Greenland – Waste Management on thin Ice

Per Ravn Hermansen, former Greenland’s Ministry of Domestic Affairs, Nature and Environment, has “only a rough idea about the amount of municipal waste generated in Greenland”. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2007, the Danish-Greenlandic Environmental Cooperation proclaimed that “we now have a new waste incineration plant, which means that we no longer have to landfill flammable waste, but can burn it and get heat from garbage”. In the new waste incineration plant in Sisimiut, construction waste was mixed with household waste into a homogeneous mass to burn evenly. More than that, in Nuuk a twelve-year-old incineration plant and a three-year-old facility in Qaqortoq were running. Similar plants were provided for Aasiaat, Maniitsoq and Ilulissat. “Within a few years, there will be incineration plants in all the larger towns.” (At that time, Greenland was part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and Denmark was one of the leading countries in incineration.)

However, Gunvor Marie Kirkelund, Environmental Engineer at the Technical University of Denmark, suggests that the incineration plants did not have any fly ash treatment so that the material was shipped to end the disposal at hazardous sites in other countries. The bottom ash was disposed of at uncontrolled disposal sites without further valorization. And despite incineration, “the waste was piling up at a lot of places”, causing emissions, uncontrollable fires or waste spread out by the wind. Maintenance or repairs of the incinerators meant waiting for service personal from abroad and importing spare parts from outside Greenland and contributed to long down periods. In 2018, Naalakkersuisut, the government of Greenland, even recognized that many of the small-scale incinerators were substandard, resulting in a 30 percent deficit in incineration capacity.

We burn as much as possible
The situation at the turn of the century is best characterized by Jens Romerdahl, a senior technical, environmental and housing consultant: “We burn as much as possible for the benefit of heat production in Greenland instead of sailing it over the Atlantic.” Romerdahl pointed to the fact that the transport of recyclables to Europe included a 4,000 km journey by ship and further transport by road – a proposition mostly economically not feasible. Furthermore, 81 percent of Greenland’s area is covered by ice, roads connecting towns and settlements and road networks are very limited.

According to the “Analysis of Nordic regulatory framework” of 2018, transport is predominantly possible by sea and air. “Due to its isolation, waste treatment options in Greenland are more limited than in other Nordic states, and little waste is recycled.” At that time, the municipalities delivered “dangerous waste” like cars and chemicals to Mokana, a removal company in Aalborg. Fly ash and slag were not sailed to Denmark but might be used for road construction and will probably be landfilled, argued Jens Romerdahl.

Mostly organic or combustible
First data on the amount of waste can be found in a study conducted by Rasmus Eisted and Thomas H. Christensen in 2011. The paper says that about 30,000 to 35,000 tons of waste, including bottom ashes, were landfilled annually. Approximately 20,000 tons of waste were annually incinerated, emitting about 14,000 tons of flue gases and producing about 6,000 tons of landfilled bottom ash as well as about 200 tons of fly ash. And nearly 730 tons of hazardous waste were exported per year. The declaration of the waste types is interesting: Household waste was primarily organic (43 percent) and – excluding recyclable fractions – “combustible” (30 percent). The remaining materials comprised mainly paper, glass and plastic; steel and aluminum appeared in negligible percentages. Nevertheless, in 2015, almost only 25 percent of household waste in Greenland was delivered to so-called recycling stations – the rest ended up in ordinary household waste. That means that commercial and household waste were not separated, and “hazardous waste” like e-waste, batteries, oil and cables went into incineration.

Heat production centralized on two plants
Meanwhile, a new period in Greenland’s waste history has started. In June 2019, a new national waste management plan for 2020-2031 has been developed that declares the EU waste hierarchy, circular economy, best available technology, the polluter pays system and responsibility for the waste sector as “fundamental principles”. And completed in 2021 and/or 2022, two new waste-to-energy plants are expected to be operating in Nuuk and Sisimiut, Greenland’s biggest towns. Each plant with an investment of 200 million Danish Crown or about 26.9 million Euro will have a capacity of 60 tons daily to treat local waste or from the rest of the island. The concept is new, as the production of district heat is centralized on two plants, replacing about 20 incinerators all over the country. Some additional transfer stations will be established in towns and settlements to store waste until it is transported to be incinerated. However, the practice is not yet perfect. The plan puts 20 further incineration plants out of operation. The untreated scheduled waste, including glass and metal, will be stored at local disposal sites – in the worst case with the before-mentioned consequences of uncontrolled dumps.

