As we walked around Denmark the first few days of our trip I was shocked that there were not any recycling containers anywhere. There were none in the hostel, on the streets or in other public places. I looked everywhere I went and then ended up just throwing my bottles and cans away. I felt guilty doing this but did not know what else to do. In America I’ve been conditioned to recycle. I never even think of recycling as an option – it’s just part of my daily life. And at first glance, I felt good thinking that at least in the area of recycling we were beating the Danes. But then I dug deeper and found that Maine is not beating the Danes in the area of recycling. In fact, we actually could step up our efforts with recycling and waste management.
After we were in Denmark for a few days we asked the locals about the lack of recycling containers and they told us that they do recycle all bottles and cans. They either return them to the store they purchased them from for money or they leave them outside on the street near trashcans, where others pick them up and return them for the deposit money. Go World Travel Magazine says that “collecting empties” is almost a sport in Copenhagen. 
Upon hearing this, our tour group began leaving our empties near the trash cans hoping the locals would pick them up and return them. But even knowing that someone would most likely pick them up and return them – it felt a bit like littering. At home I would never leave my trash on the street hoping for someone else to pick it up.
So I began to wonder about recycling in Denmark. When we were at the incinerator – we asked them about recycling and even toured the recycling facility. They said they have been educating Danes about recycling and sorting their trash at home for some time now. They confessed that this is still in process and that they are not there yet. Yet Danes have a strong heritage going for them – Danes think that wasting is wrong, almost unethical – whether it is waste of time, resources or things that are still usable. So teaching them to sort their trash is not a tough sell.
In Denmark, they generate just under 13 million tons of waste every year. They are the world leader in waste management, with an estimated 89% of packaging recycled – that’s approximately three million items a day. In the waste hierarchy in Denmark, recycling ranks highest, second is incineration with energy recovery, and last, landfills. Just 5% of their waste goes into landfills, compared with 54% in the United States. The principle of source separation is a key element of the Danish model.
In addition, the deposit and return system in Denmark prevents 390,000 tons of waste every year, that is equal to 20 per cent of the total amount of domestic waste from households.
Generation of waste in Danish households has been increasing at similar rates as the increase in private consumption. The volume of household waste increased by 18% between 2000 and 2008, and amounted to approximately 23% of the total waste generated. During the same period, waste management improved and the recycling rate of household waste was 41%.
If we compare Maine and Denmark, how is Maine doing? According to the Solid Waste Generation & Disposal Capacity Report, the Maine household recycling rate is 38.7%. We are just slightly behind Denmark with recycling. Yet when it comes to what we landfill we have a long way to go. Maine land filled one-quarter (25.4%) of its waste in 2009. The Danes landfill just 5%
To step up our recycling and waste management efforts in Maine, we would need more aggressive education, additional financial resources and easier methods for recycling. The benefits of taking on a more aggressive approach would be to increase the amount we recycle and to help residents to throw away less trash. Teaching Mainer’s how to consume less could reduce our total waste management needs. This would result in more recycling and less waste ending up in landfills. Maine already does a great job of recycling and yet we could do better. I would like to see Maine set more aggressive goals for both recycling and managing trash.
The disadvantages of taking on a more aggressive recycling and waste management campaign are many. We would have to increase educational efforts. Maine has reached the people who are easy to influence and convert. Those who are not recycling currently will be harder to reach. It takes more money and more energy to reach the late adopters – and some you will never reach. A more aggressive campaign would also require financial resources. Maine does not have excess funds at this point and grants may be hard to come by. Lastly, people may not want to get behind this initiative because they believe, as I did, that we are doing a great job recycling and managing waste.
I believe the pros outweigh the cons. To be more aggressive with our recycling and waste management efforts will impact our state now and in future generations. The Danes are not that far ahead of us with recycling – we can catch them. It’s time to step up and finish strong.