The subtle and systemic changes that make life in Copenhagen more sustainable

The subtle and systemic changes that make life in Copenhagen more sustainable

(Cate Twining-Ward/George Washington University)

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A few weeks ago, I moved to Copenhagen, Denmark. Although I am half Danish, and have spent plenty of time here growing up, the culture and lifestyle habits surrounding sustainability differ greatly from what’s familiar—shifting my mindset and forcing me to re-evaluate my own sustainability practices.

I consider myself a rather environmentally conscious 20-year-old: I eat plant-based, contemplate my clothing sources, despise single use-plastic, bring reusable bags and bottles—I even tried the whole zero waste thing. Despite my efforts, living sustainably as a student in rapidly changing, business-centric cities like New York and Washington, D.C., has been more than challenging. 

Moving to Copenhagen has made me realize that instead of constantly evaluating my personal habits, perhaps I should be more critical of the systems which ultimately shape society’s collective impact because real improvements will only transpire when we collectively take action.  

In 2020 Denmark was ranked as the most sustainable country by experts from Yale and Columbia Universities, according to the 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI). Reasons for this high ranking include Denmark’s reduction of CO2 emission by more than half since 1996, and that 47% of electricity was sourced from wind power in 2019.

Furthermore, as identified by the United Nations, these high ratings likely correlate to the fact that Denmark is a front runner in other aspects of sustainable development. The Danish government provides citizens with universal health care and education, there is high gender equality, a generous social safety net, personal freedom, and more.  

These high rankings are also largely thanks to the shared philosophies of sustainability and minimalism which are upheld in the home, and beyond. This collective mindset is often neglected when discussing global sustainability methods, but I believe it should be emphasized. 

To find out more, I decided to talk with other students who have also recently moved here, to see what they’ve noticed living in Copenhagen and whether these differences have impacted them too. These conversations have left me with a freshly optimistic outlook on how sustainability within cities can not only improve the health of our planet but also improve people’s mindsets and happiness overall. 

I’ve come to think that perhaps we are looking too far into the unknown for solutions to our biggest climate challenges. Rather than waiting around for another ambiguous statement from our world leaders, or some unidentified technological solution, let’s examine the cities who have already implemented tangible and effective sustainable systems into daily life. 

It all started with a mirror. 

This recent incident with my father perfectly illustrates the first major difference I noticed when moving to Denmark: the absence of online shopping.

My dad needed to acquire a full-length mirror. After days of careful window shopping around town, he finally picked one out online and reserved it for same-day pickup. As my dad insisted that everything was transportable via the holy bike lane, he and I cycled out to the store and purchased the mirror. Realizing that it was indeed far too large and heavy to cycle with, even for a full-blooded determined Dane like my father, we resorted to balancing the mirror on one of the bike pedals and walking it all the way home, fighting the wind as we went. Yes, this entire fiasco could have (and would have) been avoided in New York City with the ease of a click on Amazon Prime. But, this would have also come with an environmental cost, going against Danish values of minimalism—as well as the notion that everything is possible on a bicycle.

It feels strange that purchases do not involve the corporate monstrosity that everyone in the United States hates and loves all at the same time: Amazon. Online shopping here is virtually unheard of. 

Some people may do it occasionally, but the presence of Amazon and its associated delivery services are nothing like what I am used to. Another university student who moved to Copenhagen from London six weeks ago, Calum Kendal, 21, has noticed stark differences in online shopping here too. 

“If you want to use Amazon you have to go through the U.K. or Germany, so it’s much less accessible, certainly to me,” he said. 

Furthermore, things you would normally order online are often accessible in shops only a bike ride away.

When Calum searches for items online, he’s found that they are available within biking distance of his apartment. This allows him to pick goods up conveniently and sustainably, rather than having them delivered via Amazon as he did in London. 

Minji Suh, a 22-year-old from Montreal, Canada, who moved to Copenhagen in January, says she noticed the collective support for local products and an emphasis on minimalism right away. 

“People are willing to pay a little more because they want to support their community,” she said. 

Overall, Minji feels that in Copenhagen the mindset of having and spending less is celebrated, so that when you do purchase an item, it is one of high quality and necessity. 

Minji is passionate about sustainable fashion, incorporating predominantly second-hand and homemade clothing into her wardrobe. She explained to me how the attitude around clothing in Denmark has inspired her to think more consciously, and creatively, about her clothing purchases.

“A lot of Danish people I’ve met have this very minimalist mindset, where it’s not about having as much or showing off, but it’s about being comfortable and presentable,” Minji said.

Minji explained to me that the societal differences of life in Copenhagen versus in North America contributed to the amount of clothing she felt was needed to fit in.

“Back home I lived such a fast-paced life, it felt like I had to have a big wardrobe, with lots of different options, to fit all my parts. So, unfortunately, as a student you gravitate to fast fashion,” she said.

“There is also more pressure to assert your personality through clothing in the States,” Minji continued. “But coming here, and seeing people be so mindful about how they dress and how they consume, made me think that I don’t actually need to buy all these things so quickly. I know now that I can live a happy life just having a select amount of clothes.”

This shift towards minimal, yet quality items did not just manifest in her clothing choices, either.

“It translated into other things too, like me wanting to own a nice set of kitchenware” she said. 