New initiatives started
In the last decade, new waste strategies with new initiatives focusing on sorting and recycling started. As electronic and hazardous waste is shipped to Denmark, the waste reception facilities in the largest towns try to dismantle the electronic waste and handle storage of hazardous waste for shipping. According to a brochure analyzing Greenland’s regulatory frameworks in 2019, some cities want to collect large metal waste for shipping. A municipality installed a collection system for glass packaging that is crushed and used in asphalt. In all municipalities, bulky waste is sorted for direct reuse. Qeqatta ran a pilot project for the composting of food waste. In three local municipalities, schemes or pilot schemes are in place for recycling or reuse of glass, metal, wood, paper and card, food waste and items for direct reuse. And, says the study, “in all the cities and most of the settlements, reception facilities have been established for electronic waste, fridges and freezers and hazardous waste”.

Another construction site of Greenland’s environmental policy is its commercial and industrial waste sector. Little is to be found in the figures, but the “Analysis on Nordic framework” study indicates commercial and industrial waste generation and management in 2015. The graphic shows incineration of about 19,000 tons, landfilling of 8,000 tons and an estimated amount of 1,000 tons of hazardous waste. A look at the fishing and mining industry offers a clearer image.

Fishing waste: dumped, landfilled and burned
Greenland’s economy relies on fishing. Traditionally fishing residues were dumped into the ocean. In 2006, Greenland generated about 14,000 tons of waste, where only about 20 percent was utilized, says a study published by the Technical University of Denmark on biogas and bio-oil from fishing waste in Uummannaq. Between 2010 and 2012, it must have been more than 2,000-3,000 tons of fish processing waste landfilled every year, argues a team releasing a study on bio-economy in Nordic countries. Nordregio, a regional research center, illustrates that Sisimiut’s district heating by incineration in 2016 was partly powered by residues and oil from the fish industry. However, in the 1990s, Greenland became aware, that the processing of halibut residues could deliver “an extensive processing capacity”.

An analysis of Biodegradable Waste as a Resource for Innovation, edited by the Environmental Agency of Iceland in 2016, showed biodegradable fishing industry waste figures. Cod, Greenland halibut, lumpfish, snow crab and shrimp summed up to 104,000 tons of fish, utilized between 15 and 75 percent and resulting in “rather high” and “roughly estimated” 52,025 tons of “unused biodegradable waste”. On the strength of the island’s greatest fishing company Royal Greenland, its fleet landed 61,660 tons of especially prawns, halibut and cod in 2020 in Greenland and processed them at the 37 treating facilities of Royal Greenland and others at the west coast. According to the company, “in 2020, at the factories in Greenland, we utilize an average of 67 percent of the total volume of fish and shellfish.” That means that last year 20,438 tons of fish waste were produced.

To increase the utilization rate
The company has set further goals. In 2022, it wants to use 80 percent of Royal Greenland’s potential fish and shellfish resources at all factories and on all trawlers. Initiatives foresee the development of new methods for better utilization of resources. Among others, the production of cod liver oil started. It is approved for both human nutrition and for use in animal feed. The modern Royal Greenland vessel m/Tr Sisimiut shows improvement as it will be able to utilize the fish by 100 percent, “as the vessel is equipped with an on-board fishmeal and fish oil factory to process cod and other whitefish”, the company announces. And more than that, the enterprise takes part in WASEABI, which in its own words is “an EU-funded project that aims to develop and test new concepts, which will ensure that side-streams from aquaculture, fisheries and aquatic processing industries can be exploited for the production of new products and ingredients”. The ambition of Royal Greenland is “to continuously endeavor to increase the utilization rate to the maximum level” and through this reduce waste.

