Plastic surgery for Copenhagen’s recycling policy

Copenhagen apartment buildings could soon get recycling bins and municipal collection for hard plastics.  The city’s technical and environmental department, Teknik- og

Miljøforvaltningen (TMF), is currently working on a recommendation to overhaul the city’s handling of household plastics.


“We can definitely have a well-functioning plastic recycling programme in Copenhagen,” Rikke Malene Killeen, one of TMF’s environmental officer, told The Copenhagen Post.

Killeen was involved in running a year-long study on recycling compliance at 100 apartment blocks in the Amager neighbourhood in 2010. The goal of the study was to determine how much recyclable hard plastic, among other things, could be collected from households if the city were to introduce a sorting and pick-up programme.

The study proved to Killeen and her colleagues that Copenhagen can have a successful hard plastic recycling programme if it puts sorting bins at the residences and provides municipal pick-up service, as it already does for paper, cardboard, glass, hazardous materials and oversized rubbish. TMF will present its formal recommendation to the city’s Technical and Environmental Committee next month.

The timing of their recommendation could not be better. A recent study from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), reported in The Copenhagen Post last week, revealed that Denmark is releasing twice as much CO2 as formerly estimated, mainly from the incineration of household plastic.

Associate professor Thomas Astrup, author of the DTU study, has documented that there is actually twice as much plastic as formerly estimated in the household garbage being incinerated by Danish councils. As a result, Denmark is quite literally burning through its CO2 limits under the Kyoto Protocol.

The plastic problem in household waste “is something we have been aware of for a long time”, said Julie B Svendsen, head of waste planning at TMF. “The study from Thomas Astrup just emphasises the need to focus on plastic recycling.”

Between 73 and 74 percent of all household rubbish in Copenhagen is incinerated and experts now say that a surprisingly large amount of it is plastics that could be recycled instead if the city would institute a more user-friendly plastic recycling programme. That, in turn, would reduce CO2 emissions.

Copenhagen’s current policy on what residents should do with household plastic waste is confusing at best.

The page on the city’s official website that explains how residents should sort household rubbish states “rubbish is the waste that is left over when you have sorted the recyclables and the hazardous waste out. Paper, cardboard, glass, chemicals, garden clippings and bulky items are, namely, not rubbish.”

Not a single mention of what to do with plastics.

The photograph above the text, however, shows a plastic detergent bottle, of the commonly recycled hard plastic (HDPE type), among “things that go in the rubbish bin”.
The page explains further down that “the rubbish is incinerated”. Ergo, household plastic is rubbish, and it gets incinerated.

To the city’s credit, its incineration plants are modern, efficient and relatively eco-friendly and they do produce residential heat and electricity. But that does not change the fact that plastic incineration produces C02 – lots of it in Denmark’s case, according to the latest research.

In response to an EU directive on recycling minimums that took effect on 31 December 2008, the city began allowing plastic beverage bottles (PET type) in the glass recycling bins. The waste department currently sorts and recycles these.

“The recommendation at the time from the waste department was not to introduce more containers in the apartment blocks, but that recommendation has since been revised,” said Killeen.

Svendsen confirmed that the only way Copenhagen residents can recycle other household plastics today is by personally taking them down to one of the city’s eight recycling centres. Depending on where in the city you live, the closest recycling centre could be kilometres away. Individual centres hold different opening hours, but drop-offs are only possible when the facilities are open.

The hassle and confusion has created a situation where a majority of household plastic simply gets thrown in the rubbish bin and incinerated – in the city that set itself the ambitious goal of being CO2 neutral by 2025.

Luckily Copenhagen’s TMF has already laid the groundwork with its 2010 plastic recycling study for a plan to address the problem. Killeen and Svendsen say the study proved that the municipal pick-up of hard plastics from apartment buildings can be successful in Copenhagen.

TMF will present its household hard plastic sorting and pick-up recommendation to the city’s Technical and Environmental Committee on May 16. If the committee approves the plan, it will need to be incorporated into household waste regulations which, in turn, will need to be approved by the City Council later in the year. If the committee and the council give the plan their stamps of approval, Copenhagen could have hard plastic sorting and municipal collection from apartment buildings as soon as early 2012, said Killeen.

Svendsen is confident that Copenhageners will catch on quickly to plastic recycling, given a fair chance.

“In general, my experience is that people are quite good at sorting, as long as it is easy,” she said. “The challenge is in making it easy for them. You can’t expect people to carry their waste or recyclables very far.”

TMF will make the report available on their website one week after the May 16 recommendation.


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