Green souvenirs: How travel to Copenhagen impacts grassroots sustainability

Helene Hjortlund
Jamie Sterling

21 May 2024

“Not only do we teach them about the city they’re in, but we also give them the possibility of reflecting upon things when they come back home.” — Helene Hjortlund

What’s better than a souvenir? Bringing home the kind of learning that inspires you to do things differently. That’s exactly what two Copenhagen entrepreneurs are trying to encourage amongst visitors—how to make a positive impact when they travel and make better choices that create change in their communities. 

In this episode of Travel Beyond, we start with a bike tour of Tivoli Amusement Park before visiting two tour operators. First, we hear from Helene Hjortlund, Founder of Green Bike Tours and former communications advisor at Ørsted (previously DONG Energy), where she saw the company transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Her not-for-profit organization offers educational-focused tours covering various topics, such as bike culture, green spaces, sustainable buildings, and energy efficiency. 

Next, we meet Tobias Weber-Anderson, Founder of GreenKayak, an environmental NGO that wants to involve as many people as possible in the fight against ocean pollution. GreenKayak offers free use of its kayaks – as long as people pick up garbage while using them and share their experiences on social media. To date, they’ve collected 104 tons of ocean waste, showing how simple actions can make a big difference. 

“I think it will create a ripple effect, a positive ripple in the mindset of people. And they might start to think about how they consume, how they shop, how they live their daily life.” — Tobias Weber-Anderson

You’ll also learn:

  • About sustainable tourism as a tool for education and the role organizations can play in educating travellers. 
  • How travel can contribute to raising awareness about environmental issues. 
  • Why cities need to consider the impact of tourism on the environment and local communities and lead the call for more sustainable travel practices.
  • How simple yet impactful actions can make a positive difference in addressing environmental challenges. 


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Show notes

Green Bike Toursa not-for-profit tour operator that focuses on sustainability, including social, environmental, and economic factors.

GreenKayak an environmental NGO that engages people in the fight for cleaner oceans.

Tivoli Gardens – the world’s second-oldest amusement park, located in downtown Denmark.

Episode transcript

Helene Hjortlund: When we have guests on our tours, we can see that they learn so much. This is what they tell us. And I do believe that they start thinking about what could my city do to become even more livable or green. 

Tobias Weber-Andersen: I think also it will create a ripple effect, a positive ripple in the mindset of people, and they might start to think about how they consume, how they shop, how they live their daily life.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Hello and welcome to travel beyond on this show. We partner with leading destinations to explore the greatest challenges facing their communities and the planet, and we bring you their most inspiring solutions. I’m Sarah Raymond Dubois, associate creative director at destination. Think today we’re going on a field trip and we’re going to hit the road right away by joining Rodney and the team on a green bike tour of Copenhagen with guide Sylvia.

Sylvia from Green Bike Tours: We have finally arrived at Tivoli Amusement Park, which was opened back in 1843. And nowadays, it’s not only a very popular destination among visitors and tourists, but it’s a very dear to the heart place for Danish people and Copenhageners. It’s a garden, it’s a, it’s a culture institution where you can go and attend dances.

Concert or ballet or pieces of theater. Nobody would expect from such a venue to play a role participating in the achievement of the objectives of the Climate Action Plan of Copenhagen. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: In our last episode, architect Anders Lendager spoke about the importance of lighthouses and guiding progress. And today we’re going on to explore how tourism in Copenhagen is working to ensure that these lighthouses once built can make it into the consciousness of an individual traveler. And from there, hopefully influence them to advocate for better choices at home. Today we’re going to speak with Helene and Tobias, two entrepreneurs who are cleverly spreading Copenhagen sustainability messages to visitors by simply getting them involved. 

Sylvia: So one thing that you would not expect. from, uh, such a successful and dear to the heart.

Amusement Park at Tivoli is that they are part of this collective effort to implement the Climate Action Plan. And they are doing that by, first of all, reducing their own energy, which is CO2 neutral energy based on wind farm. They are reducing by high numbers the production of waste reduction from their food and beverage activities.

