Litter and the economy of waste

In spite of the rubbish, the cygnets are thriving on the Lakes. Photo: Mick. 2015.

In spite of the rubbish, the cygnets are thriving on the Lakes. Photo: Mick. 2015.

Humans excel at figuring out ways to use the resources of Earth, to such a degree that some claim we are reaching peak availability of resources. Peak oil for example. As the human population continues to grow and as large populations in China, India and Brazil join the growing middle class, more and more pressure on the Earth’s resources will result. If everyone were to the live life of abundance like we do in the West, how long would Mother Earth be able to sustain us?

Last year in Brisbane I attended a thought experiment, run by Queensland’s chief scientist, to imagine a day in the life of my department’s chief executive in 20 years. I suggested to my table that the day might start with another notification from police of a robbery at a transfer station, where valuable recyclables had been trucked away overnight.  I imagined a future where we valued our resources more than we do today and each product, including its packaging, had a whole-of-life-cycle strategy attached, such that minimum non-recyclable waste resulted. Nothing is disposable – everything is recycled into our environment whether or not we do it deliberately.

At home in Brisbane we are used to throw all our organic kitchen waste to the four clucking hens in the pen in the back yard. We have curbside collection of glass and plastic bottles, aluminium, paper and cardboard for recycling and general waste that goes to landfill. I guess Australia has enough land to cater for that in the long term.

In our back yard here in Copenhagen a myriad of labelled containers for recyclables allow us to recycle generally the same things we do at home. It pains me, though, to see the organic waste being sent to general refuse and burnt. I know the energy produced by the fire is used to generate electricity, but it still seems a lot of nutrients are lost to Mother Earth and literally sent up in smoke.

A lot of rubbish end in the Lakes. Photo: Mick. 2015.

A lot of rubbish end in the Lakes. Photo: Mick. 2015.

I see a lot of litter in the streets and applaud Copenhagen Council staff who clean the streetscape each morning. Paper and plastic, cigarette butts and food wrappers, tickets and half-eaten swamarma, dog shit and dog shit in bags. People seem content to just drop the rubbish where they sit or stand and leave it behind. This is in spite of the countless bins everywhere labelled ‘Ren Kærlighed til Kbh’ – roughly translated to ‘clean love to Copenhagen’.

When the sun shines and the Hipster Bridge is full of happy people, drinking beer and playing music and backgammon in the sun, you can be sure to wake up the next day to a mess of litter on the bridge and in the Lakes. Thanks to the Danish Brewer’s collaboration regarding drink container refunds that started as far back as 1942, one type of litter is rarely left to remain on the streets – and is even fished out of the lake. When you purchase a bottle of beer or softdrink, you pay separately for its packaging. Initially, the system applied to standard glass bottles, but today it includes both plastic bottles and aluminium cans. The system is automated, so that you feed your drink containers into a machine at the supermarket and claim the refund at the cashier. You pay DDK 1 (or AUD0.20) for each beer bottle or can and triple that for 1 1/2l plastic soft drink bottles, which are then refunded upon return.

Overflowing bin on Hipster Bridge after the Copenhagen Marathon. Photo: Lone. 2015.

Overflowing bin on Hipster Bridge after the Copenhagen Marathon. Photo: Lone. 2015.

Where crowds gather so do countless bottle collectors, primarily of ethnic origin other than Danish. Some are homeless, seeking to find money for the next drink, the next meal. Some are ‘professional’ bottle collectors, relying on EU mobility laws to enter Denmark and make a living out of collecting bottles for the refund and sending money back home. Some come for the season, sleep rough on the street and in parks and return home when Denmark gets too cold. Not really a pleasant life, I imagine, but one that effectively exploits Danish affluence, laziness and spoilt littering-is-ok attitude. I must admit I get a bit tired of people with large purple Illum plastic bags wanting to snatch my partly drunken bottle out of my hand to get it before the competition, but the system works – rarely is a refundable bottle left in the streetscape for long. The bottle collectors are simply filling a niche in the economy – a business opportunity that, when I grew up was filled by entrepreneurial kids with their specially built carts, now sustains some of the poorest people in Danish society.

Bottle collector with a bike in the King's Garden. Photo: Mick. 2015.

Bottle collector with a bike in the King’s Garden. Photo: Mick. 2015.

Carlsberg Group is the fourth largest brewer in the world, with more than 500 brands. The company is alive to the resource and environmental challenges and the negative consequence of branded waste. It sells a staggering 36 billion drinks a year, all of which carries packaging.

Back in February I went to a seminar on Collaborative Sustainability, organised by We-Economy at Dansk Arkitektur Centre, where Carlsberg presented on its efforts to reduce, reuse, recylce and rethink the cradle to cradle resource loop. Carlsberg has introduced Carlsberg Circular Community in collaboration with business partners to figure out how to reduce packaging with downstream detrimental effects, increase reuse of packaging, increase recycling of containers and think whole-of-product cycle. As part of the bottle refund system, Carlsberg already reuses and refills glass bottles up to 40 times, and with its partners recycle and upcycle aluminium infinitely. Also consumers are very important to its community. Carlsberg understand the need to gamify recycling behaviours and collaborate with Tesco in Poland to encourage consumers to return packaging by offering gifts or points, and with the aluminium industry in the UK to ensure cans are returned at festivals.

Bottle collectors are taking a break at the 1 May celebrations. Photo: Mick. 2015.

Bottle collectors are taking a break at the 1 May celebrations. Photo: Mick. 2015.

Such innovation by a major commercial player must be applauded. We need more whole of product thinking and we need to pay the actual cost of the resources that go into the products we consume as well as the cost of the recycling of those resources: the whole life of a product, because nothing is disposable. Cheap products designed for early obsoleteness does cost us the Earth. With innovative thinking we can leave a lighter mark on Earth, for our children and the future of humanity and all living beings on this one planet we share.

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3 thoughts on “Litter and the economy of waste

  1. Lucy

    Great post! We have just got kerb-side organic waste collection here in this area of Scotland, and although some people so refuse to use it as they think it’s dirty (which is insane, we are provided with a small pest-proof bin and biodegradable bags) in general it’s been very successful. Although, I was shocked when I moved here as it seems littering is quite normal, as a consequence there can be quite shocking accumulations, even in small villages. It seems it’s contagious, people are happy to drop litter when they see other litter, and if I were in charge, I’d do away with littering fines and make those caught do refuse clearing community service.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. lonebonekaffekone Post author

      Thanks for your comment Lucy. I love the idea of curbside collection of organic waste – and yes you are right that rodents do become a problem if not managed well. For me, the worst thing about littering is that it ends up in nature, often in the ocean. And despite what we might think, the ocean will not cover these tracks – plastic might break down, but it enters our food chain and comes right back at us. Nothing is disposable – every atom remains.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Fire, evil and tradition | Pied-à-terre CPH

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