Denmark’s plastic littering mapped out in world-first project

Plastic packets, cigarette butts and other litter are still causing a mess in nature areas in Denmark.

Denmark’s plastic littering mapped out in world-first project
File photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen/Ritzau Scanpix

A national survey, Mass Experiment 2019, resulted in the collection of 374,082 pieces of plastic waste at natural areas such as beaches, parks and in ditches, Ritzau reports.

57,000 Danish school students participated in collection of the litter.

Mass Experiment is the world’s first attempt at mapping plastic pollution for a whole country.

“The plastic found by the students is typically different types of disposable plastic,” Kristian Syberg, an associate professor at Roskilde University’s Department of Science and Environment and a researcher on the project, told Ritzau.

“Much of it cannot be recycled, which is why many people tend to throw it away in the wild,” Syberg added.

“This can also impact animals which can become stuck in it or think it is food and eat it. Then they can't distinguish it (from actual food) and get a false sense of being full and can die from hunger,” he continued.

Syberg is also spokesperson for the MarinePlastic research centre, where the project’s results have been analyzed and recorded in a database developed by the European Environment Agency.

Among other types of trash, 112,018 cigarette butts were collected, representing a third of the total litter found.

“Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, which is used to make some types of plastic. This makes it difficult for nature to break them down,” said Niels Them Kjær, a project manager for tobacco prevention with the Danish Cancer Society (Kræftens Bekæmpelse).

“If the cigarette has been smoked, there is also tar in the filter, which also pollutes the environment when you throw away the butt,” he added.

Environment minister Lea Wermelin said findings are “deeply troubling”.

Wermelin noted that political action is being taken to reduce the use of plastics, including bans on cotton wool swabs, disposable cutlery and plastic straws.

Additionally, the price of plastic carrier bags has tripled, and businesses will be banned from providing free carrier bags from January 1st 2021.

READ ALSO: New laws: Here’s what changes in Denmark in 2020

The minister also said individual responsibility must be taken for the environment.

“It [the result of the study, ed.] s also something that I hope will be thought-provoking,” she said.

“And that can help to ensure a change of attitude, so that fewer pieces of plastic are thrown in our nature to the detriment of animals,” she added.

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‘We still have a chance’: Danish minister’s relief after Glasgow climate deal

Denmark's climate minister Dan Jørgensen has expressed relief that a meaningful climate change deal was struck in Glasgow last night, after a last minute move by India and China nearly knocked it off course.

'We still have a chance': Danish minister's relief after Glasgow climate deal
Denmark's climate minister Dan Jørgensen speaks at the announcement of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance in Glasgow on Tuesday. Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

“For the first time ever, coal and fossil fuel subsidies have been mentioned. I’m very, very happy about that,” he told Denmark’s Politiken newspaper. “But I am also very disappointed that the stronger formulations were removed at the last minute.” 

Late on Saturday, the world’s countries agreed the Glasgow Climate Pact, after negotiations dragged on while governments haggled over phasing out coal. 

Denmark is one of the countries leading the phase out of fossil fuels, formally launching the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) with ten other countries and states at the Glasgow summit on Tuesday, announcing an end to oil exploration last December, and committing to phase out coal by 2030 back in 2017. 

Jørgensen conceded that the deal struck on Saturday was nowhere near far-reaching enough to keep global temperature rises below 1.5C, which scientists have estimated is critical to limiting the impacts of climate change, but he said the decision to hold another summit in Egypt next year meant that this goal could still be reached. 

“The big, good news is that we could have closed the door today. If we had followed the rules, we would only have had to update the climate plans in 2025, and the updates would only apply from 2030,” he said, adding that this would be too late. “Now we can fight on as early as next year. This is very rare under the auspices of the UN.” 

Limiting temperature rises to 1.5C was still possible, he said. 

“We have a chance. The framework is in place to make the right decisions. There was a risk that that framework would not be there.” 

Jørgensen said that he had come close to tears when India launched a last-minute bid to water down the language when it came to coal, putting the entire deal at risk. 

“It was all really about to fall to the ground,” he said. “The assessment was that either the Indians got that concession or there was no agreement.” 

Sebastian Mernild, a climate researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, said he was disappointed by the lack of binding targets and global deadlines in the plan, but said it was nonetheless “a step in the right direction”, particularly the requirement that signatories to the Paris Agreement must tighten their 2030 emissions reduction targets by the end of 2022.

“It’s good that this thing with fossil fuels has got in,” he added. “It’s a pity that you don’t have to phase them out, but only reduce.”

He said the test of whether the Glasgow meeting is a success or failure would not come until the various aspects of the plan are approved and implemented by members states.