With the increasing popularity of takeaway food culture and, by default, plastic packaging, authorities in Copenhagen, Denmark, have had to spread an equally influential culture that considers the environment and involves people in recycling their waste. Recently, the city has launched an experiment to recycle takeaway packaging, inspired by its successful Deposit and Return System for recycling bottles and cans, placing the country at the forefront of recycling schemes.
While takeaway food offers a thoughtful, practical way to match the fast pace of today’s lifestyle, it is not as beneficial for our health or planet.
This trend has been widespread in EU countries such as Denmark, where people rely heavily on fast food. Because such meals require careful packaging, a huge amount of plastic bags, containers, and bottles has to be consumed. The municipality of Copenhagen estimates that at least 200 tonnes of plastic packaging of various types and sizes end up in landfills each year.
This issue is evident in neighborhoods with plenty of offices and fast food outlets, where employees buy food during their lunch breaks and dispose of empty containers in the streets or parks. As a result, municipal teams spend hours cleaning, and bottle collectors spend days roaming the streets on foot while carrying heavy bags and searching for empty cans and bottles. The same happens in recreational areas where many spend evenings or weekends.
Copenhagen noticed the problem early on and has launched a new initiative to examine the possibility of expanding Denmark’s Deposit and Return System to include takeaway boxes too. In 2002, the Ministry of Environment and Food launched a sustainable mechanism for recycling and mitigating environmental impact. It was how the Deposit and Return System came into existence, as a non-profit project developed with the efforts of partners from both the public and private sectors. After numerous successes, Denmark’s capital city was confident enough to consider ways to expand the experiment.
The system sorts bottles and cans before sending them to recycling plants. However, people’s participation is essential, and the concerned team found that one of the best ways to motivate them is cash rewards.
Thus, the idea implemented by Copenhagen for over 20 years was born. The city established deposit return banks that pay back consumers and producers alike. When citizens want to return an empty can, they can drop it at a supermarket or any reverse vending machine around the city to receive their money.
At stores, part of a bottled or canned product’s price is a deposit that consumers recover upon returning empty bottles or cans for recycling. Store owners, in turn, send the recyclable material to the Deposit and Return System, which reimburses them for payments made to consumers.
However, if a consumer wishes to complete the process independently, deposit return banks allow them to deliver up to 90 bottles and cans at a time to collect their deposits. Consumers can also leave empty containers in particular bins across public places to help those who collect them as a first or second source of income. As for environmentalists who seek no compensation, their money is used to fund and improve the system.
Authorities in Copenhagen are also demanding their citizens replace disposable plastic cups with washable alternatives, especially for social events where drinks are served. They recently launched an experimental system that returns pizza boxes, sushi trays, and coffee cups.
For such an intricate system, success is conditional on the cooperation of all parties. Any weak link in the chain can disrupt the entire process; therefore, a comprehensive mechanism is required.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the initiative is building awareness and providing the most accessible options for both consumers and suppliers. To this end, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency has conducted a public survey and concluded that citizens would be motivated to select recyclable packaging if the purchase would be cheaper. The agency has also communicated with a coffee shop and restaurant owners and staff, inviting them to develop new viable solutions based on their knowledge and experience.
However, a “fully sustainable and permanent solution” requires a careful approach to all environmental and food safety considerations. All recycling efforts need to adhere to strict health regulations, which require, for instance, not to mix different types of plastic, aluminum, or glass while processing and restrict sending such material to approved facilities that undergo regular checks to ensure they meet the requirements.
Danes have been able to establish the world’s most effective recycling system. Figures show that over 93% of bottles and cans are returned and recycled, which hit 1.7 billion in 2021 alone. The material has been converted into new bottles and cans or basins, clothing, and windows, among others. Meanwhile, a large percentage was burnt for heating and power generation purposes.
From a humanitarian point of view, every Danish citizen can now relieve glass and plastic collectors of the burden of searching through rubbish bins while carrying heavy sacs.
At a broader level, Denmark’s capital city is looking to consolidate a national system with a 100% recycling rate and build an experience that can be rolled out worldwide.