Image: Golli.

Wasting Away: How Iceland is dealing with its waste

 In Magazine, Magazine Intro, Society

Words by Tinna Eiríksdóttir

Photography by Golli

The inhabitants of the Western world are consumers. In a world where mass production is the norm, it is not a surprise that we are drowning in garbage. But this is not one of those doomsday articles that focuses on the problem, only to leave the reader guilt-ridden and hopeless. Being aware of the problems we’re facing is important, but without hope, it’s hard to feel motivated to do what we can do for the better. So, let’s shift the focus a little bit and talk about what we can do better, and what’s already being done in Iceland to tackle our ever-accumulating waste.

Rethinking waste

ReSource International, located just outside Reykjavík, is a company that specialises in finding ways to make use of waste. Their Research and Development Manager Jamie McQuilkin would like to see waste become a thing of the past. “Waste is a bit like that drawer or box of stuff that we all have at home with stuff we don’t know how to deal with,” he says. “I think we have to go a bit Marie Kondo on our waste and creation, we have to look at material flow and redesign our building and packaging of goods to match and address our overconsumption. I think that may be beginning to happen, but it’s a very slow process.”

ReSource is currently working toward mapping and quantifying CO2 and methane emissions, as well as monitoring other kinds of gases. They’re also working to reduce methane emissions in landfills, optimising a new biogas plant at Álfsnes (near Reykjavík, more on that later), monitoring microplastics in drinking water, researching airborne dust, and experimenting with putting waste plastics in asphalt, both as a strength enhancer and a way to divert waste. The first trial road with waste plastic will be opened this summer.

According to McQuilkin, there are things we could do differently when managing waste in Iceland. “Making long-distance transport of goods run as much as possible on methane gas produced from organic waste, with imported natural gas as a backup. It’s cheap and readily available with today’s technology and would do a lot of good if done right.”

Innovation at work

McQuilkin says there are many innovative waste management projects in the works in Iceland. Sorpa, a waste management company that serves the Reykjavík capital area, is installing a biogas plant which he believes is a good a solution for diverting large amounts of waste. The CarbFix project, operating at Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Station, could have even more far-reaching effects. CarbFix has developed a way to absorb CO2 directly from the atmosphere, pump it deep underground, and transform it into stone. By removing CO2 from the atmosphere, the method could be an important step in fighting global warming and climate change.

It’s very important for the government to proactively tackle CO2 emissions, says McQuilkin, as they are one of the most urgent problems we face today. “Government legislation is needed to tax and/or cap emissions, particularly of airline travel,” he says. “There’s a huge potential to restore wetlands in Iceland to reduce CO2 emissions, and money from such a tax could be spent on such work.” When asked what he would change about the environment, McQuilkin quips: “I mean, there’s some basic thermodynamic laws that are quite inconvenient to us these days. The natural climate circle, greenhouse gas emissions and solar influences we can’t control even though we’d want to. But barring that, I’d settle for making people more aware of the current and future effects of their actions on other people and the environment.”

Individual vs. industry

In 2018, Sorpa received 263,000 tonnes of waste, half of which was recycled and half of which was buried in landfills. That’s not even all of the Capital Area’s waste, as Sorpa does not service every household and company in the region. According to Gyða Sigríður Björnsdóttir, a specialist at the organisation, Icelanders are mostly conscientious recyclers – but it’s always possible to do better. “Increased service might help people to recycle waste, but it’s a question of cost. What are we, as a community, willing to pay for waste management, what result is environmentally acceptable?”

While recycling household waste is important, industrial activity is responsible for 67% of the waste that is brought to Sorpa’s landfill site in Álfsnes. According to Gyða, that is an opportunity to do better. Trying to reduce waste should be a priority within Icelandic companies, particularly when it comes to packaging. Product packaging is often made from many different types of materials, or plastic, making it unrecyclable.

Automation nation

Gyða says Icelandic authorities are working to improve their waste management policies. “The municipal governments who own Sorpa have decided to stop landfill of organic waste by the end of 2020.” Instead, the waste will be processed at a biogas and composting plant that is currently under development, creating both methane gas and compost instead of throwing away over 20,000 tons of organic waste yearly. Sorpa is also working on streamlining the way they currently operate. Waste processing is becoming increasingly automated. This automation puts less pressure on consumers to sort their trash properly and ensures more gets recycled.

Making a difference

Thankfully, there are individuals and organisations working on finding innovative solutions to manage waste. But it is also important not to forget both the responsibility of corporations as well as the government’s responsibility. Both the government and the private sector need oversight, and there is no better supervisor than the informed consumer. Say no to plastic. Demand that your municipality offers the possibility of recycling organic waste. Remind yourself that you don’t need that new kitchen appliance you feel the need to upgrade. Think before you buy those shoes and before you book a flight for a weekend shopping trip. And, most of all, remember that there are solutions, and people who have the power to demand and initiate change. You are one of them.

This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.

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