Undeveloped deposits of rare earth metals
The second source of Greenland’s industrial waste is its mining industry. Since 1850, the island’s dwellers have seen digging, for instance, for cryolite, lead and zinc, gold and olivine. Following Statistics Greenland 2013, there are vast resources of rubies, iron ore, platinum, uranium, rare earth elements and coal. But first of all, Greenland possesses “the world’s biggest undeveloped deposits of rare earth metals”, as the U.S. Geological Survey called it. Two Australian companies – Tanbreez seeking funding from the USA, the other backed by China – are standing on the list of candidates for exploring the mine. In July 2018, Greenland Minerals Limited (GML) – its biggest stakeholder is the Chinese rare-earths processing company Shenghe Resources Holding – published a “Social Impact Assessment” paper. The comprehensive brochure explained the handling of domestic and industrial waste. It ran: “All solid waste will be pressed into bales and shipped to Qaqortoq for incineration. If an incinerator was to be constructed in Narsaq, this facility would be used instead.” Accumulators, batteries, electronic devices or glass are stipulated to be stored in temporary containers and periodically handed over to the Qaqortoq waste handling facility for further disposal “according to regulations and after mutual agreement”. Hazardous waste material like hydrocarbons or explosives “is shipped to Denmark and handled in compliance with a comprehensive EU initiated legal framework”.

No prototype for adequate treatment
In summary, “all solid waste” without separate collection and recycling will be incinerated. Recyclables such as batteries, electronic devices or glass can be handled after the current “agreement”. Real hazardous waste is shipped to Denmark, according to the old motto “out of sight, out of mind”. Besides that, the circumstances of the planned incineration are not precise, as Per Ravn Hermansen in another context had criticized: “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.” And the plans of GML include dismounting and exporting uranium and – doing so – producing residual nuclear material. It seems that the Kvanefjeld mine exploitation will not be a prototype for adequate treatment of Greenland’s mineral waste.

A ticking time bomb
Another problem in Greenland still exists in means of waste resulting from the Cold War between the USA and Russia. In 1959, the U.S. Army built “Camp Century” beneath the surface of the northwestern Greenland Ice Sheet. In 1967, this military base was abandoned, leaving gasoline, PCBs “in not trivial quantity” and nuclear coolant water behind. Scientists examined the military documents and computed that there are approximately 9,200 tons of physical waste, 20,000 liters of chemical waste associated with base fuel and about 24 million liters of biological waste, mostly sewage. What makes this waste a ticking time bomb is the ice sheet surface. Although the waste is covered by estimated 36 meters of ice, there is a net ablation plausible to be melted down within the next 75 years. According to an article in the Geophysical Research Letters published in 2016, this would “guarantee the eventual remobilization of physical, chemical, biological, and radiological wastes abandoned at the site”. Besides that, there are four other abandoned and not yet remediated ice sheet bases in the vicinity of Thule Air Base, the still operational military airport in the south of Greenland. Not to mention Bluie East Two (known locally as Ikateq), a disused American airfield containing an estimated 100,000 rusting oil barrels. Denmark and U.S. forces quarreled for years about their responsibilities, and Greenlandic authorities lacked participation in past agreements. “In January 2018, Danish and Greenlandic authorities signed an agreement to promote the clean-up of American military installations. The deal earmarks 180 million kroner (24 million Euro) over six years for the clean-up”, a Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council gave account.

