On the Danish island of Bornholm, locals say you’re not a true Bornholmer until your family have lived here for three generations. They’re fiercely proud and you can see why. This small, diamond-shaped island of 40,000 people in the Baltic Sea is famous for its unspoiled nature, quaint fishing villages and arts and crafts tradition. With the claim that it enjoys more sunshine hours than anywhere else in Denmark, it’s known as “the sunshine island”, and draws thousands of tourists each year.
But the island has had its fair share of problems too. In the 70s and 80s its economy was heavily dependent on fishing, but as fish stocks in the Baltic Sea gradually collapsed and Denmark privatised quotas, many small-scale fishers were wiped out. Bornholm had to reinvent itself. The island is considered deprived by Danish standards – locals here earn around 20% less than the Danish average.
Fast-forward to 2018 and Jens Hjul-Nielsen had an idea. A civil servant head-hunted to lead the island’s waste authority, Bornholm’s Affaldsbehandling (BOFA), he was tired of Bornholm always being on the back foot. “When we went to the central administration in Copenhagen, our message was pretty much always the same: ‘we’re from Bornholm, we have difficulties with this, that or the other, can you help us in some way?’ – very often with money,” he says. “And I was thinking, instead of always being the ones who show up and say, ‘we have a problem’, what if we were the ones who showed up and said ‘we have a solution for the rest of you’?”
2032 is also the year that Bornholm’s incinerator, which currently burns nearly all of the rubbish that can’t be recycled, will reach the end of its life. Instead of replacing it, Hjul-Nielsen thought, why not do away with it all together?
It’s a huge challenge, not least because the Danes produce among the most waste per person in the European Union, and are among the highest waste producers in the world. This is because Denmark is “trapped by incineration,” according to Paul Connett, waste management expert and former professor of environmental chemistry at St Lawrence University in New York. “I think they probably don’t see this as throwing away. They’re persuaded that this is good behaviour,” he says.
That’s because Denmark has 23 state-of-the-art incinerators which burn the waste produced by Danes, and imported from elsewhere, and converts it into energy that helps power the country’s district heating systems and electricity grid. This “waste-to-energy” strategy positioned Denmark as a global front-runner in diverting waste from landfill and has in the past been praised as a greener solution for trash. However, burning rubbish still emits greenhouse gases, which isn’t helping Denmark’s climate goal of cutting its emissions by 70% by 2030. It also saves far less energy and resources than recycling – all reasons why the government wants to reduce incineration by a third by 2030.
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On Bornholm, Jens says about 70% of the 80,000 tonnes of waste that BOFA receives each year is currently recycled. Around 25% is incinerated and the last 5%, mostly toxic materials that can’t be burned, ends up in landfill.
The zero waste goal also isn’t the island’s only green pledge – it’s aiming to become carbon neutral in its energy sector as soon as 2025 (Listen here to how Bornholm plans to rid itself of fossil fuels). The island already gets most of its electricity and heating from a combination of wind power, solar, biogas and sustainable biomass, with plans to install more renewable energy in the next 18 months.