Where does the trash go in Iceland?

recycling iceland

With plentiful geothermal and hydroelectric energy, Iceland has earned an international reputation as a leader in environmentalism.

The whole story is of course more complicated. For example, in 2009, the average Icelandic household produced just above 400 kg of waste annually. As of 2021, Icelandic households were producing 667 kg of waste annually, compared to the EU average of 530 kg. According to EuroStat, in 2021, the last year for which statistics are available, Iceland placed eighth for average waste produced by household in the EU and EEA. 

So where does all the waste go?

According to the Environment Agency of Iceland, of the 1,305,000 tonnes of waste produced in 2021, 54% was used as filler, 20% was exported for recycling abroad, 13% went to a landfill, 8% was recycled domestically, 2% was composted, 1% was burned for energy production, and 1% was burned with no energy production.

Notably, these statistics are by weight and also include waste from construction, mining, and road work. The percentage of waste represented by filler therefore includes large amounts of gravel, sand, and stone, and not necessarily household waste.

Iceland has also begun sending increasing amounts of its waste abroad. This June, SORPA finalized plans to send combustible waste to Sweden for incineration. There was also considerable controversy this year when it came to light that contrary to public statements, SORPA had been sending milk cartons abroad for incineration for 16 years. They had previously stated that they were recycled domestically.

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Combustible Waste to Be Sent to Sweden

recycling iceland

The management of SORPA has entered into negotiations with Stena Recycling AB regarding the reception of combustible waste from the capital area for incineration in Sweden. Plans are currently underway to begin exporting combustible waste by autumn.

Read more: Milk Cartons Sent Abroad for Incineration

With this agreement, Icelandic waste will be utilized for energy production in Sweden instead of being disposed of in Iceland. It is estimated that 43,000 tonnes of combustible waste will be exported annually for incineration.

Stena’s offer was approximately 35% below SORPA’s cost estimate, which will potentially lower the impact on SORPA’s tariff schedule. The export of combustible waste will lead to a substantial reduction of approximately 65% in waste disposal at the Álfsnes facility compared to 2022. According to a statement by SORPA, the export will also significantly decrease waste accumulation nationwide and mitigate the negative impacts of the disposal site on local communities.

Read more: Milk Cartons to Be Recycled in Sweden

Notably, Icelandic waste management practices have recently come under critique when it came to light that milk cartons, which were supposed to be recycled domestically, had been sent abroad for incineration for years.


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Milk Cartons Sent Abroad for Incineration, Not Recycled Domestically

Under a new recycling law introduced last year, Icelanders are now required to sort recyclables into more bins than before, including plastic, paper, metal and glass, and now, organic waste. One of the most common household recycling items is the cardboard milk carton, which most households dutifully rinse and sort into the paper bin. However, it has come to light through investigative reporting at Heimildin that milk cartons, though recyclable, are not being processed in the manner they are claimed to be.

Instead of sending the milk cartons to the compactor to be recycled alongside other paper and cardboard, the milk cartons are instead sent to a cement factory on the mainland to be burned in an incinerator.

Full Circle: Read More About Recycling in Iceland

Margrét Gísladóttir, specialist in administration and communication at Icelandic dairy concern Mjólkursamsölun (MS), stated to Morgunblaðið that it was not up to MS to decide how the company’s packages are sorted. Their role, Margrét stated, was to instead encourage consumers to properly sort packages according to the guidelines set by municipalities and government agencies.

Currently, MS buys their packages from Tetra Pak, and Margrét stated to Morgunblaðið that MS is “constantly seeking the best packaging options,” taking into account environmental sustainability and food safety. MS has used its current milk carton since 2017. When it was adopted, it was considered to have a 66% smaller carbon footprint than the previous packaging. The selection was also based on the premise that “if they were properly sorted, they would be more environmentally friendly than other packaging,” according to Margrét.

The local recycling authorities have never provided feedback to Mjólkursamsölun that other packaging options are better, according to Margrét.

Read More: New Recycling Sorting in Reykjavík

Tetra Paks are recyclable, but because they are composed of layers of plastic, paper, and aluminium, they can prove difficult for some waste management systems.

When asked by Heimildin journalists whether such Tetra Pak milk cartons had been recycled properly, officials from SORPA, the municipal association for waste management, could not confirm that this had been the case for the last 16 years.

MS is the largest user of such packaging in Iceland, with around 40 million milk cartons produced and sold annually.



Deep North Episode 22: Full Circle

circular economy iceland

On January 1, 2023, a new set of laws regulating waste management and recycling came into effect. The regulations, called The Circular Law (Hringrásarlögin), include a new recycling system, packaging fees ensuring that manufacturers and importers contribute to the cost of collection and recycling, and prohibiting many categories of waste from being incinerated or disposed of in landfills. The implementation of these changes has neither been sweeping nor instantaneous, and 2023 will see many municipalities throughout Iceland gradually adjusting to the new system.