And ultimately, they are also contributing to enhancing the, the quality of the habitats for urban biodiversity, since they have many flowers and plants, where bees that inhabit the hives inside the park can thrive and contribute to the pollination of vegetal species all around. 

Rodney Payne: That was awesome. It’s such a good example.

Sara Raymond de Booy: An outing like this is just one of the ways that experiences in Copenhagen are working to inspire travelers to think about their home communities differently. So for our next stop on this tour, let’s chat to Green Bike Tour’s founder, Helena Jortland. She explains how sharing the sustainability story of a place can be just as important in understanding its current culture as learning about history and heritage would be.

Helene Hjortlund: My name is Helene Hjortlund, and I’m the CEO of Green Bike Tours.

Rodney Payne: What is your favorite place to bike in Copenhagen?

Helene Hjortlund: I think the Bike Snake Bridge is one of my favorite places. I mean, there are so many to choose from, but the Bike Snake Bridge, this is where you get the experience of really being a biker and that the city has made something special for you as a biker. This is only a bike bridge, I don’t even think you can walk on it, you might even walk on it, I don’t know, but for sure no cars allowed.

Rodney Payne: I rode over it yesterday on the tour that you very, yeah, you very kindly sent Danny and I on yesterday, and we got to ride over it, and we couldn’t even stop our bike on it. It was so intense with bikes, let alone walk.

What brings you the most joy in life?

Helene Hjortlund: Exploring the world, I think. And especially exploring green places. I think being close to nature is what, especially in my advanced age, you can say, being out in nature is what brings me the most joy. 

Rodney Payne: Do you think that people have lost a connection to nature? 

Helene Hjortlund: I think it’s, especially because a big part of people live in cities, big cities, and there are going to be even more people living in cities in the future. So I think being close to nature is not necessarily a part of their daily life. Even in Copenhagen, when you live in the city center, it’s sometimes hard to see if it’s winter or autumn or spring. While if you live outside the city center, as I do, you get to see the cycle of nature, which I love the most.

And I think people, if they lose connection with nature, it’s difficult to, to have a happy life, basically. 

Rodney Payne: Why did you start Green Bike?

Helene Hjortlund: First of all, because I was in, personally, in a situation where I wanted to do something different than what I had been doing. And I saw this opportunity of going into tourism and taking tourism to a sustainable place. And what does that mean? Creating the tours and designing the tours made me realize that it’s super important to, to make this conversation and have this education and empowering of people when they visit the city to understand, what city are they in? We all know the historic tours, because we have all been traveling, going to big cities, but that is one story of a city.

While the sustainable story of a city is, in my perspective, a new thing. And I feel like, that this is something that is possible to do in all cities in the world, create this story about this green storytelling about, but what city are you in terms of, what does the city do to become carbon neutral? What does it do to become green and livable?

Rodney Payne: What do you show people on the tour and what impact do you hope that has?

Helene Hjortlund: First of all, we start by talking about the goals of the city to become carbon neutral or more sustainable. And then we have selected a variety of topics that we want to talk about and places that can kind of match the talks.

 We talk about bike culture, green places parks, gardens. It could be green roofs. We can talk about sustainable buildings, energy efficiency in buildings. But also climate change in terms of, what are cities doing with flooding issues? This is going to be a huge part of the future.

We can already see that in all over the world that this is a problem. In Denmark. In Copenhagen, we talk about renewable energy, because Denmark is very strong in, in especially wind energy. But it’s important to say that the city decides a bit what topics are brought up. 

There are topics that, that goes along with Copenhagen as a city, but that would be different in Malmö for example. And that would be also even more different in Berlin where we also do tours, because Berlin don’t have the same top-down approach as Copenhagen. It has more of a bottom-up.

Berlin is super important and interesting when it comes to grassroot movements, urban gardens. There are more than 7,000 urban garden, community gardens in Berlin, which I find absolutely astonishing. And if I was to go into Amsterdam or Paris or Milano, the city would decide which topics I would bring up. But all cities are doing something sustainable, at least in Europe.

