Waste in Greenland

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Article Published 04 Jun 2012 Last modified 11 May 2021
3 min read
Photo: © EEA/Ace&Ace
From densely populated cities to remote settlements, everywhere we live, we generate waste. Food leftovers, electronic waste, batteries, paper, plastic bottles, clothing, old furniture - they all need to be disposed of. Some end up re-used or recycled; others are burned for energy or sent to landfills. There is not a single way to manage waste that would work everywhere. How we do it needs to take into account local circumstances. After all, waste starts as a local issue. Given its sparse population, long distances between settlements and lack of road infrastructure, here is how the Greenland government approaches the country’s waste issue.

Interview with Per Ravn Hermansen 

Per Ravn Hermansen lives in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. He moved from Denmark to work on waste management at Greenland’s Ministry of Domestic Affairs, Nature and Environment.

What is it like to live in Greenland? 

‘Living in Nuuk is not much different than any mid sized town, very much like the towns you would find in Denmark. You have the same type of stores and facilities. Around 15 000 people live in Nuuk. While both Greenlandic and Danish are widely spoken in Nuuk, it is almost entirely Greenlandic in the smaller settlements. 

I have been living there since 1999 and I think that people consume the types of products similar to the rest of the world, like personal computers and mobile phones. And I also think that people are getting more aware of the waste issue.’  

What makes Greenland’s waste problem unique?

Copyright: EEA/Ace&Ace‘Some 55 000 people live in Greenland and much like the rest of the world, people generate waste. In many respects, Greenland’s waste ‘problem’ is a quite common one. Greenlandic businesses and households generate various types of waste and we need to manage it in a way not to damage the environment. 

In other respects, Greenland’s waste problem is unique because of its size, more precisely its scattered settlements. There are six relatively big towns, 11 smaller towns and around sixty settlements of 30 to 300 inhabitants scattered along the coast. The majority of the population live on the west coast, but there are small settlements and towns on the east coast as well. 

Only six towns have incineration plants and that’s not enough to reach an environmentally sufficient treatment of burnable waste. And there are no roads connecting towns and settlements to each other, which means that we cannot easily transport the waste to the incineration plants. Goods are transported by sea primarily.

At the moment, we have only a rough idea about the amount of municipal waste generated in Greenland and we think it is increasing. Half of the settlements have what I would call incineration ovens, as for the rest, it is open air burning or landfills. 

Ultimately, I think all waste problems have many common elements, but they are all unique. Waste is a local issue with wider implications. Solutions must take this duality into account.’

What about hazardous waste and electronic waste?

‘The facilities in the largest towns dismantle e waste and handle hazardous waste, which are then stored on site until they are shipped to Denmark. Greenland imports all sorts of products, including food, clothing and cars, mostly shipped from Aalborg. Hazardous waste and e waste are loaded on the ships heading back to Denmark on their return trip.’

In recent years, mining multinationals have started looking for unexploited oil or mineral reserves. What happens to mining waste?

‘In Greenland we have a one door policy, allowing mining companies to obtain all necessary permissions from the same public authority. This means that they submit their applications, covering all aspects of their operations, including waste to the Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum. 

Almost all of their activities happen away from towns and settlements. For burnable waste, the companies can make deals with local municipalities for using the incineration plants. This extra demand for incineration puts extra strain on local incineration capacity.‘

How are you approaching this problem?

‘One of the options currently on the table consists of building regional incineration plants and transporting the waste. It is clear that we cannot build waste treatment plants in every town. We are also looking into heat generation —heating households by burning waste.

In the smaller towns, we are starting to establish facilities to dismantle e waste and handle hazardous waste. For small settlements, we are placing containers for electronic waste and hazardous waste, which then can be transported to the facilities in towns. 

We are currently implementing two pilot projects for transporting burnable waste to towns with incineration plants. 

The Government of Greenland has a national waste management plan and the activity I have just mentioned is part of this plan.’

Per Ravn HermansenPer Ravn Hermansen, Greenland’s Ministry of Domestic Affairs, Nature and Environment

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