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Mister Plasterboard

Henrik Lund-Nielsen has always been interested in recycling. By making plasterboard waste usable, he solves a climate problem at the same time

By Morten Andersen

Photo: Henrik Lund-Nielsen
Photo: Gypsum Recycling

“I don’t see myself as an environmental saviour. But I am certainly resource-oriented!”

Henrik Lund-Nielsen is wearing a shirt and tie, his appearance indicating that the director of Gypsum Recycling considers it a thing of the past to associate recycling with long hair and knitted sweaters. Since it was founded in 2001, his company has achieved international success with sales in UK, USA, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland, in addition to a leading position on the Danish domestic market.

“I am an economist by training, and previously had management jobs in the furniture sector and related industries. But I have always had an interest in recycling. What drives me is the belief that things have a value,” explains Henrik Lund-Nielsen.

Gypsum Recycling has developed a system that recycles plaster from plasterboard. It makes an otherwise wasted resource not only usable again, but also provides a considerable benefit for the climate.

Worldwide, it is estimated that around 15 million tons of plaster waste are produced every year. Gases produced by the plaster waste, along with other landfill waste, generate around 3-5% of combined global greenhouse gas emissions. In comparison, the global aviation industry generates about 2% of the emissions.

“Unfortunately, it is normally only the energy and transport sectors that attract attention in relation to climate. But waste in disposal sites also contributes a lot to the greenhouse effect, so we can really make a positive impact on climate change by recycling more. Politicians are starting to realise this, but there is still far from enough attention being paid to it,” says the director.

Although he doesn’t see himself as an environmental saviour, Henrik Lund-Nielsen took a significant financial risk when he put his own money into the company:

“A company of this type will always make a loss in the early years. I invested because there was an element of the environment in the company’s foundation. I have no doubt that the environment will remain in focus in the long term.”

Old plasterboard is worth its weight in gold

The Danish waste management model is designed to maximise recycling. Gypsum Recycling is one of the international success stories in this area

By Morten Andersen

Photo: Gypsum Recycling employee with recovered plaster for recycling. The separated nails and paper are also recycled.
Gypsum Recycling employee with recovered plaster for recycling. The separated nails and paper are also recycled.
Photo: Zann and Pinkerton, Gypsum Recycling

Gypsum Recycling has developed a system that strips the plasterboard of its paper cladding and grinds the plaster to a powder of almost the same quality as virgin plaster. To be precise, the finished product is 99% as pure as ordinary plaster. This is easily good enough for making new plasterboard that is comparable to all the others, and is evidenced by the fact that the world’s five biggest manufacturers of plasterboard – Lafarge, BPB, USG, National Gypsum and Knauf – all buy the product.

In Denmark, the majority of the country’s 200 or so municipal recycling centres are customers of Gypsum Recycling, and today 20-25% of the plaster used domestically comes from recycling. The company’s director Henrik Lund-Nielsen cannot help but smile when he reveals a sales trick:

“Many municipalities are initially a bit sceptical and have difficulty believing that they have so much plaster waste that it can pay to be one of our customers. So we offer them a free three month trial period. That gives them time to discover how much plaster they actually have, and after that they can’t do without us. It never fails.”

Double climate benefit

Although the municipalities pay for delivering their plaster waste for recycling, it is cheaper for them than taking it to a waste disposal site. At the same time, Gypsum Recycling’s solution delivers a double benefit for the climate. Firstly, it takes less energy to use plaster that has already been produced than to manufacture virgin plaster. And secondly, it avoids the climate-damaging effect of dumping plasterboard at a waste disposal site. The paper cladding of plasterboard encourages the formation in waste disposal sites of methane, a greenhouse gas which is 20 times more potent than CO2.

In fairness, it should be added to the equation that the collection and processing at Gypsum Recycling requires energy and produces CO2. But the net result is that the atmosphere is saved the equivalent of 0.2 tons of CO2 for each ton of plaster waste sent for recycling rather than to the disposal site.

“This climate benefit gives our customers certificates, and I can tell you that they are very happy to have them. This is especially the case for recycling centres, which are the key elements in getting the system to work. It is they who do the sorting of waste, so their motivation is crucial,” says Henrik Lund-Nielsen.

Avoiding toxic hydrogen sulphide

In countries like Denmark, where incineration plays a major role in waste management, there is an extra benefit to recycling plaster. It is only the paper cladding, which comprises around 10% of plasterboard, which can be combusted. The other 90% will become furnace slag if plasterboard is mixed with other waste and put in the incinerator.

“It is not only a massive waste of resources but also an environmental problem when the plaster comes in for incineration. Every municipality can see this,” says Henrik Lund-Nielsen.

The municipalities receive all the waste from private households. And since virtually every municipality agrees that plaster should be recycled, today over 80% of plasterboard waste from private homes goes for recycling. The overall proportion of plasterboard waste recycled in the country is however only 50-60%. Businesses have been a bit slower in joining in, but they are now beginning to come on board.