Rodney Payne: What do you think Copenhagen can teach other places?

Helene Hjortlund: I think they can teach that it’s possible to really do serious changes in a city, but that it’s long term goals. You can’t decide from today to tomorrow, okay, we want to be more bike friendly and then change everything. In Copenhagen, this has been a strategy from back in the 60s, 1960s, that we wanted a city that wasn’t filled with cars, polluted, noisy.

So it’s a long term goal. and I think this is important for other cities, that this is the way to go. I mean, you need to plan it. It doesn’t just pop up because you think that would be nice. And investments also, that there needs to be a lot of investment in this. So it’s really something that comes from a deep wish of changing the city

Rodney Payne: Do you think that travel is a way to teach people?

Helene Hjortlund: Yes, for sure. I think that, for example, when we have guests on our tours, we can see that they learn so much. This is what they tell us afterwards. So I think that not only do we teach them about the city they are in, but we also give them the possibility of reflecting upon things that, when they come back home to the U.S. or to Germany or wherever they come from, they do take this mindset with them. And I do believe that they start thinking about, what could my city do to become even more livable or green?

Rodney Payne: Do you think this concept of taking people around on a bike and showing them what a city is doing towards environmental and, and climate action, is it a concept that can work in other places?

Helene Hjortlund: For sure. I think taking people around walking or biking that is in a sustainable way and showing them the green and sustainable city is something that could be done in all cities.

Rodney Payne: A lot of people struggle to imagine what change looks like, and one way that you can get past that is through showing them or through lived experience.

You had a really interesting experience in the earlier part of your career before you started Green Bike Tours. Could you talk a little bit about that and, in the context of, do you believe that massive change is possible?

Helene Hjortlund: When I was working as a communications advisor in Ørsted, I think it’s interesting to see a company shifting from a fossil fuel based strategy to a 100 percent renewable strategy. Because that shows it’s possible. And they wouldn’t do it unless it was feasible as well. So it means that there is great future in renewables.

Rodney Payne: And Copenhagen itself, as a city, has gone through a massive transformation. It’s hard to even fathom what people tell me it used to be like 20 or 30 years ago. Can you describe what it used to be like and the change it’s been through?

Helene Hjortlund: Yeah, well, I lived in Italy 20 or 30 years ago. But I think that Copenhagen has changed in terms of becoming more green and also more bike friendly.

But also seeing that the harbor changed into, the canals change into places where people go as if they were going to the beach. It’s possible to swim in the harbor, which I find absolutely amazing. 

Rodney Payne: Your business runs in other cities. Could you tell us a little bit about that and what the world might learn from those places? 

Helene Hjortlund: Yes. Green Bike Tours is also present in Malmö, Sweden, as well as Berlin, Germany. 

We started up in Copenhagen. This is where I’m based. But it was super interesting to see that it was actually possible to translate the framework of a green bike tour into a very interesting tour in both Berlin as well as Malmö.

And Malmö is maybe not that known. Malmö was one of the most industrialized cities in Sweden. And today you, you wouldn’t believe that. I mean, it’s a green city. It’s a city with areas with houses that run on 100% renewable energy. It’s a bike friendly city.

And that goes for Berlin as well. Maybe, it’s not, of course, as bike friendly as Copenhagen, but they are working on that. And it’s super interesting to see, for example, all the urban gardens that you see here, as well as there’s a lot of green areas in general.

But also on that tour in Berlin, we also speak about LED, uh, lighting. They have like a catwalk there. As well as a campus area, which is run 100 percent on renewable energy. So, again, super interesting places in both cities.

Rodney Payne: Are you worried about environment and the trajectory we’re on?

Helene Hjortlund: Yes, I’m worried about the environment. And especially this summer we have seen that the climate is changing. We have had a super strange summer here in Denmark with a very, very hot June and a very, very wet July. So it’s becoming more and more visible to people that climate change is here. So, yes, I am worried. 

