Urban waste management
Waste policy and planning
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A key challenge to solve in the transition to a circular economy is the question of waste. We need to not only reduce the amount of waste we generate, but also reframe our thinking, so that waste is considered a resource. This entails efficient waste sorting and designing products that can either be reused or recycled at the end of their life span.
While many know that the Danish capital Copenhagen has an ambitious target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025, the city is also working actively to become a circular economy leader. To assist in attaining this goal, the city is focussing on upgrading the quantity and quality of its recyclables and tripling reuse. Correct waste sorting will avoid plastics being sent to incineration and by utilising biowaste for biogas, the municipality aims to reduce its CO2 emissions
Making the City of Copenhagen more circular necessitates better and more efficient sorting of waste, so that unwanted items do not find their way into the wrong container and everything that can be recycled or reused is. While the introduction of source separation has meant that the rate of recycling in Copenhagen has increased from just 27 per cent in 2010 to 45 per cent in 2018, there is considerable room for improvement, especially given that both Copenhagen and Denmark consume double the number of resources per capita compared to the EU average.
A key challenge to securing correct waste sorting for recycling purposes is ensuring that all citizens have access to containers where they can sort and deposit the different waste fractions. Currently, approximately 34,000 homes in Copenhagen do not have room for all the different waste fractions. Most of these are located in Copenhagen’s medieval city centre or other historic areas where space is at a premium and access conditions for refuse collectors are poor. Furthermore, motivating all Copenhageners to sort for recycling is not without it challenges. Approximately 90 per-cent of the city’s dwellings consist of flats, meaning that space to sort waste is limited, or containers for waste disposal are already full. This hinders the rate of waste sorted and deposited for collection.
A key focus in Copenhagen’s Resource and Waste Management plan (2019-2024) is to make it easier for Copenhageners to act in a resource-aware manner, where recycling and reusing resources become a natural, everyday habit, and waste sorting is identical, regardless of whether one lives in a flat, owns a business, or works in a day care institution. The concept of circular economy underpins the entire plan, aiming to alter attitudes towards waste and cementing the notion in ordinary citizens’ minds that waste contains resources that can be re-looped into new products and materials.
As laid out in the plan, Copenhagen aims to recycle 70 % of all municipal solid waste by 2024 and triple the level of reuse in comparison to the level in 2016. The midway evaluation of the plan conducted in 2022 has set forth new and revised targetsAcceptance of these mean that the targets may be revised upwards.
Four principles, which are based on EU legislation, govern waste management in the city:
- Recognisability: the manner in which waste is sorted should be identical, regardless of whether one is at home, work, school, or playing.
- Easy and logical: waste sorting must be understandable and easy for the citizens to undertake
- Accessible: waste sorting should be able to be undertaken as close to one’s home as possible
- Growth: waste is a resource that can promote growth and innovation
A central tool to achieve the recycling target is the creation of up to 750 new waste sorting stations that are to be placed throughout the city by 2024 in addition to the 500 containers that already exist for the deposit of glass. The new sorting stations are intended as a supplement to existing waste bins located in homes and flats, and an addition to dwellings which lack sorting options, so that Copenhageners can drop off their household waste at sorting points in the urban space.
The sorting points will make it possible to drop off more fractions in the public space. Where possible, they will be located where there are containers for glass today. The exact placement of the sorting stations is determined by several factors such as capacity requirements, user considerations, distance, and whether the station will be aesthetically suitable in regard to local design and surroundings. Consultation with residents is another key factor in the development and implementation of the sorting points.
Copenhageners have already helped determine the placement of 57 of the new waste sorting stations in the Amager East neighbourhood, which is located in the southern part of the city. Over 4,000 suggestions were received digitally from ordinary citizens and the local citizen representation panel, where they were assessed based on whether proposed locations were situated in residential areas that are subject to regular flows of inhabitants, but also safe in regard to traffic and other technical requirements as discussed above.
Another measure to be introduced to achieve Circular Copenhagen’s objectives will be to ensure the correct source separation contains are present in Copenhagen’s citizen-oriented institutions such as libraries, schools and museums. By making source separation identical throughout all aspects of daily life, the city hopes to entrench recycling practices amongst its citizens. In addition, in order to alleviate the difficulties associated with sorting waste in blocks of flats, the city’s compostable food waste bags can now be collected at recycling stations and local libraries.
In order to eliminate the incineration of plastic waste, the City of Copenhagen will also promote the recycling of plastic, e.g., via information campaigns, supervision and guidance for companies in the city and even instructing school children. Schools will now educate students in the principles of waste management and teach them how to sort their waste, so that the future generation will consider sorting waste as fundamental to daily life as brushing one’s teeth. Work will continue on developing technologies for the sorting and recycling of plastic. To help achieve the city’s climate and waste management targets, collection of food waste is now mandatory throughout the city. The food waste will be used to produce biogas, thereby helping to reduce CO2 emissions.
Tripling reuse across the city will primarily be achieved through the establishment of new recycling hubs and the extension of existing ones, where options to swap items are available and workshops on repairing items can be held. Furthermore, a resource lab will be established at Sydhavn Recycling Centre, which is located in the southwestern part of Copenhagen. The resource lab intends to develop new business concepts and partnerships that promote reuse at the recycling centres and also among companies, thereby creating new value chains.
Copenhagen’s Resource and Waste plan aligns with new national guidelines on waste sorting. In January 2021, Denmark decreed that the criteria governing the sorting of household waste needed to be streamlined and identical across the country, irrespective of whether this takes place at work, at home or in one’s holiday house. Household waste must be sorted into ten different fractions – into food waste, paper, cardboard, glass, metal, hard and soft plastic, food and beverage cartons, textiles, hazardous waste and small electronics, and residual waste. Municipalities across the country have until the end of 2022 at the latest to adhere to the new criteria, and until 2024 for the collection of textile waste. When implemented, textile collection will reduce the amount that is sent to be incinerating and can be reused directly for items such as tablecloths and towels or reprocessed to be used for as furniture filling or insulation etc., which will also contribute to achieving the city’s reuse target.
However, some of the solutions needed to make Copenhagen a truly circular city either do not exist or require further development. This is particularly true in the case of recycling items such as nappies and electronics. Therefore, the city welcomes collaboration with knowledge institutions and industry. To this end, the innovation platform Circular Copenhagen has been established, where Danish and foreign stakeholders can learn more about the city’s challenges and get in touch to discuss possibilities for collaboration.
The fulfilment of the targets set out in Circular Copenhagen will underpin Copenhagen’s objective of becoming a circular economy leader. Increased recycling rates and better-quality recyclables will arise as a result of enhanced knowledge on the subject and more locations where one can sort their waste. By increasing the possibility to participate in reuse and swap schemes, as well as improved access to waste sorting facilities will mean that CO2 emissions are reduced, as lower amounts of plastics and other forms of waste are incinerated.
All Copenhageners will be given the option to sort out all fractions, and in addition all Copenhageners are offered an extra service and flexibility in their daily lives, as they can drop off their source-separated waste at more locations. Furthermore, by inviting Copenhageners to propose locations for the placement of the waste sorting stations, the city seeks to involve Copenhageners in contributing to the achievement of its circular economy goals and give them a sense of ownership over the process. By engaging with academic and industry stakeholders to devise new solutions, the innovation platform Circular Copenhagen can accelerate the transition to a truly circular capital.