What I did on my summer vacation in Scandinavia

tour guide at trash incinerator in Denmark

Who would think a visit to a plant that harvests energy from burning trash and features a smokestack so tall “it seemed to curve in the air” would rank among the highlights of a summer study abroad trip to Europe? A dozen University of Minnesota students, that’s who.

In May and June, I led a group of University students from a variety of majors – art, political science, accounting and architecture, to name a few – on a three-week sustainability tour of Denmark. We spent a some precious days on a small agricultural island in the North Sea, a place of sleepy villages, fishing piers and miles of beachfront that draw Danish tourists. We marveled at the island of Samso, which draws visitors from as far away as South Africa, Japan and Australia who come to learn how an isolated community of 5,000 transitioned to using only renewable energy for electricity and heat.

But for my students, a hard-hat visit to the Copenhagen facility to view intake, sorting, crushing and incineration of resources we commonly call “trash” marked a turning point in their thinking about sustainability. Vesterforbraending was the only place all of the students chose to write about in their final reflection papers. While a few engineering students found the processes, operations and controls innately enthralling, everyone gained an understanding of the way education, culture and art connect with sustainability. One student wrote:

“The building welcomed us with friendly, Ikea catalogue–style colored blocks and a huge set of glass windows, and even some public art on the front walk because they’re Danish and that’s what they seem to do here.”

University of Minnesota students from a variety of majors begin their tour of the Vesterforbraending power plant in Denmark. Photo by Beth Mercer Taylor.
Students in the sustaintainability in Scandinavia study abroad course begin their tour of the Vesterforbraending power plant in Denmark. Photo by Beth Mercer Taylor.

Denmark gets noticed internationally for its modern design, bicycling culture, wind turbines and livability, and my students saw those elements as clear expressions of sustainability. They certainly appreciated our visits to Copenhagen’s iconic low-energy buildings, the bicyclists’ union, a wind-powered eco-village and the many historic pedestrian streets, squares and parks. Spending time navigating Copenhagen, a city that takes such a different approach to transportation, energy and city planning than most U.S. cities, definitely moved students to think about sustainability more broadly than on a household or campus level. Scandinavia provides examples of sustainability across scales of time, distance and impact, from a bicycle share available for an afternoon errand to an action plan for countrywide carbon neutrality by 2050.

At Vesterforbraending our tour guide, who is also the full-time education coordinator, began his presentation by touting the plant’s mission, which in essence is to put itself out of business by replacing incineration with a next-generation approach to recycling. My sustainability students then got a crash course in what the engineering students in the group would call “life-cycle analysis.” Using a typical student backpack displayed in the education space as an example, our guide showed us on a map the more than 50 communities around the world that contributed canvas, leather, thread, zippers, straps, labor and more to the backpack’s creation. He asked us to consider the challenge of separating these components for recycling after wear and tear ended its current life carrying books and other student accessories.

One student asked whether incinerator emissions are a serious health concern. Our guide explained that Denmark’s government imposes strict regulations, which the plant upholds and even comes in below.

If Denmark and other places that are committed to recycling are successful in plans to implement a “cradle-to-cradle” approach to the materials of our consumer culture, then the resources going now to a trash burner would instead be put to a higher purpose.

For more information on the sustainability in Scandinavia course and other sustainability education opportunities at the University of Minnesota, visit susteducation.umn.edu.

Banner photo by Beth Mercer Taylor. The full-time educator and plant guide shows a graphic illustration of one step in the process of removing toxic particles from flu gases.

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