Reykjavík Bins Overflow

recycling in iceland

The implementation of a new recycling system in Reykjavík seems to be going through some hiccoughs, with some bins throughout the city overflowing.

The city recently encouraged residents to use neighbourhood recycling centres more extensively due to changes in waste management procedures. Service providers state that improvements are being worked on.

New regulations on waste sorting came into effect at the turn of the year, and now all waste must be sorted into separate categories: paper, plastic, organic waste, and non-recyclable waste. However, the changes seem to have led to have to some oversights, with some neighbourhood bins overflowing.

As one commentator noticed: “People are being told to recycle and use neighbourhood recycling bins, but unfortunately, it seems that the infrastructure is lacking to handle what is deposited.”

A statement on the Reykjavík city website currently reads: “[Waste management contractor] Terra has decided to discontinue the service of recycling stations in Reykjavik earlier than planned. Residents who have used these stations are advised to utilize nearby Sorpa recycling centres until the bins are replaced due to coordinated waste management in Reykjavik. Recycling bins cannot be emptied outside the scheduled timeframe.”

A temporary transition is expected to continue for a few days. Valgeir M. Baldursson, the director of Terra, stated to RÚV: “As is often the case with changes, there’s a transition period. But we’re almost done distributing the new bins and the new system is almost in place.”

Residents have been advised to use neighbourhood bins until the replacement of residential bins is completed, which is expected to be in September. Due to this, a significantly larger amount of waste has accumulated at the city’s recycling centres, and the emptying of bins has slowed down.

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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.



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.

Dirty Little Secrets

Reykjavík sewage Veitur

I’d wager you’ll sit down at a toilet today. Who knows what you’re doing in there, but if you’re in Reykjavík – you’ll flush the remains. But have you ever wondered what happens after the flush? Where all of it goes? The short answer: out to sea. For the longest time, that was the long answer, as well, as sewage went untreated into the ocean.

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Garbage Collection Resumes, Strike Ongoing

Garbage collection resumed in Reykjavík this morning despite an ongoing strike among City of Reykjavík staff who are members of Efling Union. Garbage collection was suspended when a general strike began on February 17. The service has now been temporarily exempted from the strike due to public health concerns connected to COVID-19. Three cases of the virus have been confirmed in Iceland.

Garbage collection began in the neighbourhood of Breiðholt this morning, and the neighbourhood of Árbær will follow later in the week. City workers did not manage to collect garbage from these two neighbourhoods before the strike began.

Only mixed household waste will be collected from private residences this week, not paper or plastic. Residents of Reykjavík can bring sorted paper and plastic recycling to Sorpa’s drop-off centres

The strike exemption for garbage collection will stand until March 6.

Sorpa to Restructure Operations Following Damning Report

Sorpa - waste management

The waste management company responsible for Reykjavík capital area’s garbage is set to undergo comprehensive restructuring. Sorpa also intends to ask the six municipalities that jointly own the company to guarantee it an ISK 600 million ($4.7m/€4.3m) loan. An internal audit published in December indicates Sorpa is facing significant financial challenges.

The City of Reykjavík recently conducted an internal audit on Sorpa’s planned construction of a biogas plant, which was published last December. The audit found that Sorpa underestimated the cost of the project by ISK 1.4 billion ($10.9m/€10m). The company ’s Board of Directors dismissed Sorpa’s CEO Björn H. Halldórsson last month following another City of Reykjavík report that heavily criticised his work. Other financial issues within the company also came to light, suggesting a grim state of affairs. Mosfellsbær’s mayor stated just last week that “if nothing is done about [Sorpa’s situation], then the company is insolvent at the beginning of March.”

Sorpa’s board of directors met with elected representatives from all six municipalities yesterday to review the company’s difficult financial position and propose a plan of action. According to a press release published after the meeting, the company plans to complete a comprehensive review of its operations by June and undergo restructuring with the help of an ISK 600 million loan. A special task force will be appointed to carry out a detailed audit of the company’s finances, administration, and project management.

Icelandic Waste Exported to Europe

recycling in iceland

Waste from South Iceland is being used in the Netherlands to heat houses and in Denmark to produce electricity, Vísir reports. The export is a recent development and was spurred by the closure of a landfill in the region.

After a landfill site in the municipality of Ölfus was closed, South Iceland towns have had difficulties finding a final resting place for their waste. No other municipality was willing to dedicate land area to a new disposal site, and waste from the region was driven long distances to other parts of the country. Now some municipalities in the region, including Ölfus, have begun to export their waste.

Jón Þórir Frantzson is the director of Íslenska gámafélagið (IGF), which manages waste for many Icelandic municipalities, industrial firms, and businesses. He says the export has gotten off to a good start. “They sort all the waste into four categories. One category is that which is called non-recyclable and that we’ve exported to Rotterdam for the past three months and that is used for heating Dutch people’s houses and that’s gone very well. Of course this is the second-worst option but it’s good in the sense that there we’re talking about incineration, which is in competition with coal and nuclear energy. We know that coal is very environmentally bad and nuclear energy is very dangerous, so this is something that’s positive.”

Jón says the waste is being transported in containers that were otherwise returning to Europe empty. He hopes to arrange for all South Iceland municipalities to export their waste abroad. “We have also made contracts with Aalborg [in Denmark] as 31% of all the electricity which is produced in Aalborg is produced in a waste incinerator and all the water which is heated in houses goes through the waste incinerator.” Jón says there are more countries interested in importing waste from Iceland.

Green Tax Would Encourage Recycling

A proposed “green tax” would make it more expensive for landfills in Iceland to bury garbage than to recycle, Vísir reports. The landfilling of waste is currently responsible for 7% of Iceland’s overall greenhouse emissions.

Minister of the Environment and Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson says there are currently two kinds of green incentives on the table. One of these is to levy a tax on landfilling waste. The other is to tax the gas used in the refrigeration machinery associated with the landfilling process. Guðmundur Ingi says that this gas is responsible for around 7% of Iceland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Green taxes such as these are intended to encourage individuals and businesses to adopt more environmentally friendly behaviours and also increase recycling around the country. Guðmundur hopes that a green tax will help to reduce Iceland’s greenhouse emissions and thereby reduce the country’s overall climate impact.

“These are, in my opinion, very important environmental initiatives…by landfilling, we’re creating far too many greenhouse emissions, but with these taxes, it will be more expensive to landfill and more competitive to recycle,” he concluded.

The green tax was one of the financial policy proposals discussed in parliament on Thursday. It’s hoped that it will be implemented in phases in the next year.