By Donella Meadows
–April 6, 1989–
In low-lying Denmark people do not live very far from their groundwater. Whatever they dump onto the land ends up in their wells, and quickly. Back in 1970, before Love Canal, before Times Beach, before any hazardous waste disaster in their own land, the Danes were working out how to prevent such disasters. By 1975 they had instituted a hazardous waste disposal system that is one of the best in the world.
The system is overseen by the central government, but its day-to-day operation is in the hands of cities and towns. Each municipality has a collection point to which households bring solvents, pesticides, used oils, anything they don’t want to find in their water. Hazardous materials can also be taken back to where they were sold — unused medicine to the pharmacy, half-empty paint cans to the paint store, dead batteries to the hardware store. The stores take them, separated and labeled, to the collection point.
From the collection point they are trucked to one of 21 transfer stations, none more than 30 miles away.
Every industry must tell the municipality within which it operates exactly what types and quantities of wastes it produces. (That’s a step we are just reaching now in the United States.) Unless the town or city gives a permit for on-site treatment, the industry must deliver its wastes — again separated and labeled — to the transfer station.
From the 21 transfer stations all materials go to a central facility called Kommunekemi. Kommunekemi maintains a professional staff that directs each type of waste to its proper treatment process.
About one-fourth of the materials arriving at Kommunekemi are relatively nontoxic and immobile. They are sent to a lined, monitored landfill.
Cyanides are destroyed by chemical reaction. Organic chemicals, solvents, and oils are burned in high-temperature incinerators, which provide steam to heat 45% of the houses in the nearby town of Nyborg. The smokestacks are fitted with pollution control devices. Air emissions are carefully monitored. Ash from the incinerator is sent to a separate, labeled compartment of the same landfill.
Heavy metals are also sent to separate and labeled landfill sites, with the intention of reclaiming them someday. They are covered regularly with lime to maintain low acidity so they will not leach into groundwater, and with a plastic membrane.
If you’re noticing the frequent repetition of the words “separate and labeled” here, that’s one of the keys to the Danish system. Noxious materials mixed together in a toxic brew are next to impossible to deal with. Separated materials can be treated with relative ease.
The Danish Environmental Protection Agency keeps a permanent inspector at Kommunekemi to report any problems. There have been a few minor spills, broken drums, and gas releases, none that have done measurable harm to the groundwater or to human health. For a facility that handles 100,000 tons per year of hazardous materials, the safety record is outstanding.
Who pays for Kommunekemi? Municipalities and companies are charged by the amount and type of waste they send. The fees are high, not only to pay fully for handling, but to encourage the reduction of waste. The chemists and engineers at Kommunekemi will consult with any industry or town about how to recycle materials or reduce wastes.
They consult outside Denmark, too. Says Per Riemann, Kommunekemi’s manager, “So many people come here to see how the plant works that we have thought of charging a fee. Instead we have set up a worldwide consulting company to help other places design hazardous waste treatment facilities. Denmark has few natural resources — but knowledge is one thing we can export.”
Danes are no more angels than the rest of us. Their system is neither perfect nor perfectly well accepted. They could recover and re-use more materials than they do. Despite the high disposal fee, the generation of toxic waste has been growing in Denmark by 17 percent per year. The people of Nyborg are resisting a needed expansion of Kommunekemi in classic Not In My Backyard fashion.
Still, compare their situation to ours. We have at least 10,000 mixed, unlabeled hazardous waste dumps. Our EPA estimates that 85 percent of our toxic wastes are still disposed of in an environmentally unsound way — 12 percent directly into watercourses. We have a lot to learn from the principles of the Danish system, if not its details.
Its principles are simple. Put information and control at the local level, with the people most likely to be impacted by improper disposal. Make the system easy for everyone to comply with. Do not tolerate noncompliance. Catch wastes immediately at the point of generation. Keep them separated. Hand them over to professionals. Charge a disposal fee high enough to ensure top-quality treatment. Encourage waste reduction.
In short, get serious about hazardous wastes. Seems like something almost any country could do.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989