Marine debris mostly local
The list of waste types related to Greenland is not complete without marine debris landed at the island’s shores. The Arctic Ocean is a “dead end for floating plastics in the North Atlantic branch”, as the Spanish environmental researcher Andrés Cózar called it. That means that plastic waste from the USA and Europe has been accumulating here in recent decades. Locally produced residual material should be excluded, as the pollution of the sea by solid waste, sewage, different types of garbage and oily bilge water is generally prohibited by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). However, the Polar Code’s improved rules for polar shipping covers smaller vessels such as fishing boats only since 2017. Until then, almost 150 fishing vessel incidents in polar waters were reported. Rod Downie, Polar Programme Manager at World Wildlife Fund, enumerates: “When fishing vessels sink, hundreds of kilometers of fishing lines and hooks, nets, fuels, heavy oils and other debris can be released into the ocean.” Therefore, a team of scientific researchers from the Netherlands and Denmark – collecting 300 kg of Greenlandic waste during a beach clean-up done south of Sisimiut – gathered fishing nets, shotgun shells and outboard engine oil containers. But the self-proclaimed “plastic soup detectives” were astonished about something else: “Almost all litter was of local origin and consisted of everyday products used in local communities and settlements.” The team of the Arctic Marine Litter Project then formulated several recommendations for local and national policymakers in Greenland to tackle the issue of marine litter in West Greenland. Jakob Strand of Aarhus University, who took part in the project, draws his conclusion. He identifies Greenland’s open dumps as the main source of plastic litter, where the material is mostly stored until it is incinerated. The online newspaper ArcticToday cited him in March 2021: “If local councils were more aware of the problem, it would help to reduce the amount of litter entering the water.”

EU and Greenland (dis)agreed
In June 2012, the European Union and Greenland’s government signed a letter of intent, in which “environmental issues related to mining and social impacts of mining” were seen as “possible areas for dialogue”. And in a “Programming Document for the sustainable development of Greenland 2014-2020” edited 2014, they agreed that Greenland “intends to deal with its waste by a network of incinerators situated in the various communities”. Furthermore, they tallied with the low population density and missing roads between towns, which complicate the waste management, the missing of data on waste management and the fact, that “most modern waste processing facilities in Greenland would be considered outdated in most of the industrialized world”. But there were also discrepancies concerning the range of the EIA Directive, solutions involving local incinerators, dumps by expeditions, US military and historical mining and the pumping of untreated sewage into the sea. A paper on “The Greenland Gold Rush” suggests that, at that time, only 15 percent of all companies operating in Greenland were from Denmark, Germany, Czech Republic or the United Kingdom and that 60 percent of investments came from companies from Australia and Canada.

Entry to ERMA
The scenery has changed since 25 June 2021 as the Ministry of Mineral Resources of Greenland was accepted as a member of the European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA). The alliance, driven by the European Commission on the search for critical raw materials, coalesced with the ministry. That expects “opportunities for investing in Greenland‘s mineral potential” and to corporate with ERMA’s members from the entire value chain because different mining and exploration companies in Greenland are already members of ERMA. Naaja H. Nathanielsen, Minister for Housing, Infrastructure, Minerals and Gender Equality, stated that “EU’s focus on the green transition – as well as environmentally and socially responsible extraction of minerals – harmonizes with Greenland‘s objectives”. The ERMA entry of Greenland happened shortly after regional elections in April 2021, won by the pro-independence Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), who wants to enter an ecological and anti-mining course. According to the will of the party, the Kvanefjeld project – or at least the project to dig up the rare earth metals and uranium – will never be realized. The social-democratic Siumut party has been in power most of the time since 1979 and focuses on exploiting mineral resources.

For independence, livelihood and fighting climate change
A study in 2018 showed that two-thirds of the population would fancy independence from Denmark, although Greenland’s economy depends largely on an annual 600 million US-Dollar subsidy from Denmark. So, the revenue of domestic mining is welcomed, as much as traditional works like fishing, hunting and farming can no longer guarantee the hitherto livelihood forcing unemployment and lack of opportunities. Additionally, the local government needs funding for a better infrastructure by investing, for example, in schools, social services and instructions on environmental issues. Tanbreez or GML – the revenues of the mines are badly wanted, even if the people fear pollution and the missing of new jobs for natives, as they are no experts for developing, extracting and processing the material. Within fresh earnings, Greenland has the chance to install a sustainable mining industry and to use the money to restore the national waste management system. Further additional investments will soon be needed. In this sense, Anna Fotyga, a member of the European parliament, was quoted with the words: “Rare-earth minerals are key to the further development of green technology and the fight against climate change, and Europe must cut its dependence on China for these minerals.”

(Published in GLOBAL RECYCLING Magazine 3/2021, Page 35, Photo: Bodil Lundahl /