Study: Denmark could increase recycling of packaging to 75 percent by 2035

Danebrog (Foto: ©Astrid Götze-Happe /

Besides remanufacturing, Denmark could increase the recycling of packaging to 75 percent by 2035, saving both embedded energy and carbon, by addressing the need for improved collection systems and working together with stakeholders on ways to increase standardisation. In addition, Danish companies could develop a competitive advantage in bio-based materials, if the need for accelerated technological development and creating functional end-of-use pathways is addressed, says a new study.

In Denmark, the volume of plastic packaging waste grew 2 percent p.a. over 10 years, to 184,000 tonnes in 2012, while the volume of other packaging waste, such as glass and paper, declined at a rate of 1.3 percent p.a. over the same period. While Denmark has spearheaded many recycling initiatives, such as one of the first successful deposit-refund systems for bottles, recycling rates are still low for plastic packaging. One root cause may be the large waste incineration capacity in Denmark, using combined heat and power plants to generate electricity and provide district heating. Since low utilisation undermines incinerator economics, the incentive to switch packaging volumes over to recycling has been limited. In the ‘Denmark Without Waste’ resource strategy, the Danish government expresses a goal to gradually move from incinerating valuable materials – such as plastics – to recycling. Consequently, the estimated projected incinerator capacity is flat.

Given this starting point, there is significant potential for Denmark to increase recycling of plastic packaging:

  • By 2020, Denmark could increase the amount of plastic packaging collected for recycling to up to 40 percent (20 percent for households and 60 percent for businesses). This means an overall improvement with 10 percentage points compared to current recycling rate (5 percentage points for households and 20 percentage points for business- es).
  • By 2035, a approx. 75 percent recycling rate (65 percent for households and 85 percent for businesses) and improved valorisation of the collected plastic waste could become feasible.

A transition towards increased recycling would centre on three key levers – design, collection and sorting – each with a few different enabling mechanisms: Higher collection rates for recycling, improved sorting technology and Design for recycling.

By 2020, increased recycling could reduce demand of virgin plastic material by 20,000— 25,000 tonnes; by 2035 this could be 70,000–100,000 tonnes. Compared to using the same amount of virgin plastic material, recycled plastics require approximately 70 percent less energy to produce: One tonne of recycled plastics saves roughly 10,000–12,000 kWh of energy. By 2035, Denmark could therefore also save as much as 700–1,200 GWh of energy p.a. These findings give a directional view of the magnitude of this opportunity for Denmark. They rely by necessity on a number of assumptions. In addition to energy savings, Denmark’s carbon footprint would be reduced – but by how much would depend on what source of energy is used to replace the heat and electricity generated from incineration.

More information can be found in the report „Potential for Denmark as a Circular Economy. A case study from: Delivering the Circular Economy – A toolkit for policy makers“. 

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation