Cycle and Recycle: Coursework in Sustainable Denmark

I came to Copenhagen to study sustainability because I knew I would find a completely different environmental culture than exists in my home, coal-powered state. So far, my course here, Sustainable Denmark: Solutions and Dilemmas, has given me the opportunity, both inside and outside of the classroom, to learn how a nation truly commits to addressing climate change and protecting the planet.

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My professor giving his morning lecture on our commute to our first field visit.

From the first day I arrived at my Kollegium, I knew I wouldn’t be considered odd for rinsing my plastic containers and saving them up to recycle. We not only have a recycling bin but our own mini recycling center in the living room with a different bin designated for each material. I started to learn about Danish sustainability as soon as I threw something away in my new home.

In class, I learned that Denmark only sends 2% of its waste to landfills. Compare that to 80% (of municipal waste) that is sent to landfills in the U.S., and you can get an idea of the massive strides Denmark is making in sustainable living.

On our third day of class, I got the very smelly and unique opportunity to see a Waste-to-Energy (WtE) plant on a field visit to Roskilde just outside of Copenhagen. Denmark has been incinerating much of its waste since its first WtE plant opened in 1903. The currently operating WtE plants like the one we visited now burn hundreds of thousands of tons of waste, producing heat and electricity for Copenhagen while hugely minimizing the need for space in landfills.

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The air emissions from the Roskilde WtE plant are highly regulated and much less impactful to the climate than the methane emissions from landfills.
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Our guide let us take a look at the incinerator.

As a class, we discussed the positives and negatives of this technology – on one hand, using waste replaces some of the need for fossil fuels, but on the other hand, it minimizes the urgency for recycling and responsible consumption and necessitates strong regulation on dangerous incineration emissions.

As we continue to learn about pressing environmental issues and Danish solutions to them, we always take a critical view. A new, green technology might be alluring and exciting, but what are challenges to implementing it? Does it create any additional disparities or problems? Is there any way to further improve the solutions?

On another field visit, my class biked across Copenhagen to see the groundbreaking energy solutions and sustainable development projects in Nordhavn, a newly redeveloping harbor district of Copenhagen. Here, construction to largely supply the area with renewable energy is underway. It was incredible to see this in person – a paradigm shift in energy sourcing which is often deemed “impossible” in political rhetoric in the U.S. happening before my eyes.

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The Copenhagen International School in Nordhavn is covered in solar panels, making it the world’s largest solar facade.

My instructor, a specialist in waste management, was overjoyed to get to visit the new recycling center in Nordhavn as an impromptu addition to our field visit. The center is a place where people can learn how to repair and repurpose items as well as how to properly sort their waste – an important skill for Copenhageners who have a mini-recycling center in their living room like we do!

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The Nordhavn recycling center has a colorful display of materials in front of the various receptacles, making it easy for people to find where their recyclables belong.

After a day in class analyzing climate action and comparing projects which adapt to versus mitigate climate change, we went to the municipality of Gladsaxe on our latest field visit. Gladsaxe is a global leader in climate adaptation – they are developing multi-use areas as solutions to exacerbated flooding from climate change. Again, we made use of Copenhagen’s incredible cycling infrastructure to get there.

In Gladsaxe, we learned from passionate municipality leaders who showed us around parks and playgrounds that serve as water retention zones in the event of major cloudbursts. Learning about these solutions from a textbook would be fine, but it’s an exponentially more meaningful experience to get to take a personal tour with the project managers.

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This playground doubles as a water retention area during heavy rains.

Between field visits, our hours in the classroom fly by as our professor incorporates case studies, videos, and expert opinions into his lectures. At the start of each session, we spend some time discussing recent news about a sustainability topic chosen by a different member of the class, so we all get a chance to share and learn from one another’s passions and perspectives.

From the classroom to Copenhagen, I’ve been swimming in ideas and inspiration for sustainable solutions – I’m just glad I have a few more weeks to keep soaking it all in!

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