Rodney Payne: What do you think the role of travel is on a warming planet?

Helene Hjortlund: I think, first of all, we need to ask ourselves why we want to do it, and make sure that when we travel, we do it in the most sustainable way possible.

And one thing I don’t understand is how we don’t put more taxes on airfares, for example, because we know this is one of the most polluting things. We did experience during the COVID period, that it changed the heat around the planet. And now we are back and I understood that we are seeing even more air traffic now than we did prior to COVID, which I think is super scary. And also that we don’t work more on having connections to go by train, especially in Europe. I think this would be an easy and very nice way of traveling as well. I know that in France, you’re not, no longer allowed to, to fly on distances where there is train, which I think is amazing, and which again shows that politicians need to step up to their responsibility in this, because if it’s accessible, if it’s cheap, most people will continue to fly.

Rodney Payne: That’s brilliant. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Copenhagen, having been here for a few weeks, it’s inspirational for what’s possible in terms of change. And I’m still trying to understand how it happened. But you talk about flying. A lot of the amazing progress that’s happened in Copenhagen, that’s shown in data, right, reducing the footprint per capita, increasing quality of life keeping families here. It’s all evidenced in data: number of people able to swim in the harbor.

Helene Hjortlund: Exactly.

Rodney Payne: The numbers we’re measuring only look at what happens within the city And we don’t include the impact of people coming to the city that we’ve grown as an international city here. What do you think happens when that becomes commonly realized, right? When we really start to think about the impact of 10 million people coming here each year? 

Helene Hjortlund: Yeah I have been thinking a bit about number of tourists coming to Copenhagen and other cities. And I think there is a problem, not only in, in terms of overtourism, which is a huge problem in all cities, but also in Copenhagen.

The area of Nyhavn is crowded in a way that is not nice for people to, to go there. So getting people out of the city centers and out in other neighborhoods, I think, is super important. 

But also another thing that, that I think we need to consider is how we measure success in tourism. Because if we continue with saying, oh, this year we had this many tourists. That’s even more than last year, but next year we expect even more. I’m like, how is this possible that we still think in like old school economic frameworks that is related to producing more instead of saying, but this is not how we want to be in sustainable tourism.

We have other success criterias here. It has to do with economics, and when we have to do with economics people become a little, I think they close their eyes, to be honest. And this is why, for example, I’m very, I’m amazed and happy to see that a city like Amsterdam has brought in the donut economy model, because this is actually the only model that take into consideration the effect on the planet. 

This kind of model should be brought into tourism as well. And we should start thinking about, but do we want to have more cruise guests each year that go by a diesel bus around the city for three hours, and then they go back to the ship? We should start considering having the right kind of tourist here. And then you can ask me, what is the right kind of tourist? It’s someone that is more engaged in making sure that he doesn’t pollute while being here, that spends some money while being here, that goes around in a sustainable way. And goes into the outskirts of the city as well. That is the kind of tourists we would like to see more of. 

Rodney Payne: I have one question to finish on, because this has been a really brilliant interview. If I gave you a blank checkbook and a magic wand for a day, what changes would you make?

 I would make sure that we were to change the number of tourists in general. That we would find a way of, of deciding how many people we want here. I think this is the biggest challenge, because I could also say that I would use the money for doing great stuff for the city, but I think great stuff has already been done and implemented. So I think it’s more a question about, to understand how we can make tourism more sustainable, because yes, everyone wants to travel and that includes me as well. But I think that we really need to consider the impact we have on the planet. 

Helene Hjortlund: So I don’t have good answer to your question in terms of what I would do personally, but I would, for sure, I would spend some money finding strategies on how to make people’s travel more sustainable.

Rodney Payne: I think your point about finding the right number of people is a big part of it, right? And it goes hand-in-hand with what you said about old economic growth models and Amsterdam’s donut economy. So I think that, that is answer.

Helene Hjortlund: Yeah. And also if you see Venice, they have now introduced, not only they have like tourist tax in Italy, but they have introduced a fee for entering the city.

