Denmark, and especially its capital Copenhagen, has a built a strong national brand on the back of some enviable accolades: Danes are the happiest people, Denmark is one of the safest countries, it has one of the most stable European economies, its social welfare programmes are the envy of many and the list seems to go on.
Danes should be proud of this reputation, and after spending time living in Denmark, I can agree that it is all based on truth.
There is an unofficial ranking however that should bring shame to everyone in Denmark, a nation known for its progressive environmental practices. Copenhagen is also one of the dirtiest cities in Scandinavia. Trash litters almost every street, and not only cigarette butts, which are everywhere (just take a look at the next bus stop you pass), but just about anything imaginable can be seen carelessly discarded around the city. And Danes don't only throw their rubbish on the streets, but their beaches, parks, gardens, storefronts, and waterways too.
Likewise, graffiti is everywhere. Most developed cities have come to realize that there is a place in this world for graffiti and that it can serve a social purpose. But what seems to dominate in Copenhagen, however, is the type of graffiti, often referred as a tag, that serves no purpose and is nothing more than a selfish and disrespectful act for the services and aesthetics that Denmark seems to work so hard to maintain.
Let's also set something straight. Just last year, Copenhagen was beaten only by Zurich, Switzerland as the cleanest city in Europe according to the European Environmental Bureau.
The ranking, however, is based solely on things like the availability of public transportation and air quality. And this is where things get a little paradoxical. Copenhagen's policies on environmental protection are very lofty. But in practice, Danes' respect for their environment seem to be at an all-time low. The City of Copenhagen reports that about 80 percent of the trash collected is cigarette butts – at a cost of about two kroner per butt!
How Copenhagen area escalators look when people don't bother with ashtrays. Photo: Justin Cremer
As an American, there are many things I admire about the Danes, but their ability to trash and deface without hesitation or remorse a beautiful city like Copenhagen is not one of them. And the sad part is the Danes seem to be totally oblivious to this behaviour and accept it as readily as they accept their generous social benefits.
I've had the opportunity to hear opinions from some Danes and their responses were mixed. One explanation was that, in general, Danes pay so much in taxes that they feel it's the government's job to clean up. That to me seems like taking the term 'nanny state' a little too literally.
Another response from an older gentleman was that he could recall the days, not so long ago, when shop owners or restaurateurs would clean the sidewalk in front of their establishment. I asked him what had changed, and he responded that that generation was long gone. I also heard the explanation that litter was a recent phenomenon that happened to coincide with more immigrants living in the city.
The response I got the most, however, was a puzzled look as if they had no idea what I was talking about.
Apparently Danes do not think their litter or graffiti problems in Copenhagen are any worse than in other cities.
For a country that prides itself on its design, architecture, public transportation, and efforts to reduce carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy, it's shocking to view the amount of litter that finds its way to Copenhagen's streets, parks and waterways. Where is the public outcry, the beach cleanups? Where is the social stigma towards those who litter and deface your public transportation and buildings? Or is this just another one of those things that are someone else's responsibility?
Why walk the extra few steps to find a garbage bin? Photo: Louis Volpe
I witnessed a perfect example one Friday evening while visiting Papirøen (“Paper Island”) where I viewed hundreds of stylish young Danes listening to music, drinking and eating on the dock, casually discarding everything while sitting amongst the trash thrown away by others, much of which blew into the harbour. Take a walk in the evening at the beach at Amager Strandpark or any of the beautiful parks within the city after a sunny, warm day and observe the overflowing rubbish cans and the litter simply left behind on the greens and the beach.
As an outside observer, it's easier to see what someone who is from Copenhagen may not, but I still don't get it! Why litter? Where is the social responsibility in a country that takes pride in everyone doing their part? Where is the chorus of disgust from those who would like to see change?
And make no mistake; littering is a conscious act, not some random event. Danes choose to litter and therefore Danes can also take a stand and be part of the solution but only if they get disgusted by the filth that swirls around their feet as they walk or bike or play.
Denmark should be proud of so many things, but Copenhagen residents should be ashamed that their city is a pigpen.
Louis Volpe is an American, married to a Dane, who currently splits time between two homes.