COPENHAGEN — There’s something unusual about the ski slope towering over an industrial neighborhood of the Danish capital.
Underneath the 400-meter-long fluorescent green artificial hill lies a labyrinth of giant pipes — part of a waste-to-power plant that burns thousands of tons of garbage to heat and power the city.
The Amager Bakke plant is designed to change perceptions by blending waste management with a bit of fun. But there’s one big problem — it may not have enough trash to burn.
Denmark is one of the EU’s leaders when it comes to recycling and reusing trash, which means that Amager Bakke and the country’s other waste-burning power plants may have to import more and more garbage to keep running. But the EU is pressing hard for all member countries to boost recycling and slash trash, and environmentalists are also skeptical of burning rather than reusing waste.
“It’s twice as big as it ought to be and being a state-of-the-art plant you are going to pay for that,” said Niels Bukholt, senior adviser at the Waste and Resource Industry in Denmark, which represents the private waste management sector that opposed the publicly owned plant. “It’s like if you go to car dealership and you tick off all the option boxes, then it’s going to cost more than the basic option.”
The 4 billion krone (€540 million) plant is owned by five municipalities and has been in operation for almost a year and a half. Yet its construction has been controversial for many more.
It’s a question of size
That’s because it’s bigger than the nearby 40-year-old plant it’s meant to replace, and it’s plonked near the heart of the city. At 91 meters tall, it’s just 15 meters shorter than the Christiansborg Palace, which hosts the Danish parliament. The nearest residents are only 200 meters away.
Politicians fought over its construction for years before agreeing that waste imports should be allowed in order to help pay for the massive investment. It’s financed through a 30-year loan that will be largely repaid by consumers’ bills but also by waste-processing fees and renting out the ski slope to a private operator.
Last year, Amager Bakke handled 451,321 tons of waste, out of which 30,000 were imported from the United Kingdom and Ireland. That produced enough electricity to power 30,000 homes and to heat about 72,000.
“Is the capacity here bigger than the capacity needed in the five municipalities? The answer for that is definitely, ‘Yes,'” said Jacob Simonsen, CEO of the Amager Resource Center, the publicly-owned company in charge of the plant. “But we have to look to the future too. It’s more than we need right now but that might not be more than what we need in five to 10 years’ time in Denmark.”
That’s because more than half of Denmark’s waste incineration capacity is over 25 years old and will need to be replaced soon, he added. Copenhagen’s population of 600,000 is also growing by about 1,000 people per month.
Denmark has been burning waste to create energy for decades; it burned 26 percent of the trash it sorted in 2015, while 68 percent was recycled — a percentage that has been steadily increasing. Burning waste accounts for about 12 percent of district heating needs and produces about 4 percent of Denmark’s electricity.
Hunting for garbage
But the better Denmark gets at recycling — the island of Bornholm wants to become waste-free by 2032 — the more it needs other countries’ trash to burn for energy. In 2013, imports accounted for 5 percent of the waste incinerated in Denmark. In 2015, that jumped to 11 percent.
This year, Amager Bakke plans to import between 50,000 and 70,000 tons from the U.K, Germany, Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands, and that could rise to 90,000 tons per year.
The plant is putting a positive spin on garbage imports.
“Even though we rely on imports, we are burning waste that otherwise would go to waste in the landfills and emit methane,” said Simonsen. “Other countries don’t have enough capacity to treat their waste.”
That may be true for now, but EU countries are gearing up to implement the bloc’s new waste rules by next year that mandate higher recycling rates. The pressure from Brussels is unlikely to let up, as incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has put sustainability at the core of her agenda.
NGOs originally opposed the plant’s construction, but because it’s already been built, they now share Simonsen’s view that it makes sense to use it to burn imported trash. It’s not the preferred use for garbage — at the top is avoiding waste, then reusing and recycling followed by burning and finally dumping garbage in landfills.
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“We were not in favor of burning it because people had not taken the precaution from the beginning not to generate as much rubbish,” said Bente Hessellund Andersen from the NGO NOAH (Friends of the Earth Denmark). However, she said it’s a “better solution” that Amager Bakke be fired by garbage than by “importing wood pellets from the Baltics.”
There’s also worry that the prominent waste-burning plant will send a signal that it’s OK to incinerate garbage rather than avoid it, said Bukholt from Waste and Resource Industry.
“There’s a very big incentive for municipalities and also for the government to make sure the plant is financed and the way it’s financed is to receive waste,” he said. “It diminishes the incentive to recycle the waste.”
Simonsen insisted that there’s no danger of Amager Bakke burning a hole in Denmark’s circular economy efforts. “Only what we cannot recycle or use in more intelligent ways we burn.”
But he did acknowledge that even though the plant is up and running, the debate over how much waste the city and the country should burn has not stopped — and he’s open to a radically low-waste future.
“If we end up in this scenario that whatever you use and consume does not give rise to waste, if you only have two sets of clothes, always go by bicycle, always make sure that what you need and buy can be recycled — then we close the factory and we do it with a smile,” he said. “But we are put in the world to see if we can help rectify the consumption of the average citizens.”
Despite the controversy, the plant is the city’s new icon and residents can start thinking about getting their skis ready — the slope opens on October 4.
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