Treading Lightly Around Iceland

Treading Lightly Around Iceland

How to travel without a massive impact

Is any travel technically eco-friendly? Nearly every aspect of our daily lives has an impact on the surrounding environment. That impact is multiplied when engaging in carbon-intensive transport through travel hubs that seem to be fuelled by single-use plastics and mass consumerism. In fact, it’s estimated that 8% of total global carbon emissions are the result of the travel and tourism industry. 

But you’re coming to Iceland because you love and respect nature, right? Of course. Don’t consider the country’s geothermal reputation as a get-out-of-jail free card for making an eco-friendly effort. Here are some tips for seeing the country sustainably.

Don’t buy bottled water

It’s absolutely disgusting to see grocery and convenience stores shilling “pure Icelandic glacial water” in plastic bottles. You know who buys that? Tourists who don’t realise it’s the same calibre of liquid that springs forth from every tap in the country. The hot water may stink like eggy farts, but the cold water is as clean, crisp and pure as it gets. Bring a refillable water bottle to  fill up as you travel. Access to drinking water is considered a right, so restaurants and cafes are kind of obliged to give you a free glass of H2O (or refill your bottle) if you ask.

Buy local souvenirs

Want to bring home a memory of your trip aside from all those photos you snapped? Buy local when you shop for souvenirs. The vast majority of the junk – erm, sorry, keep-sakes – in the so-called “puffin shops” (you know, the places emblazoned with imagery of puffins, Vikings, polar bears and trolls) are mass produced in factories far, far away from Iceland, upping their carbon footprint. That includes many of the wool sweaters, gloves, hats and blankets many of those shops stock. 

Pay attention to where things are actually made. Check the tags. “Designed in Iceland” is usually code for “not made in Iceland.”

Skip the mass-produced trinkets and opt for things like woollen goods from the Handknitting Association, sea salt from the Westfjords, or a piece from a local artist to hang on your wall back home. 

Research before booking a tour

Is the day trip you’re booking going to transport you on a massive coach to the same, heavily-visited waterfall/beach/hotspring that everybody else stops at while in Iceland. We get that you want to get a snap for the ’Gram from behind Seljalandsfoss, but think about the environmental impact of so many people visiting so few spots. It takes a toll on the vegetation, with the constant foot traffic giving the local environment zero time to rebound. That’s especially the case now that Iceland is a year-round destination, inviting countless pairs of boots to trod all over nature at times of year when the ground should be repairing itself after the winter thaw.

Instead, go with small, local tour operators that have knowledge specific to their town or region and are taking travellers to areas less visited by the big bus companies.

Wherever you go, though, stick to the marked paths, tread lightly and leave nothing behind.

Eat local and sustainable

A lot of the food for sale in Iceland has made a long journey over the Atlantic ocean to reach the grocery store shelves and your plate. But not all of it. Fruits and vegetables grown in Iceland are typically marked in grocery stores with a distinct “Íslensk” sticker with the colours of the Icelandic flag.

You can ask about the origin of the food being served in the restaurants you visit, as well. Some menu items you should know to avoid, even if they are locally sourced. The Atlantic puffin population is in steep decline in Iceland, so ordering puffin for dinner is not a sustainable choice. The same goes for ordering whale. Not only is it not a traditionally Icelandic protein, the positive environmental impact whales have on the world’s oceans is such that it’s ecologically irresponsible to be hunting them for a novelty bite. 

You should similarly ask about the origin of the salmon you’re ordering. A growing number of Icelandic restaurants are sourcing their fish only from land-based fish farms, on account of the documented risk to wild fish stocks open-pen sea cage aquaculture poses. 

We only have one planet. Be mindful of how you go about exploring it.

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