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Recycling in the Land of Ice and Fire

I recently took a trip to Iceland, the island known for ice caves, waterfalls, volcanoes and, some say, trolls. While I didn’t encounter any mythical creatures (they are said to turn to stone when humans are near), very real impressions were the fresh air and how clean the streets were. Litter was virtually non-existent.

Taking a road trip across Iceland was in stark contrast with my daily life in one of the world’s most densely populated countries, the Netherlands.

‘How many people do you think live here?’ my boyfriend asked as we passed fields of mostly sheep and long-haired Nordic horses. ‘Maybe three million?’ ‘Not that many,’ was my immediate guess. We were both stunned to find it’s not even 375 000. Roughly 70% of people live in the greater Reykjavik region so that meant we drove for hours in almost perfect solitude.

Fun fact: the ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ was a main source of inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s critically acclaimed series Game of Thrones.

Waste-free zones

Tourist hotspots reminded us we weren’t alone on the island with highlights being the blue lagoon, diamond beach and the basalt sea cliffs. These offered unique views without the clutter of human disruption – no aluminium can or sweet wrapper in sight.

Icelanders must pride themselves on keeping the environment tidy, even in the remotest areas. Although we didn’t see any waste collection trucks (then again, light faded early, around 3), there were plenty of waste and recycling bins. None was overflowing so I reckon they are emptied on a strict schedule.

Today, around 50% of packaging is recycled and paper & board boasts a recycling rate of almost 85%. Aluminium is second on 77%. Materials that need attention are glass (20%) and plastics (25%). Iceland’s domestic recycling capacity is relatively low with the bulk of recyclables exported, mostly to Scandinavia, for processing.

More waste, more pressure

Annual municipal waste generation stands at approximately 655kg per capita. Dips in waste generation (most recently in 2009) are said to be due to economic downturns. Not strange since day-to-day and luxury products, even the livestock and trees, have to be imported. ‘Don’t forget it’s a volcanic island, not the natural home of cows, pigs or other farm animals,’ glacier guide Helga told us.

Meanwhile, spikes in birth rates and a booming tourist industry have gradually seen waste volumes increase. This underlines the growing importance of recycling and composting – both of which the government sees as priorities. The ambition is to ensure every household is able to depose of its waste within a 500m radius.

Iceland has been reducing its dependency on waste incineration (thought to be around 30%) in favour of mechanical recycling over the last ten or so years. Four waste incinerators that did not meet EU emission standards were closed between 2008 and 2012. 

However, Iceland lags far behind its northern European countries in terms of landfilling with a new study estimating a rate of around 60%. One logical explanation is that only about 1% of land has been developed so there is plenty of available space to dump the waste. This is a ‘luxury’ most countries don’t have although it’s hardly cause for celebration.

On a more positive note, Iceland has been investing heavily in replanting forests destroyed in volcanic eruptions and protecting its many natural gems. Let’s hope this new chapter in sustainability will translate in stronger recycling targets. Ones that don’t turn to stone when we look for them.

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