But is this the way we want to go? I’m not really sure that this is the right model. But I do understand their concern. They have a city that is sinking, and that is it can’t cope with the number of people that comes there.

Rodney Payne: Yeah. Yeah. There’s no easy answers.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Tobias Weber-Anderson, the founder of GreenKayak. takes a slightly different approach to changing mindsets of travelers. His NGO GreenKayak works to put free kayaks in cities so that travelers or locals can take them out to pick up garbage from waterways. 

While Green Bike focuses on education, GreenKayak takes more of a voluntourism approach: but both serve a purpose in helping travelers to re-think their relationships with the destinations they visit and the places they live. Either way, it’s a win-win. Travelers get out and about, better understanding the city, and the city has the chance to influence decisions they make when they get home.

Tobias Weber-Andersen: My name is Tobias, and I am the founder of Green Kayak. I’m a Copenhagener, living here in Copenhagen full time. Daddy, two kids. And that’s me.

Rodney Payne: Where’s your favorite part of Copenhagen to connect with the water?

Tobias Weber-Andersen: My favorite part of Copenhagen to connect with the water is actually not in the center with the canals. It’s on the outside. At the ocean. In the mornings when we have the wind blowing offshore and we have the sun just rising above Sweden shining on us. That’s the perfect spot in the morning.

Rodney Payne: And could you tell me about Green Kayak, and what is your mission? 

Tobias Weber-Andersen: Green Kayak is an environmental NGO with the aim to involve as many people as possible in the fight against ocean pollution. And we do this by letting people use our green kayaks, which we have in several countries now, and we let them use our kayaks for free under two simple conditions. The first one is that they pick up trash while kayaking, using the kayak, and the other one is that we ask them to share their experience with this on social media. 

Rodney Payne: Are you worried about the environment? 

Tobias Weber-Andersen: Yes, I am. Otherwise, I think I would be doing something completely different. The environment worries me quite a bit. It’s not like I’m not able to sleep, but I do worry because for me, it’s in my face especially here in Copenhagen, the water is clean. You can swim and all this. But when you look at the water surface, you see trash floating around. And I tend to see more and more trash in the water, so, that’s just one aspect, one small piece of environmental concerns. There are many more, but this is the one that we are focused on.

Rodney Payne: And why is ocean pollution such an important problem?

Ocean pollution is big issue, because once you drop something in the ocean, it stays there forever and if it’s, for example, plastic one piece it will break down into thousands small pieces It attracts chemicals and it pollutes the species in the ocean and the also birds and stuff like that. the quality of the water gets sour. There, there are many effects from polluting the water that are scary to think about.

Rodney Payne: What did the canals used to be like in Copenhagen? 

Copenhagen canals have been through a transformation over the years. When I was a kid growing up in Copenhagen, nobody really used the canals as a recreational. It was mostly just ships, and it was an industrial harbor. Probably the surface was full of a layer of oil, and it wasn’t nice at all.

But now, you don’t really see the big ships here anymore, and you see buildings popping up along the shore. And you see a lot of young people hanging out at the water. And the municipality are building these areas where you can swim, protected from the boats. So the Copenhagen canals has gone from being canals you don’t want to put your toes in for sure, into a very attractive area and a place that you want to sit, a place that you want to take off your clothes and get in the water. It’s so nice, the water is clean. But, as I mentioned, you will still see trash floating on the water, and we are pulling up trash in hundreds and hundreds of kilos every year. So it’s, it’s clean, but not. all clean.

Rodney Payne: When people take one of your kayaks and go pick up trash, do you think that teaches them something? 

Tobias Weber-Andersen: When people pick up trash, I know for sure that it starts something that starts in your belly. It feels really good to pull out the trash from the water, because you know that this piece of maybe a plastic bag is not going to end its days in the water or in a, in the belly of a fish or something. So it’s out of the water, that’s really good, and that’s the feeling, that’s the, yeah, the feeling that we want to give people when they use our kayaks. That they start thinking about this big issue about the ocean pollution. And I think also it will create a ripple effect, a positive ripple in the mindset of people, and they might start to think about how they consume, how they shop, how they live their daily life. Maybe they start buying less stuff and maybe flying a bit less. And so that’s, for sure something that I hope, and I’ve also heard from people that it they, they start thinking a bit more about the environment when they have done what we call green kayaking.