The circular economy has existed as a concept since at least the 1970s. In contrast to a so-called linear economy, in which raw materials are manufactured into goods, sold, used, and then disposed of, a circular economy seeks to integrate recycling, waste management, and repairability into every level of the supply chain, ensuring that resources remain in circulation for as long as possible.

Policymakers, academics, and entrepreneurs increasingly agree that the circular economy is the next frontier in environmental sustainability. These are the entrepreneurs who are making the Icelandic economy circular.

Read the full story here.

Full Circle

Despite Iceland’s image as a leader in green technologies, per capita household waste has been steadily trending upwards in the country. In 2009, the average Icelandic household produced just above 400 kg [882 lbs] of waste annually. As of 2021, Icelandic households were producing 667 kg [1,470 lbs] of waste annually, compared to the EU […]

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New Year, New Fees: Important Changes in 2023

hallgrímskirkja reykjavík

With the new year, several new regulations, taxes, and fees are coming into effect. Here, we break down the most significant changes for the nation and capital region in 2023.

New Fees on Fuel, Alcohol

In line with the 2023 budget, the alcohol tariff is set to rise some 7.7.%. The price hike will also disproportionately affect alcohol sold in Duty Free, which was taxed at 10% last year, but will now be taxed at 25%.

Fuel is likewise increasing in price. In order to fund infrastructure, the general cost of car ownership is rising significantly. A litre of petrol is set to increase by ISK 16 (0.11 USD, 0.11 EUR), and import duties on electric vehicles are also increasing.

Schools and Pools

In line with the expected 4.9% cost of living increase throughout Reykjavík, the price for admission to the city’s pools will also be increasing, from ISK 1,150 (8.10 USD, 7.58 EUR) to ISK 1,1210 (8.52 USD, 7.98 EUR). Children’s prices are increasing by similar amounts, although residents can still save significantly with pool passes.

The cost of preschool registration will also be rising on average from ISK 33,570 (236 USD, 221 EUR) to ISK 35,215 (248 USD, 232 EUR).

Changes in Recycling

Changes are also coming to waste management and recycling in the capital area.

Icelanders will now need to sort their trash into four bins, and recyclables will no longer be tolerated in the black bin (for trash). Bins will now be sorted into paper, plastic, organic waste, and mixed waste.

Alongside these changes come increases in cost, with garbage removal fees in Reykjavík increasing by 20%.

Read more about coming changes in the 2023 budget here.


New Recycling Sorting in Reykjavík Next Year

recycling in iceland

Starting next year, Icelandic households will have four bins to sort recycling into.

The changes come in light of new regulations in waste management, which include a restructuring of the collection of waste disposal fees, and a coordinated waste management system for the entire capital region.

One of the biggest changes for the average household, however, is that it will now be required for Icelandic households to properly recycle organic waste. A new bin is being introduced, which will be for organic material.

Reykjavík households will also need to use biodegradable paper bags for their organic waste instead of plastic. However, households will be receiving a year’s worth of paper bags. Biodegradable plastic bags have not been found by SORPA to degrade fast enough to be used.

Paper and plastic recycling bins will also disappear from communal locations, as these will now be picked up at all households.

It has not yet been decided to what extent households will share in the costs of the new system, though it will certainly require some changes. Households will need to have all four bins, but it has been stated that it may be possible for households to use two-part bins, which separate between plastic and paper, for instance.

Plastic Exported For Recycling Remains In Swedish Warehouse

Tonnes of Icelandic plastic exported to be recycled in 2016 are still sitting in a warehouse in Sweden, Stundin reports. The Icelandic Recycling Fund will demand that Swedish recycling company Swerec upholds its commitments regarding Icelandic plastic sent to be recycled, Vísir reports. The chairman of the board of the Recycling Fund states that Icelandic recycling companies operated under the belief that they were working with a reputable company in Sweden.

A year ago, Stundin reported that while Icelandic plastic was sent abroad to be recycled, the percentage of plastic that was actually recycled was much smaller than reported. Today, Stundin reported that more than half of all plastic exported from Iceland to Sweden to be recycled in 2016, approx. 1500 tonnes, is still sitting in a run-down warehouse in the town of Päryd in Southern Sweden. Stundin reporter and photographer travelled to Sweden and were stunned to find a warehouse packed with Icelandic plastic, that according to reports should have been recycled years ago.

Official reports in Iceland claim that the plastic has been recycled and Icelandic waste disposal companies have been paid for taking care of the waste in an environmentally friendly way. Environment Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson told Vísir that it was important that people trust the system when it comes to recycling and that the ministry had contacted the board of the Icelandic Recycling Fund as soon as the news broke. “We’re waiting for further clarification on what’s happening and what we can do about it,” Guðlaugur stated. “We aren’t doing all this [recycling] for the plastic to end up where it is now, that’s for sure.”

