Q: I’d like to know how Icelanders treat their waste, especially now that the number of tourists has increased considerably. What is the status of recycling in Iceland? How much waste is put into landfills, and what is done with recyclable materials? How many people can the island support in this regard?
A: There is no doubt that the large stream of tourists has increased strain on our waste disposal. This increased strain has, however, not resulted in any change in policy. There are 74 municipalities in the country, and they are responsible for waste disposal within their own areas. The way they decide to do so can vary considerably.
The City of Reykjavík has noticed a substantial increase in garbage from waste bins, which are set up along all major streets. Such waste is not sorted for recycling, except in one area, Skóavörðustígur, in downtown Reykjavík, where pedestrians can dispose of their garbage in specially marked bins.
Waste from hotels, where the majority of the tourists reside, is collected by two container companies, which transport both recyclables and waste meant for landfills. The hotels themselves are responsible for sorting the waste before it’s collected. As a recent article in IR pointed out, 50 percent of all household waste in Iceland goes to landfills. That is a much higher proportion than in our neighboring countries. Still, the use of landfills has decreased from 234 kilos (516 lbs) per person in 2009 to 171 kilos (377 lbs) per person in 2013.
Plastics and paper items, picked up by the container companies, are shipped abroad, since there is no recycling facility in Iceland. Plastics are shipped to Sweden, where they are sorted and then shipped on to other countries for recycling. Paper, which is either corrugated or mixed, is shipped to Holland, where it may be sorted further, and then shipped on to other destinations for recycling.
Metals are taken to a company called Hringrás, which sorts them and then ships them abroad to be recycled. Glass, on the other hand, is put into landfills, since it is too cheap to warrant shipping abroad.
Recycling is not as common outside the capital area, although Akureyri, North Iceland, is known as the recycling capital of the country. Recyclable materials are only shipped from Reykjavík harbor and Akureyri harbor. The Audit Office recently pointed out that all monitoring is lacking regarding making sure that municipalities live up to their duty to make zoning plans to improve waste management, or to ensure that such plans are followed.