’s well worth making a point of choosing a restaurant, café or inn which uses local, organic ingredients – with plenty to choose from, this is no hardship. And don’t be shy about asking for a doggy bag.
- Some elements of Danish society (and tourists) litter their environment. Festival sites, for example, can look like a dump by the end of the day. Do your best not to add to the problem.
- Remember to take your own bags to supermarkets and shops, which have charged for plastic carrier bags since 2003.
- Support the Danish tourist industry’s commitment to environmental responsibility by cycling, using trains, buses and boats and staying at eco-accredited accommodation. For hotels and guesthouses, look for the Green Key (Den Grønne Nøgle) logo. Campsites approved by the Danish Camping Board are marked by a Green Flag.