The Great Danes

Americans could learn a lot about recycling from the descendants of the Vikings


Philippe Ames,

Nestled within the protective crook of Sweden and Norway’s outstretched arms, perched atop Germany’s northernmost border, Denmark marks the seam between the North and the Baltic seas. Most Americans would find themselves hard pressed to pinpoint its locale. But beneath the fantastical veil of The Little Mermaid and Hamlet lies a modern metropolitan kingdom.

I visited the windswept city of København in the fall of 1998. At the train station, flocks of Danes swaddled in winter wear filed past, their ruddy faces emerging cautiously from fur-lined hoods. Young teens modeled styles reminiscent of Spice Girls music videos while mall-ratting along the Strøget—illogical combinations of black form-fitting pants beneath knee-length skirts, with Chewbacca-esque jackets erupting gray shocks of hair.

There was so much to learn from the Danes, from their outstanding public-transit system whose buses and trains webbed the country in continuous sinuous threads to their reliance on old-world bicycles to pick up groceries every evening at the corner market. Few Danes would dream of driving across the parking lot from Banana Republic to The Gap.

Danish is renowned to be one of the most difficult languages to pick up: Smørrebrød, Rådhuspladsen, Rødgrød med fløde. With their barrage of stifled letters and silent consonants, the more rudimentary, monosyllabic words, dating back perhaps to Viking days, seem plucked from a third-grade reader. “Ø” means island. “Å” means stream. And the ever-essential “øl” means beer.

It came as a shock one day when I realized that among a people who pride themselves on their consumption of beer, empties littering the streets were about as common as money growing on trees. Bottles, plastic and glass alike, are nearly a second currency.

A quick visit to the Carlsberg brewery confirmed that impression. More than 99 percent of all glass bottles return to them intact, to be cleaned and refilled. And these bottles travel from the brewery to the consumer and back an estimated 33 times before they’re finally melted down at the Holmegårds Glassworks. Throughout Denmark, nearly every bottle I picked up in the grocery store looked as if it had suffered the wrath of some disgruntled stock-room clerk. Riddled with scratches and nicks, each testified to its durability and resilience.

Foreigners were easy to pick out of a Danish crowd by how casually they’d toss out a soda bottle; a Dane would swoop by and retrieve that bottle before it ever had a chance to settle. I felt as though I had slept like Rip van Winkle through an ecological revolution. Had I missed something? Had the Danes redefined recycling? And back in the US, where did my bottles go when I set them on the curb every Monday morning?

Denmark encompasses more than the mainland finger of Julland and its accompanying islands Fyn and Sjaelland. It includes both Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. Approximately 5,300,000 individuals compose the Danish population, spread across 16,629 square miles. As kingdoms go, Denmark is a far cry from a bucolic fantasy. Pulsating neon signs and take-out-Chinese kiosks contrast with weathered stone facades and haphazard cobblestones. In all its modernity, about the only thing Denmark lacked during my visit was aluminum cans.

Since Denmark’s bottle return system began in 1904, Danish brewers have employed 30 types of refillable glass or polyethylene terepththalate (PET) bottles, ensuring that beverage containers are reused. Throughout its tenure, the system has continued to evolve—not always due to the greenest motives. In 1977, Denmark initiated a ban on one-way packaging, targeting in particular metal beer and soft drink cans. In 1981, Denmark required all beer and carbonated soft drinks to be sold in refillable packaging approved by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (DEPA). These restrictive standards were supported by Danish Breweries Ltd.—parent company to Carlsberg and Tuborg breweries, and owner of Denmark’s sole glass bottling facility—in response to a smaller brewing company’s switch to one-way cans.

In the 1990s, the container return system was expanded to include PET bottles. The law also required that the packaging of all beverages, including imports, be covered by a deposit-return system to ensure the recovery of the containers for refilling.

Denmark’s deposit-return system is not so different from those operating in the US. Consumers purchase beverages, pay a deposit fee per container, and return the empty bottles to designated retailers in exchange for their deposit. Aside from the fact that most bottles in the US are melted down as scrap glass for recycling rather than being refilled, the biggest difference is that Danes pay a higher deposit per container: 20 cents per 1/3 liter glass bottle, 24 cents per 1/2 liter plastic bottle, 63 cents per 1.5 liter plastic bottle, and $1.97 for an empty crate. Compare this to the humble two and a half or five cents Americans invest per container: it’s no mystery where the incentive lies.

No one pays consumers to recycle. Rather, we enter into a contractual agreement, a life insurance policy of sorts for every container purchased. When we buy a 20-ounce bottle of soda at the supermarket, we pay the store 2.5 cents to ensure the bottle is returned; a Dane buying a similar sized bottle pays 20 cents. When we recycle the empty container, the store refunds our investment, and although financially we both break even, Mother Nature benefits in the long run.

So why might the Danes be more likely to return their bottles? Danes pay more, an investment they would like returned to them, and they stand to lose more if they don’t return the bottles. It’s only a difference of 17.5 cents, but 99 percent of their bottles return to the brewery to be cleaned and refilled.

According to the DEPA’s Ministry of Environment and Energy, 2.8 million bottles are refilled each year, preventing the disposal of 390,000 tons of waste, equivalent to nearly 20 percent of the total domestic waste collected in Denmark.

“[Danes] support it,” explained Andrew Arnold, public relations consultant for the Carlsberg brewery in Denmark. “The level of support can be seen through the level of returns… Both breweries and retailers would admit that some aspects of distribution would be easier without the return system, but [they] support it because of the benefits it brings to the environment.”

