Seagulls bicker over a pile of soggy vomit. House music and drunk banter pour out an open window. Smashed glass, cigarette butts, and pizza crusts pepper Laugavegur’s cheery, pastel-painted asphalt. Yesterday’s lingering carousers tumble home, ceding the streets to the waterproof tourists of today, fresh off red-eyes and just as disoriented as the straggling partiers. It’s a quarter after six on a Sunday morning in 101 Reykjavík and the night’s accumulation of detritus remains untouched, like a meticulously preserved crime scene—that is, until Hreinsitækni ehf. arrives on the scene.
Hreinsitækni, the city’s street cleaning contractor, has the onerous task of transforming downtown Reykjavík from a Dionysian ground zero of puke, shit, and glass into a saccharine city centre of stuffed puffins, affable trolls, and Scandinavian charm. This Sunday morning they’ve allowed me to take a front row seat to the cleaning routine. “There’s never any peace on the weekends,” Hreinsitækni employee Davíð Stefán Vigfússon tells me when I meet him in Lækjartorg as the late night munchies trucks are closing shop. On several occasions, he tells me, drunk people have tried to climb into the sweeper. Tourists, by comparison, are far more docile, if not somewhat heedless of the heavy machinery crawling indiscriminately over the sidewalk.
Don’t forget to brush your streets
Davíð drives a small street sweeper—a bright orange vehicle, about as wide as a golf cart and twice as long. It has three circular brushes: two under the cab, and one on a mechanical arm controlled from within the cab by a device that resembles a joystick. The brushes work in tandem to steer flotsam and jetsam under the vehicle, where the greedy maws of a powerful vacuum inhale anything that comes their way. With a windshield that extends to our feet and doors comprised entirely of windows, the cab is specifically designed to maximize visibility.
Reykjavík Street Cleaning In Numbers:
15 tonnes of trash picked up each weekend
87 million kronur spent on Reykjavík street cleaning annually
1991 year first cleanup contract was signed
5,928 hours spent on street cleaning annually
As he begins to sweep, he outlines the cleaning process for me. In the offseason, two mornings of cleaning (Saturday and Sunday) are enough; but in the summer, a crew of six people, operating five vehicles, works four-hour shifts seven days a week to keep downtown squeaky clean. If this operation seems small, the final haul is nothing to scoff at: each weekend, Hreinsitækni removes as much as fifteen tonnes of garbage from Reykjavík’s streets. On weeknights, since bars and clubs close at 1am, the cleaning crew can sweep through, unseen, in the morning’s earliest hours without having to weave through sloshed throngs or tourist mobs. On the weekends, however, when partying can (and does) continue into sensible waking hours, the process can’t begin until six, when Reykjavík’s most resolute bacchants have begun to retreat into private homes. As I discover, this timing is hardly ideal: by seven, a steady stream of tourists is already pouring out of hotels and Flybuses onto the streets Hreinsitækni is tasked with scouring.
The operation proceeds through Reykjavík’s main streets like a lonely, unhailed parade. A large water truck lumbers down Laugavegur, Bankastræti, and Austurstræti towards Ingólfstorg as a worker walks alongside, spraying trash into the middle of the street with a high-power hose. A big street sweeper follows, slurping up the trail of trash collected by the water. Two small sweepers prowl the pavements and public squares, getting into the nooks and crannies inaccessible to the larger junk-sucking juggernauts. One covers the upper area, comprising Laugavegur and its environs; the other cleans the lower regions—Lækjartorg, Austurvöllur, and Ingólfstorg. (This latter area is Davíð’s domain today.) Meanwhile, a man driving a tiny cart clears grassy patches and hard-to-reach spots with a suction tube resembling an elephant’s trunk.
Five minutes into the ride, I feel like we’re in an immersive, bumpy video game. I imagine a point value for the individual items of rubbish: five points for a pint glass, three for a plastic cup, one for each cigarette butt. I ask Davíð if he tries to get each cigarette butt; no, he says, that would be absurd, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to try. We sweep along the curbs, hopping onto the sidewalk and back, jolting me out of my seat each time. When we squeeze through tight gaps between streetlights and buildings, I’m certain we’ll scrape up against something, but Davíð manoeuvres the vehicle deftly.
As we turn towards Austurvöllur, I probe Davíð about absurd things he’s seen on the job. “Sometimes I see young people passed out on the benches who’ve done number two on themselves,” he says. I ask if the vehicle wakes them up as it sweeps along the benches, or if he’s watched the kids come to realize their messy predicaments. “No,” he says, “which is surprising because the sweeper operates at 102 decibels.” (For reference, that’s about as loud as a motorcycle.) There’s no such scene today. A woman stands outside Hotel Borg, smoking a cigarette. As we draw near, she makes no indication that she’ll step out of the way until we make no indication that we’ll go around her. So it goes.
By eight, a half-cleaned downtown feels half-alive. Judging by the foot traffic, it is unambiguously Sunday at this point, though the spectre of Saturday lingers in its litter. We’ve cleared Austurvöllur and the alleyway to Ingólfstorg; we take a couple spins in Ingólfstorg, the daytime haven of skater teens, then do a onceover on the sidewalks of the surrounding small streets. Davíð points out that there’s no reason to bother with the trash in the street—the hose truck and large sweeper can deal with that. Other items, out of reach of the sweeper’s mechanical arm, or too big for the vacuum, aren’t worth manually removing. Pizza boxes seem to be an exception. At least four times, Davíð hops out of the sweeper to break down a pizza box and toss it into a garbage bin—if they’re not soggy enough, they’re hard on the vacuum. I ask if broken glass is also bad for the vacuum. On the contrary, he explains, it’s better than intact glass. After he says this, I notice him deliberately knocking over Víking pint glasses with the arm and sweeping up the vitreous debris, instilling in me a certain vicarious satisfaction.
Two years into his job at Hreinsitækni, Davíð has the routine down pat—he’d be listening to talk radio or music if I weren’t there—but he doesn’t seem completely desensitized to the volume of garbage. Sure, tourism is a factor in the quantity of trash, but the primary offenders are locals, he guesses. Seeing how Icelanders treat their garbage enables travelers to follow suit. Still, his tone is far from moralizing. Trash is a fact of life, profligate litter shitshows a fact of a healthy nightlife. Hreinsitækni isn’t contracted to eradicate the causes of the weekend morning mess, but to treat the symptoms.
It’s almost nine when I part ways with Davíð. Within the next hour, the street cleaning will be done and the trash will make its way to an indoor collection facility out of downtown, out of sight, and out of mind. Sunday will cake a new layer of gunk onto 101’s streets, erased again in Monday morning’s wee hours and again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…