Rodney Payne: Have you seen this concept expand from Copenhagen to other places?

Tobias Weber-Andersen: We started the green kayak concept in 2017 in Copenhagen with just one kayak. Now we have roughly 70 kayaks. They are placed in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and Finland. And we also have one in Tokyo. And we are constantly working on expanding to more cities. We want to include as many cities and people as possible.

We’re aiming to expand to this, what we call iconic cities. , because where we have the big cities, we have a lot of people. And if there’s water in the city, you will also have pollution from the streets to the water. And eventually, all this trash, it will float to the ocean. And then it becomes an issue for the whole planet, not just that city. 

Rodney Payne: Do you think tourism is a powerful force for spreading consciousness and ideas around the world? 

Tobias Weber-Andersen: When it comes to tourism, it is extremely important that everybody is conscious about their negative part in being the, the happy tourists going around the world and visiting amazing places. And because that comes with a negative effect, it comes with extra pollution and in so many ways that it would be better if people didn’t travel. 

But at the same time, we need to travel. We need to learn. We need to have a broader perspective on how people live across the world, that’s for sure. But the whole travel industry, I’m happy to see that it’s getting more and more in focus that the travel industry is also preaching ecotourism and um, giving back to the planet, giving back to nature and local communities. 

I would very much encourage people to do the same when they travel and to reach out to NGOs or whatever to see if they can help out and give back to the local community.

Rodney Payne: What do you think the world can learn from Copenhagen? 

Tobias Weber-Andersen: Other cities around the, the world should learn from Copenhagen that it’s a really good idea to create, for example, bicycle lanes in the streets and also to have clean water in the city. And come visit Copenhagen and see how we do it here. Just this morning bicycling here, I saw the traffic jam, and it was not with cars, it was with bicycles.

I’m always cheering at the, the bicycles, because it increases the health of the population. And, if you have a lot of people bicycling, it also contributes to a healthier ocean, a healthier climate, because you minimize the emission. 

On the other hand, I think that people should also know that that the Danish people are not just saints. When it comes to consumerism, we have a very high emission per person in Denmark. People travel a lot, people buy a lot of things. Yeah that’s something that we in Denmark need to, to work on, to bring down. 

Rodney Payne: If you think about the future, what are you hopeful for? That there’s green kayaks everywhere.

Tobias Weber-Andersen: I hope for, to inspire people to take better care of their local environment, but also when they travel to take care of the planet. And I hope that we will manage to bring down the CO2 emissions. And so we will have a more healthier planet, a more healthier ocean, and that the forest will flourish and the life on planet will increase, and that we will have a more green and bright future.

Rodney Payne: Thank you for spending some time with me today. 

Tobias Weber-Andersen: You’re welcome. 

Rodney Payne: Yeah, that’s awesome. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: Well, that concludes our tour for today. If you want to learn more about the lessons Copenhagen can teach you, it’s best to borrow a kayak or join a bike tour next time you’re anywhere that Green Kayak or Green Bike Tours are operating in. 

This has been Travel Beyond, presented by Destination Think. And you just heard from Helene Hjortlund and Tobias Weber Anderson. We’ll include links to more resources on the blog for this episode at 

I’m Sara Raymond de Booy, recording today from Seattle, Washington, on Coast Salish land, specifically that of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot People.

This episode has been produced and has theme music composed by David Archer. Lindsay Payne and Annika Rautiola provided production support. 

We would like to thank Wonderful Copenhagen for their support in creating this podcast season with us and for their willingness to be bold. 

You can help more people find this show by subscribing and by leaving a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Next time we’ll visit the Danish Architecture Center to learn about inclusive urban planning. See you then.


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