In countries where plasterboard is deposited at waste disposal sites where it is mixed in with household waste, another more serious environmental problem arises. Plaster contains large amounts of sulphur which normally remains chemically bound as sulphate. But microorganisms from the household waste can liberate the sulphur, which leads to the formation of the toxic gas hydrogen sulphide. The EU has therefore agreed that plaster waste will henceforth be deposited separately at waste disposal sites, which makes recycling an obvious thing to do.

Britain takes the lead

Measured in tons, Denmark is still the biggest market for Gypsum Recycling, but the new EU rules will alter that picture, foresees Henrik Lund-Nielsen.

“Britain is the first country which has adopted the EU directive into its own legislation. At the same time it has imposed special taxes on disposal at waste dumps, and these taxes will increase significantly in the coming years. I noticed that Prime Minister Gordon Brown referred to the environmental issue when the tax was announced. I expect that Britain will soon become our biggest market, and that other countries will follow when they introduce the EU rules.”

The Danish waste management model

64% of the waste Denmark produces is recycled, a very high percentage in an international context.

Waste should preferably be recycled. If this is not feasible, waste should be incinerated so that at least some energy can be obtained from it. Only when it is not feasible – for example because the waste is not combustible, or because incineration would create insurmountable environmental problems – is the waste taken to a disposal site.

This is the waste management hierarchy that has operated for many years in Denmark, where currently 64% of all waste is recycled.

The Danish waste management model works through a combination of traditional legislation and economic instruments in the form of taxes and fees. Dumping waste is the most expensive solution, incineration is cheaper, and recycling is free. Moreover, there are taxes on packaging, plastic bags and disposable table-ware, as well as on nickel-cadmium batteries.

Citizens don’t actually pay when they take waste to municipal recycling centres, but the municipalities’ costs are determined by which solutions are chosen. So citizens experience the costs through their tax bills. Businesses pay taxes and fees when they dispose of their waste.

For some types of packaging there are deposit schemes, for example packaging for beer and soft drinks.

Municipalities are allowed to charge fees to cover the cost of handling particular types of waste from businesses. In addition certain types of product – such as tyres and lead-containing batteries – are subject to special charges to finance collection and recycling.


Photo: Playing children
Photo: Scanpix

The Danish sense of balance

Flexible working hours, child care guarantees and the opportunity to work from home when the kids are sick; these are just some of the ingredients in the special balance between family life and work which has become Denmark’s trademark for foreigners working in the country

By Annemette Schultz Jørgensen

More and more surveys show that Danes are the happiest people in the world. There are several explanations for this, some of which point to Danish democracy while others point to economic wealth and social equality. But if you ask those with expert knowledge of the labour market and ’work life balance’, there is little doubt.

Attractive welfare services and flexible working arrangements, combined with a management style that gives employees space to prioritise their private lives, make Denmark one of the best countries at creating a good balance between family life and work. A balance which enables both men and women to pursue their careers without compromising the desire to have a family. As a result, almost as many women as men choose to work – and this at a time when an increasing number of children are being born.

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Births in denmark in the period 1999 to 2008

Graph: Births in denmark in the period 1999 to 2008

Childcare and maternity

”Denmark has some quite unique welfare services and labour market rules which make it possible to have both a meaningful job and also prioritise private life, especially if you are a family with small children. So there are good opportunities to create a healthy balance between family life and work in Denmark,” says Helle Holt, senior researcher at SFI, the Danish National Centre for Social Research.

She explains that one of the special things about Denmark is the opportunity for full-time childcare, which applies to all children from six months of age right up to fourth grade, where they can be looked after in the afternoon after school. At the same time, Denmark has 12 months’ maternity leave, which also comprises leave for the child’s father if he should wish it. This enables parents to look after their child during infancy while maintaining the connection with the labour market. In addition both public sector workplaces and an increasing number of private companies pay full salary for a part or the whole of the maternity leave, which puts less pressure on the domestic economy for parents with small children.

Flexible working hours

Workindenmark recruits and maintains foreign labour and has gained experience with foreigners’ opinions of Denmark regarding the creation of a healthy balance between family life and work. Recruitment consultant Heidi Ås says that the views foreigners have are generally formed in relation to labour market conditions prevailing in their native country. Besides childcare and maternity leave opportunities, it is often the flexibility of the labour market that matters.

”In Denmark we have a high degree of flexibility at work. In many places you do not have to go to work at a certain time, as long as you keep track of how many hours you work. At the same time many have the opportunity to work from home from time to time, while the law also gives employees the right to stay at home on full pay on the first day of a child’s illness. It is quite unique and makes it easier for family and job to hang together,” says Heidi Ås.

Another positive factor she mentions is the 37 hour Danish working week, which is short compared to many other countries. Combined with a minimum five weeks’ holiday for all wage earners, this makes it possible to get something meaningful out of your spare time in Denmark. Heidi Ås also points to the modern Danish management style which manifests itself in flat hierarchies. There is only a short distance from top to bottom in Danish workplaces, and great importance is attached to opportunities for influence and consideration of the individual.

Focus on the person

”What strikes many foreigners when they come to Denmark to work is the open and modern style of management. There is a great acceptance that employees are people, not machines. One can rise quickly through the ranks and shape a career if that is what you want. At the same time there is great understanding for those who want time and space for family life. So the opportunities for shorter working hours are also good in Denmark,” says Heidi Ås.

