From Iceland — Catching Up To The 21st Century

Catching Up To The 21st Century

Published August 18, 2011

Catching Up To The 21st Century

A couple of weeks back, we ran a news story about a city proposal to give police the power to issue tickets for littering on the spot. Anyone who has walked down Laugavegur on a Sunday morning probably understands the motivation behind such a proposal. The photo we ran with the story showed the aftermath of Independence Day celebrations on Austurstræti, to which one astute reader commented, “That’s funny. I’m seeing a lot of trash there, but no trash cans.”
Therein lies part of the problem: the city is woefully lacking in trashcans. While it can be argued that all one needs to do is walk a few metres before finding one, there’s one thing you definitely won’t find and that’s a public recycling bin.


Recycling is a relatively new concept in Iceland. Karl Sigurðsson, chairperson of the Environmental and Traffic Committee for the city, admitted when he spoke to us that, “We are lagging a bit behind other nations, such as Sweden and Germany in the area of recycling. It’s not very advanced.”
This is certainly the case for those of us living downtown. It is possible to find some recycling dumpsters here and there—on Skúlagata, for example, there are bins for paper and milk cartons—but for the most part, making the effort to recycle your waste is quite a challenge.
In order for city residents to effectively recycle, they first need to sort their own recyclables. Perhaps a minor inconvenience, but in other countries—such as in the province of Québec, Canada—all recyclables can be placed in a single bin, which a special recyclables garbage truck collects curb side. In Iceland, however, city residents must transport their own recyclables to a recycling centre, such as Sorpa. There is exactly one Sorpa in 101 Reykjavík (on Eggertsgata), three on the west side of town, and five on the immediate east side of town. And if you don’t have a car, good luck.
Having to sort and transport one’s own recyclables may explain why there is so little enthusiasm for the process, and why most recyclables seem to be bottles and cans collected directly from trashcans by people hoping to trade them for cash. Karl is aware of this and says that the number of people actively recycling in the city are “few and far between.” Considering the drawbacks of the current system, he says the city has a plan in place to change this.


The plan—which begins later this year and extends into 2013—is still in the tentative stages, so details such as exactly when different stages will be implemented and how much they will cost have not been fully worked out. But here’s the thumbnail sketch of how the city intends to confront the recycling problem:
First and foremost, city officials want to issue a recycling bin to every city resident. Whether residents will have to pay for these out of pocket, or whether they will be funded through the budget, has not yet been decided, but Karl says the target is to initiate this before the end of this year.
City residents will still be encouraged to sort their own recyclables, beginning with separating paper and plastic from regular trash. In the next stage of implementation, items such as metal and glass will be added to the list, followed by organic matter, by 2013.
As with other municipal systems that affect surrounding communities, such as the bus system, the city wants to be sure that towns in the capital area follow the same example. Such a system, in its completely realised form, would bring curb side recycling services to over half the population of the country.
At a time when budget cuts are the order of the day, these broad steps over a period of two years is pretty ambitious, but Karl says it’s a subject close to his heart. “We have employees constantly working on ideas [for recycling],” he says. “We’re a little behind, but we will catch up. We don’t want to be the laughing stock of Europe.” 

Karl emphasises that the plan is far from a top-down process. He encourages all residents of Reykjavík and surrounding areas to submit their own ideas and questions to the city by emailing

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