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Waste and recycling in Denmark

Leading the way for responsible recycling!

Photograph: Pexels

Text: Mariano Anthony Davies

In Denmark, it has become a powerful attitude of mind to recycle as much waste as possible and to be as environmentally responsible as possible. The municipalities are responsible for providing waste bins and collecting sorted waste from properties as well as for providing recycling stations where sorted waste can be placed in appropriate containers.

Danes who live in residential buildings will most often find waste containers in their backyard and the local landlord will have detailed information on how to handle household waste. For Danes who rent their home, waste handling is included in the monthly rent and for those who own their homes, they pay an annual fee to their municipality.

In most areas, citizens are required to separate their daily household waste. Typically, waste containers are provided for glass, paper, carton, plastic, electronic waste, batteries, dangerous waste, and where relevant, even organic garden waste. Furthermore, some municipalities also have municipal collection schemes for waste that cannot be handled together with general household waste – for example, old furniture and broken fridges.

World’s first law on recycling

In 1978, Denmark introduced the world’s first law on recycling, stating that at least 50 % of all paper and beverage packaging should be recycled. This was the first step in a journey towards becoming amongst the top recyclers in Europe. The next step was introduced in 1989, where the Statutory Order on Waste was implemented in Danish law.

This law formalised the fact that Danish local authorities have extensive legal grounds for self-determination. This means that local authorities, to a certain degree, have the right to take initiatives within the area of waste management and separate collection for recycling. Naturally, this is under the condition that the local authorities work towards common national goals presented in the national waste management plan in force at any time.

"In 1978, Denmark introduced the world’s first law on recycling, stating that at least 50 % of all paper and beverage packaging should be recycled."

Who is responsible for waste collection?

Local authorities are currently responsible for collecting all household waste as well as all industrial waste for incineration and landfilling, while industrial waste for recycling is separated at source and collected and treated on general market conditions. Most types of recyclable wastes are reprocessed abroad, but many Danish enterprises, private and public, separate and pre-treat the waste before it is exported. All waste is primarily collected and transported by private companies.

Nevertheless, there is no such thing as the “Danish way” of collecting household waste for recycling. However, overall requirements specified in the Statutory Order on Waste state that it is mandatory for the local authorities to introduce:

  • Collection schemes for paper and cardboard (settlements with 1.000).

  • Collection schemes for recyclable glass (settlements with 2.000).

  • Collection schemes for recyclable metal and plastic packaging waste.

There is no requirement that these fractions are collected separately, but the majority of these fractions must be recycled or in some cases prepared for reuse, which makes separate collection the preferred option of the municipalities. Due to stricter demands for higher recycling rates, separated waste is increasingly also collected via door-to-door collection. In some municipalities, a kerbside collection system is also established for bulky waste, which can include glass, cardboard and metal waste.

With respect to bio-waste, there is no legal requirement for (separate) collection, but many local authorities have established separate collection of garden waste. Organic waste is a focus area in the latest National Waste Management Plan.

Collection and deposit system for beverage packaging

The main legal act in the Danish legislation is the Statutory Order on Waste, but the Statutory Order on a deposit for beverage packaging from 2001 has also had significant influence on the rates for waste collection and recycling in Denmark. More specifically, this Order has made room for a deposit-return system for beverage packaging, which today is one of the most efficient collection systems for beverage packaging in the world. Despite an increase in one-way packaging for beverages, the collection rate remains stable at around 89 %.

The main goal today is to ensure that the grocery trade is paid for sorting the constantly increasing volumes of different types of beverage packaging. As a result of this collaboration, Dansk Retursystem (Danish deposit & return system) was founded in 2000.

Dansk Retursystem is now a privately-owned company, and it was granted the exclusive right to operate the Danish deposit-return system until 2019.

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