Eco-Unfriendly Iceland (KH)


katharinahauptmann02_dlOne might expect Icelanders to be very eco-friendly; that would fit the image, considering all that clear water, clean air and geothermal energy.

On the contrary, I find Icelanders rather careless when it comes to environmental awareness.

I could name many aspects in which Icelanders aren't very green, but let's focus on recycling.

In Iceland, it seems, it's normal to just throw everything in the same trash can. Sorting waste is surely no common habit among Icelanders.

As I found out, it was usual until 2009 for Icelandic households to have only one single trash can for what is simply called “domestic waste”. Unbelievable.

In my hometown Stuttgart, if you don't sort your trash as required, the garbage collectors won't empty your trash cans until you do the waste separation correctly. You might even get fined.

So this is the basic Icelandic recycle system in theory:

There are two places you can go to get rid of your garbage (other than the domestic waste cans outside every house): drop-off centers and recycling centers.

The drop-off centers can be found in each residential area and have blue and green containers.

The blue container are for all kinds of paper waste while the green containers are intended for all sorts of containers made of plastic, e.g. juice bottles, shampoo bottles, shopping bags etc.

Interesting side note: the collected paper is shipped to Sweden where it is recycled.

Shipping trash abroad gives Iceland an annual amount of approximately ISK 150 to 200 million (USD 1.2 to 1.6 million, EUR 760,000 to 1 million) in foreign exchange earnings. It’s good that money doesn’t stink.

The recycling centers are for any type of waste other than the aforementioned categories. At this site waste is accepted and stored until it is shipped abroad, sorted or handled in some other way. The trash is then transferred for disposal, reuse or recovery, or is disposed of on site.

So far so good.

But is that reality proof? The devil is in the details.

I can tell you, this system is extremely unhandy and inconvenient; a dark voice inside of me wants to call it ridiculous.

Most people just don't care about proper waste sorting; they just throw everything into one trash can because recycling the waste properly is too complicated.

Example: The nearest recycling center from my flat in downtown Reykjavík is about a ten-minute drive away, give or take. Not very handy for people without a car. Minus point number one.

When I drove to said recycling center for the first time to return a whole bunch of glass bottles I had collected over the year I was asked how many bottles I had.

I honestly thought it was a joke when I learned that I was supposed to count and sort all the bottles beforehand. Am I seriously expected to count every single bottle of the load?

And you can't even count the bottles while transferring them into the center's containers, no way. They have to be counted before you arrive. Period. It's even written on a big sign. Minus point number two.

At least you get paid a small fee for handing in bottles and aluminum cans, that's definitely a plus. Money is always a good stimulus to make people recycle. I doubt it's enough, though.

No wonder nobody recycles. It's like the local system doesn't want you to.

Germany's recycling system is a fine example for how it can work. Let me brag a little.

Every residential area in Germany has several containers for glass. You can just walk there, dispose of your bottles and go home. Quick and easy.

If you have special bottles with refundable deposits it's even easier. When you do your shopping in the supermarket of your choice, you just put your empty bottles on a conveyor band especially for that purpose and then receive a ticket stating number of bottles and amount of refund. Quick and easy.

By the way, every store is obliged to take back the wrappings of the products it sells. That makes the stores use as few wrappings as possible and reduce the production of trash. Brilliant.

Almost every German household uses special trash bags or cans (usually yellow) for any kind of plastic garbage. Those bags or cans are regularly taken by the garbage collectors.

It’s the same story with bio waste. In Germany you can use a special bio trash can which is also picked up from your doorstep, whereas in Iceland such a thing seem to be too exotic to be commonly used.

Also, Icelandic apartments and houses don't seem to be designed for recycling. There is never enough space for more than just one tiny trash can.

So, (very) long story short: The Icelandic recycling system is very, very poor and needs a reform! People can be lazy, myself included, and if you want them to sort their waste properly you have to make it easy and not try to put as many obstacles in their way as possible.

Disposal sites have to be easily accessible and the process of unloading trash should be simple and functional. Also, people have to be legally obligated to handle their waste properly.

Well, I could go on forever. I don't mean to be condescending but this is a burning and frustrating issue for me that I've been waiting to talk about for years.

This blatant lack of ecological awareness of Icelanders is such a shame...

By the way, the impetus for this article was a recent trip to said drop-off center. A woman parked her car next to the container to recycle some paper just like me. She left the car's engine running the entire time.

What a wonderful world.

Katharina Hauptmann – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.