I too, have recognized this emphasis on owning quality material things, and its effect on me has certainly been positive. Danish design is popular all over the world for its simplicity, durability, and usefulness. Minji therefore justifies purchasing a few expensive items that will last her years.

“I know that if I take care of it, it will last me way longer than scrappy Ikea stuff. Already I see the changes it has had on me.”

Another friend of mine, Christina Hermanson, 19, who is originally from Samoa, has been living in Copenhagen for the past two years. 

“We have four trash cans,” she begins. “There’s one for trash, the second is divided into two—half for hard plastic, half for aluminum— then there’s the biodegradable bin, and the last bin goes to cardboard boxes.” 

When Christina was living in Samoa and New Zealand, she only had two: one for trash and one for compost.

“If you had a compost bin in New Zealand people would comment and say, like, ‘oh you really are one of those people, so environmentally friendly,’” she said.

The miniature size of trash bags in Copenhagen also took me (pleasantly) by surprise. Forget your mammoth 13-gallon GLAD bags; here, the average trash bag is barely bigger than a supermarket plastic bag. This subtle difference makes so much sense. Not only does a smaller size insinuate less waste, but people are no doubt more conscious with their waste, having to maximize the space in their trash cans. On my second day in Copenhagen, my dad was quick to criticize me for “wastefully” throwing out my trash.

“You need to fold it really small, otherwise it takes up too much space in the bin,” he said. 

The differences in trash disposal goes beyond the physical act of sorting, however. There is an additional shift in people’s attitude toward trash too—that we have a collective responsibility to do our part. If you fall short, you feel poorly, because everyone else is doing it.

 “There is more shame in not properly throwing trash away here. And it’s just normal—you don’t even question it,” Christina said. 

I do feel my actions subtly changing because of this collective attitude of responsibility. I would never, ever, spit my gum out on the street here, for example. Whereas in New York City, or D.C., I probably would without guilt, simply because it is so normalized. 

Christina could relate to this feeling, too.

“I actually just experienced that last week,” she said. “I had a half a drink left and I threw it in the trash can and my Danish friend was like, ‘Why didn’t you just leave it on the bench? Someone would have just come along to recycle it for PANT.’” 

It is evident that every individual in Copenhagen holds great responsibility for their personal environmental footprint, and also, that people feel as though they have a joint responsibility to contribute to larger sustainability measures, such as the recycling system. 

Christina works in a sushi restaurant, and notices how even people who aren’t dining come in to ask for a tray to properly dispose of their cigarettes. 

“It’s also a standard thing with cigarette butts,” she said. “In other cities I’ve been you just leave them about, but here, even working in a restaurant, people come in to ask for a cigarette tray.”

The ‘PANT’ recycling system, which successfully recycles over 50 million bottles and cans every year, is another widespread eco-friendly approach found in Denmark. This was the first noticeable difference that came to Calum’s mind when I picked his brain about sustainability in Copenhagen. 

The system is based on a small deposit being paid on every bottle when it’s purchased, which you then get back when you return the bottle to a ‘PANT’ machine, which are located at most supermarkets. Danes return an average of 3.8 million bottles and cans daily

Something else slightly different about living in Copenhagen is the way natural light is used as a replacement to electricity. Alex Groth, 22, has lived in Copenhagen for six months since graduating from University College London. One difference we can both agree on is the sparing use of bright lights in homes. Instead, people rely on sunlight and candles.

“The architecture here is a lot more about having natural light—we barely have lights on in the summer because it’s just so bright,” he said.

In contrast to the 24/7 fluorescently lit cities of New York and London, Danes often disregards the use of lights completely. 

“Half the time when I come home at night, my house is only lit with candles,” he said. 

Maybe it was because I grew up mostly in big, bright cities that made this shift especially obvious to me. The popularity of adjustable lights was a subtle way I observed that likely contributes to the fact the Danes consume far less energy per person when compared to the other Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland). This practice holds true even during the winter months, and when it is dark at night, according to Alex. 

 “Most houses I know use adjustable lighting, and even at night we never put it up all the way,” he said. 

A contributing factor to utilizing natural light whenever possible is that the price of electricity in Denmark, as of March 2020, was the third-highest in the world. To avoid staggering prices, many households adopt LED lights, which are up to 80% more energy-efficient, too.

All this is not to say that Denmark is perfect, and that American ways of living and consumption are inherently bad. Only that in many cases, we can do better, and we should be trying harder to. As I discussed with Minji, it’s difficult to directly compare the sustainability practices of two vastly different places.

While the wealth of Denmark certainly aids in its ability to run these operations smoothly, the sustainable lifestyle is one that’s firmly chosen by the individuals and local communities. Alex, who has grown up with family in Denmark, tells me how local communities in Denmark have far more influence over people’s actions than the government. At the end of the day, it really comes down to the decisions of individual families, neighborhoods, and communities. This gives me hope that with a shift in mindset and responsibility, these kinds of changes are possible elsewhere, too.

The key to creating sustainable cities isn’t extreme—we don’t all need to go zero-waste. As young and adaptable people, we can set an example through subtle and collective changes. If we all take the time to sort our trash, recycle our bottles, if we chose to dim our lights and only purchase long-lasting items when necessary, we will mutually reap the benefits.

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Copenhagen, Green Communities, green living, recycling, Urban Sustainability

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