The statistics tell their own story. The occupational rate among women is 88 per cent, while for men it is 94 percent. At the same time, the birth rate is increasing; in 2008 more children were born in Denmark than in each of the previous six years.

”In Denmark, we have created a framework that enables both parents to work and pursue their ambitions without affecting their desire to have a family. In many other countries this is not possible, and often means that women must choose between having a career and having children. In Denmark they can go hand in hand, and that is unique seen in an international context,” concludes Helle Holt.

Space for both family life and career

For the Binning family from Australia, there is no doubt that the long holidays and the opportunity for both parents to pursue their careers are definite advantages of living in Denmark – thanks to Denmark’s childcare facilities and family-friendly management style

By Annemette Schultz Jørgensen

Photo: The Binning family
Photo: Annemette Schultz Jørgensen

”Coming to Denmark has really kick-started my career as a doctor. You only have to work a 37 hour week here, which makes it a lot easier as a doctor to combine your career with a fulfilling family life. In Australia I had to work double the hours as a full-time doctor, and that you cannot do when you have small children,” says 42 year old Susan Binning. She is one of the Australian family of four, which also comprises husband Philip Binning, 43, and their children Charlotte, 10, and Alexander, 6.

They left Newcastle in Australia in 2004, when the children were age 4 and 1 respectively, to realise the dream of trying to live and work somewhere else in the world for a period of time. The choice fell on Denmark, where Phillip Binning was offered an ideal position as lecturer in groundwater research at the Technical University of Denmark north of Copenhagen. When the family arrived in Denmark, it was uncertain how long they would stay here, but six years later there is no sign of them checking out. And there are several reasons for that. Both Philip and Susan Binning are well started on their careers, the children are doing exceptionally well in their Danish school, social networks have been established, and all four now speak Danish fluently.

A healthy working culture

”Before we came to Copenhagen, I never took the full four weeks’ holiday that I was entitled to in Australia, because you simply work more there. In Denmark we both have six weeks paid holiday, and you are expected to take it. It’s fantastic for family life to be together for so many weeks of the year,” says Philip Binning, who initially had to get used to taking time off, because he feared it would have a negative impact on his career. Today he has learnt that prioritising family life is a core element of Danish working culture, and something that Danish managers actually encourage.

”Danish employers strongly prioritise family life. My boss frequently makes it clear at our meetings that we must remember to have time off. This is something I have never experienced anywhere else in the world. It helps create a healthy working culture, which also gives you space for life outside work,” he says, and his wife nods in agreement. Susan Binning also thinks that one of the things which has made a big difference to her as a mother of two small children, is the Danish childcare scheme. Not only is full-time care offered, but it is also expected that the offer is accepted.

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Occupational rate (2008):

Graph: Occupational rate (2008)

Source: Statistics Denmark

More time for family life

”In Denmark everyone has their children looked after five days a week. It makes a difference for women particularly, because it enables us to have an active career at the same time as having small children. In Australia you feel you are a bad mother if you have your children looked after all week. But here it is expected. And although I perhaps would have wanted more time with the children when they were small, I am now really happy that I got my career up and running,” says Susan Binning, who adds that full-time child daycare institutions in Denmark should not be thought of as 24 hour-a-day facilities. In contrast to Australia, where child care facilities first close between 6 PM and 7 PM, child care facilities in Denmark close at 5 PM which means that one also has a family life together in the afternoons.

”Here people leave work in the afternoon to fetch the children, which means that you get more time together as a family. I really like that,” she says, and also highlights the Danish after-school care scheme as something special. In Australia the school day ends at 3.30 PM, when most children go home. So many parents have to arrange for grandparents or babysitters to fetch the children, because they cannot leave work early.

”In Denmark the school day is shorter, but on the other hand there is after-school care for the children during the afternoon. It creates a lot more peace in our family, and that is nice,” she says, and is supplemented by her husband who says that when the family first arrived in Denmark, he was surprised by another difference in the school system. Namely that Danish schoolchildren start school at a later age and also have a shorter school day.

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Number of children in danish daycare centres (2008):

Graph: Number of children in danish daycare centres (2008)

Source: Statistics Denmark

Danish competitiveness

”I was really sceptical to begin with but have since learnt that in Denmark, first priority is given to forming children’s social competences so they are more mature and ready to learn when they start school. The same social focus runs right through the education system, which I can clearly see since I have dealings with PhD students in my job. They are far more independent and creative than I have seen in other places. I think it is exactly this social focus which makes Denmark really competitive,” says Philip Binning.

Both he and Susan agree however that the difference between life in Denmark and life in Australia is not black and white. And while life in Denmark is preferable in most ways as a family with growing children, there are also things about home that they miss – for example the more open and relaxed Australian social conventions with neighbours and friends. And sometimes also the climate in Newcastle, which is several degrees warmer than in Denmark. On the other hand they also agree that it is difficult to be dissatisfied with life in the Danish capital when December comes around, and the Christmas music on the radio is ´dreaming of a white Christmas´ as the snowflakes settle like a soft quilt over the Danish landscape.

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