From Copenhagen to Madison: The Progress of Sustainability

This marks a new series of newsletter articles penned by our own Office of Sustainability interns. Our first article is by Carolyn Hamburg, who is a rising senior studying political science and environmental studies with a certificate in education policy. During Summer and Fall 2017, she worked as an Office of Sustainability intern, and will be returning starting in Fall 2018. She spent the last semester in Copenhagen, Denmark, living with a Danish host family and taking classes about Danish society, sustainability in Northern Europe, and Arctic relations.

Over the past four months, I have been studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, on a program called the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS). DIS’s curriculum heavily incorporates hands-on learning, so I have been able to explore Copenhagen’s environmental sustainability initiatives firsthand through field studies and guest lectures. In addition, I have traveled with my environmental studies class to southern Sweden and Berlin, Germany, to learn more about sustainability work in different European countries.

A classic view in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Carolyn Hamburg.

As an Office of Sustainability intern, it has been important to see what UW-Madison is doing well in our sustainability efforts, but also how our programming can be improved as we move forward. From my experiences in Denmark and Europe at large, it is evident that by making environmentally sustainable choices the best and most convenient option for consumers, Europe has pulled ahead in their sustainability initiatives.

At the Office of Sustainability, one of our core missions is to help students and faculty understand the university’s multi-stream recycling system. The multi-steam recycling system means that there are separate bins for mixed paper, office paper, and glass/cans/plastic (also called “commingle”) on campus. The multi-steam system is beneficial not only because recycled objects can be used again, but because the university earns money from waste vendors if items are properly recycled. For items to be properly recycled, however, there must be very little contamination of the waste stream—that is, items in the wrong place, like plastic bottles in the paper bin. Similarly, recycled items must be clean: if they contain food or liquid that can spill, this can contaminate an entire load of recycling.

Bottle with returnable information printed on the label.
Bottle with returnable information printed on the label. Photo by Carolyn Hamburg.

The Office of Sustainability is also working with Facilities Planning & Management and Housing and Dining to decrease food waste on campus by expanding the university’s compost program. There are now compost bins available on every floor of residential halls for students to use. In all of the dining halls, the dining staff are trained to sort through items to identify what can be recycled or composted. Office of Sustainability interns train custodial staff about the multi-stream recycling system and the proper way to compost. There are also three public sites around campus—Union South, Parking Lot 62, and Parking Lot 76 Ramp.

In Denmark, however, the recycling system and food waste initiatives go one step further. While UW-Madison receives compensation for properly recycled items, in Denmark, consumers themselves are refunded when they return single-use products, such as aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and glass bottles. This process, called the Danish deposit and return system, requires an initial surcharge on the item to receive it, but when you return it to a reverse-vending machine you receive a calculated refund depending on the quality of the bottle. Though some states in the USA have returnable bottle and can programs (also called bottle bills), Wisconsin has not adopted one.

In terms of diverting food waste, Denmark is also making it easier for consumers to make the environmentally sustainable choice. In one of my classes, we had the opportunity to meet the creator of “Too Good to Go,” a phone app that allows anyone to buy excess food from restaurants, bakeries, or supermarkets at a reduced price. The mission of “Too Good to Go” is to combat food waste. I believe this project could be really successful in Madison, because it offers students, who are often operating with smaller budgets, the chance to buy high quality food at a reduced rate. Essentially, “Too Good to Go” makes it easy to be “green” since it is also one of the most economical options available.

Bikes parked in Copenhagen.
Hundreds of bikes parked in Copenhagen. Photo by Carolyn Hamburg.

Copenhagen’s green transportation, meanwhile, is far beyond the average European or United States city. Copenhagen’s streets are filled with cyclists of all ages, no matter the weather. Public transportation, both metro and train, is widely used and efficient. While Madison, in comparison to other United States’ cities, has considerable bicycle infrastructure, more could be done. For example, the only fully separated bike lane on a campus street is University Avenue, which means that the majority of time, bicyclers must negotiate with traffic. This often creates safety hazards and can discourage people from choosing to bike. UW-Madison makes bicycling more accessible with B-cycle, which is a fantastic option with over 40 stations. Still, riders are constrained to biking where there are B-cycle stations, which can be limiting given how they are distributed.

Metro station in Copenhagen.
Metro station in Copenhagen. Photo by Carolyn Hamburg.

In comparison, the way Copenhagen has created such a bicycle and public transportation-friendly city has been by making green transportation the easiest and best option through large, separated bicycle lanes, rentable bikes that can be placed anywhere, and frequent buses and trains.

It has been eye-opening to see how UW-Madison’s initiatives mirror the progress occurring in Denmark and other European nations. While Europe may be ahead of the United States on many environmental initiatives, it is encouraging to see how the UW and the Office of Sustainability are working towards similar goals and how our programming can be improved.