Denmark’s green credentials obscure some unpleasant facts

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Something is rotting in the state of Denmark. Lots of things, actually, and it’s a bit of an embarrassment for this Scandinavian nation as it prepares to host a widely anticipated global environmental summit this week.

Denmark is proud of its image as one of the greenest countries in the world; it’s probably why it was chosen as the site of the 15th United Nations Conference on Climate Change.

But beneath the gloss lurk some inconvenient truths, including the fact that, pound for pound, Denmark produces more trash per capita than any other country in the 27-member European Union.

The Danes tossed out 1,762 pounds of garbage per person in 2007, the latest year for which EU-wide statistics are available. That’s more than the Dutch (1,386 pounds), the Brits (1,258) and the French (1,190); a lot more than the Greeks (986); and double the Lithuanians (880).

It even surpasses the Americans (1,690 pounds), who are often held up as the boogeyman of heedless, needless consumption. By the numbers, Denmark is one of the most wasteful -- in both senses of the term -- societies in the world.

To be fair, the Danes are far more eco-friendly in terms of what they do with all that rubbish. A good portion of it is gardening waste, rather than soda cans and the like. Recycling rates are extremely high, and enormous incinerators around the country don’t just burn trash but convert it into energy. About 5% of garbage ends up in landfills, compared with 54% in the United States.

But, critics say, there has been no sustained push here to cut down the volume of trash at its source.

“We never, ever in Denmark made a campaign to reduce waste,” said Martin Lidegaard, chairman of Concito, an environmental think tank here in the Danish capital. “I’m very critical that we haven’t done more to prevent waste. We should.”

As nations come together to find ways to protect the planet, the waste problem here points up the challenges that remain in trying to change human behavior. That’s true even in a country as environmentally conscious as this one.

Denmark has certainly made important strides in tapping wind energy and encouraging Copenhagen residents to abandon their cars by providing an extensive network of bicycle lanes throughout the city.

The country also is one of the most energy efficient. Officials proudly point out that their economy has managed to grow 70% since 1980 while keeping electricity consumption nearly stable.

Yet beneath that lies another unhappy reality. The Danish may lead the world in producing wind turbines, but much of their power still comes from coal-fired plants, major emitters of greenhouse gases.

Wind furnishes about 20% of the electricity supply -- an impressive proportion compared with other nations, but actually less than what many Danes think is the case.

“There are many myths about Denmark,” Lidegaard said. “Yes, we have a lot of wind [power], and we are good at that. But it’s still very, very little compared with coal.”

When it comes to individual behavior, Danes exhibit plenty of the same tendencies as residents of other rich but less environmentally sensitive nations.

This remains a highly consumerist society. One of Copenhagen’s biggest attractions is Stroget, billed as the world’s longest pedestrian shopping street. Souvenir shops, luxury stores, high-end boutiques featuring Danish design and cafes peddling $7 cups of cappuccino attract throngs of residents and tourists.

Despite warnings from environmentalists that such consumption isn’t sustainable in the long term, personal spending remains a popular pastime.

So is eating plenty of meat.

Meat consumption has been linked to climate change because of widespread deforestation to create pastureland or to grow feed crops and because of the gases, such as methane, released into the atmosphere by belching, flatulent livestock. In an analysis of worldwide meat-eating trends spanning 40 years, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that Denmark topped the carnivore list.

In 2002, the last year of the study, the average Dane consumed a whopping 321 pounds of meat -- nearly a pound a day. For Americans, the figure was 275 pounds.

Lidegaard says that Denmark’s reputation as a world leader in other “green” sectors may have blinded Danes to issues closer to home, even in their own kitchens.

“We have been so happy and self-satisfied about our energy system that we have completely forgotten that before we begin to use energy, before we begin to consume, we could do a lot of things to cut down our footprint on nature,” he said.

Here in Copenhagen, the Amagerforbraending plant is one of the city’s two principal incineration centers. It receives huge mounds of detritus every day out of dumpsters serving more than half a million residents, garbage that either can’t be recycled or that residents didn’t bother to sort.

Monster ovens burn the stuff at temperatures in excess of 1,700 degrees; cleansing agents remove toxic gases and other chemicals before the smoke billows out of a 500-foot-tall smokestack.

In 2007, the center incinerated 463,000 tons of rubbish. But the plant was able to convert that trash into energy using steam from water heated in the ovens. About 80% was fed into the municipal heating system, and 20% went into the electricity grid.

“It’s obvious that it’s a smart thing to take waste and turn it into energy,” said Esben Norrbom, a consultant at the plant. “You take care of two problems at once.”

But, according to the Danish government’s own “hierarchy of waste,” recycling and incineration should be subordinate to cutting down on waste production.

One thing, though, that’s certain not to improve the numbers for Denmark: the thousands of diplomats, negotiators, experts, academics, scientists, activists and journalists converging on Copenhagen for nearly two weeks.

They may be coming to save the planet. But they’ll leave behind tons of extra trash.