Chairman of the Board of the Icelandic Recycling Fund Magnús Jóhannesson stated that the fund’s reaction to the news that the plastic still hasn’t been recycled is that next week, the board will be contacting Swerec, demanding that they take the Icelandic plastic and get it processed. He pointed out that Icelandic companies believed that Swerec was a reputable company and that comparable institutions to the Icelandic Recycling Fund in Norway and Sweden also dealt with Swerec. Swerec had sold a portion of the Icelandic plastic to another company at the time that later went under, leading to the Icelandic plastic still sitting in the warehouse. Magnús stated that the Fund believed the issue had been resolved. “it’s clear now that it wasn’t and that’s why we will be responding in this way,” he told Vísir. Magnús does not believe that plastic is the responsibility of the Icelandic Recycling Fund, stating that the responsibility lies with the Swedish company and that they will make sure that they do their duty.

Garbage Piling Up During Ongoing Strike

With negotiations between the City of Reykjavík and its workers in the Efling labour union at a standstill, parents of young children are not the only ones feeling the effects of the ongoing strike. City sanitation workers are also taking part in the action. As such, many public trash cans throughout Reykjavík are overflowing and, Vísir reports, residents are being asked to take care of their own garbage as best they can.

In a radio interview on Thursday, Ragna I. Halldórsdóttir, division head of the environmental and educational division of Sorpa, the waste management company responsible for Reykjavík’s garbage and recycling, encouraged residents to take their non-recyclable household garbage to the large dumpsters that are located in many neighbourhoods or to drive it directly to one of Sorpa’s six centres in the capital area.

Ragna said that individuals can bring up to two m3 [70 ft3] of garbage directly to Sorpa and drop it off free of charge. She also said that some larger neighbourhood associations have paid for delivery vans to transport their garbage to Sorpa on their behalf.

“At this time, we just have to take care of ourselves, unfortunately,” she remarked. “Or use delivery trucks or the like.”

Ragna said that Sorpa’s contingency plan is being reviewed to determine what actions will need to be undertaken if the strike continues, as well as how to handle a large influx of garbage likely to arrive at the company’s processing stations after the strike ends.


“Only country in the world that can have a retroactive carbon footprint”

Construction is underway to increase the capacity of a South Iceland plastics recycling center six fold, Vísir reports. When the expansion to the Pure North Recycling centre in the town of Hveragerði is completed, the company says it will be able to recycle all of the recyclable plastic produced in Iceland.

Pure North Recycling began to recycle plastics in 2015 and is the only company in Iceland that recycles plastic completely. Plastic processed by their facility is turned into a raw material that is then sold to companies that make new products from it. For example, plastic recycled at Pure North is used in the production of plastic poles and pipes in Iceland. Most of the company’s recycled material is, however, sold abroad.

Looking forward, CEO Sigurður Halldórsson says that Pure North would like to sell most of its recycled plastic domestically, “and thus close the cycle here at home.”

“Just steam, water, and electricity”

“We’ve actually developed new methods that atypical for recycling plastics by using geothermal heat in the process,” Sigurður explained. “So we’re not using any chemicals or anything like that – just steam, water, and electricity.” He explains that geothermal steam is used to heat up the ambient air around the plastic, which dries it out after washing. The resulting steam is then used for washing the next batch of plastic.

Pure North hired the consulting firm ReSource International to conduct an assessment of its recycling process and compare its carbon footprint with that of companies using similar recycling processes abroad. ReSource found that Pure North creates a smaller carbon footprint when it imports plastic waste from Europe to recycle than when Iceland exports its plastic waste to European companies for recycling.

“We’re the only country in the world that can have a retroactive carbon footprint for plastics recycling,” Sigurður said. “You can basically offset the carbon for your farming or whatever with the recycling of plastic, so it’s a real revolution.”

“Every nation has to bear the responsibility”

Pure North now recycles many kinds of plastics, but Sigurður says there need to be changes in the way that plastic from households and businesses is sorted so that the company is better able to take more consumer plastic.

“We’re making big strides – we’re now first and foremost looking at the biggest categories, for example, like the plastic used on hay bales. There are some two thousand tonnes a year that come from what we are recycling.”

The company also recycles a certain amount of packaging plastic, but Sigurður says that there needs to be better sorting practices within the home in order to maximise the company’s output. Many different categories of plastic are currently getting mixed together, which creates problems at the recycling facility.

Countries all over the world face major challenges to their recycling processes now that countries such as China are no longer accepting plastic waste from countries in the west. For his part, Sigurður thinks this is a good thing.

“Now every nation has to bear the responsibility. People can’t just send it to Asia and look the other way.”