Hidden impact

In 1998, Chalmers Industrieteknik and the Institute for Product Development carried out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to determine the environmental impact of different forms of beverage container packaging from cradle to grave. With respect to aluminum cans, steel cans, and both refillable and one-way PET and glass bottles, the study took into account the consumption of natural resources such as oil, coal, lignite, natural gas, aluminum, iron, manganese, and tin; global warming; photochemical ozone formation; acidification; nutrient enrichment; hazardous and non-hazardous waste; and energy consumption, including electricity, heat, renewable energy, and fossil fuels for processing and transportation.

Based on the results of the LCA, both Chalmers Industrieteknik and the DEPA agreed that refillable glass and PET bottles have a smaller environmental impact than their one-way counterparts. Aluminum cans’ impact depends on the means of generating the large amount of electrical power needed to refine the metal.

Those are the same aluminum cans whose contents Americans toss back daily. But somehow, our beverage containers fall short of the recycling bin. According to the National Soft Drink Association’s (NSDA) most recent numbers, in 2001 Americans recycled 32.8 percent of all glass, 65.4 percent of all aluminum, and 35.1 percent of all PET beverage containers. The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) points out, however, that those numbers include imported scrap cans not originally sold in the US. If you exclude imported scrap from consideration, the US’s 2001 aluminum can recycling rate is actually 49.2 percent, an all-time low, down from 54.5 percent in 2000 and 65 percent in 1992. Not quite on par with Denmark’s 99 percent. If you’re ever in doubt, scan the side of the highway. No statistic should be more convincing than the scores of discarded cans and bottles plaguing our interstates, littering our streets, and creeping into the waste stream, unrecycled, each and every day.

In the US, a country of over 272 million people, recycling programs lack the effectiveness and efficiency evident in Denmark. Throughout the nation, only 10 states boast bottle deposit laws, known as bottle bills. Those states are responsible for 71.6 percent of the beverage containers recycled in the US. The rest of the nation relies on almost 9,300 curbside recycling programs.

Despite the apparent success of bottle deposit laws, some groups frown upon them. They instead champion curbside recycling programs, touting their ease for consumers. The NSDA, representing major soft-drink bottlers and manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up and Crown—suppliers of close to 95 percent of the nation’s soft drinks—is one such organization.

Deposit-return programs tend to be costly for soft-drink producers and retailers—additional storage space, delivery vehicles, and equipment to sort and process are expensive, and they demand drivers, laborers, retailer cooperation, and proper sanitation. From the industry’s point of view, deposits also create a disincentive for consumers to purchase their products. And refillable containers are another sore point: empties are often crammed with straws, chewing gum or garbage, or have even been used to carry gasoline.

According to the NSDA, aluminum makes up 75 percent of the US beverage container market; plastic, 24 percent; and glass, a meager 1 percent. Refillables are such a low priority they don’t even factor into the present mix of packaging options.

Most returned beverage containers in the US aren’t reused, but are recycled into new products: glass cullet is melted down and turned into new containers, fiberglass insulation, roadbed aggregate, reflective road safety beads, abrasives, and filters; aluminum cans find their way into new cans and siding; PET plastics become carpeting, fabric, automotive parts, industrial strapping, and fiberfill for garments and sleeping bags. There are over 50 uses for PET alone, and the demand is rising steadily. But imagine a world where those same containers are first refilled a few times and then recycled—a far more efficient use of resources—and you can see where recycling’s future could lie.

Refillable plastic
In 1999, another innovation took Danish recycling to a new plateau as Carlsberg introduced the world’s first refillable polyethylene napthalate (PEN) plastic beer bottle. (In the US, Miller Brewing Company was quick to follow with a non-refillable PET beer bottle in March of 2000.) These non-breakable PEN bottles weigh 35 percent less than their glass counterparts, hold 15 percent more suds, and still prevent the loss of carbonation. In their predicted 20-use lifetime, these lightweights are expected to help reduce fuel costs during shipping and minimize wear and tear on the roadways. And besides, they’re allowed at sporting events.

Then, in 2002, the beverage container scene in Denmark changed radically. After years of wrangling with the European Commission (backed by the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment) and EU Court of Justice lawsuits seeking to end the ban, a new Liberal-led government repealed Denmark’s aluminum can ban. By June 2002, breweries and supermarkets were ready to debut a new, non-reusable can recycling infrastructure, and aluminum cans hit the shelves for the first time in 20 years. But according to the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, the first week of sales was anything but a success. The cans were met with criticism, from their costly 1.5 kroner (24 cent) bounty to the overall poor quality of the products. As for the can’s life expectancy? That depends on the Danish consumers—you can’t sell a can that nobody’s buying.

The same goes for the US. In the end, Americans are responsible for the packaging seen on the shelves. Corporations are at the mercy of our pocketbooks. Every time we buy a six-pack of beer or a liter of soda, we help determine the fate and shape of our landfills. As wary, educated consumers, we set the tone for the importance environment-friendly packaging plays in our everyday lives.

Packaging decisions are based on sales. Bottlers respond to that.

It’s hard to compare two nations that sprang from such different backgrounds. High deposits are undoubtedly more palatable in Denmark due to that country’s $12 minimum wage—more than twice that of the US—and refillables are a natural for a smaller nation with limited resources. Nonetheless, the Danes have shown us that when it comes to beverage container reuse, rates as efficient as 99 percent are within reach.

Sadly, beverage containers make up less than three percent of the United State’s waste stream content. What about the other 97 percent: construction debris, Styrofoam, tennis shoes, tires, batteries, scrap metal, fabric, or outdated computers and electronics? If we can’t recycle items that have easily accessible programs designed for our convenience, where does that leave us? The world as we know it is shrinking at an alarming rate, and it’s not half so recyclable as a plastic bottle.

—Freelance writer Matthew Bettelheim lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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