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Iceland’s capital area waste collection no longer rubbish

Iceland’s capital area waste collection no longer rubbish

| Text: Hallgrímur Indriðason, photo: Sopra

Despite all the progress that has taken place in waste management, Iceland’s six capital municipalities still do not recycle household biological waste. The municipalities do not even share the same waste management system. But now things are finally changing.

In January, the Association of Municipalities in Iceland’s capital area announced that a common household waste management system could be implemented as soon as next spring and would be fully operational by spring 2023. This would include collecting organic waste. 

Sorpa – a municipal waste recycling association owned by these six municipalities in the capital area – will play a key part in its implementation. The amount of waste is huge, according to Gunnar Dofri Ólafsson, Sorpa’s director of communication and development.

“We get 600 tonnes of waste every day. That is is the same as a Toyota Yaris every second minute. And this is only what comes to us from the capital area.” 

Three incompatible systems

Ólafsson explains that right now there are three different waste management systems in the capital area – one in Reykjavík, one in Kópavogur and a shared one for the four municipalities of Hafnarfjörður, Garðabær, Seltjarnarnes and Mosfellsbær. Waste from each system is now handled in a different way. 

“The Association of Municipalities in the capital area decided 18 months ago to build one household waste management system for the whole area. Sorpa put that system together with the help of experts from the municipalities,” says Gunnar Dofri Ólafsson.

The change will mean that household users can now separate four different types of waste for their bins: paper and cardboard, plastic, biowaste and general waste. Today, only paper and cardboard can be recycled in most places.  

Agreed on a standard system

“The biowaste is extremely important, but it’s also a bit embarrassing that it has not been possible for households to recycle it until now. This has been done in Akureyri in the north of Iceland for the past 20 years, for example. Now the municipalities have all agreed to adopt that system, making it the standard for the whole capital area where around two thirds of Iceland’s population lives,” Ólafsson says.

He claims that this will all be implemented in most apartment buildings in the area as soon as this April or May. 

“Two bins will then be enough for a household, each of which will have a separation in the middle allowing two kinds of waste to be put in the same bin.”

Ólafsson says this is based on the Scandinavian model. 

“I saw eight kinds of waste in one bin in Gothenburg in Sweden. So this is just a small start!”

Nearest site soon only 500 meters away

But this is not all. The number of collection points for other kinds of waste will also increase, including for metals, textiles, glass and return packaging like drink cans and bottles. 

“Every household should soon be able to depose of their waste within a 500 meter radius.”

But why has separate household biowaste collection not been implemented sooner? 

Ólafsson says the municipalities simply failed to reach an agreement on how to do it. Yet from 1 January next year, a new law will require all municipalities to collect these four types of household waste. He also points out that the waste-collecting companies have been ahead of the public, and have pushed people towards recycling more.

“Now there is far more awareness among people. The public wants us to do better. So this is a very important step in responding to that call,” says Ólafsson.

A huge controversy

Another issue has pushed things forward. The GAJA biogas and composting plant opened in 2020, aiming to produce soil and biogas from household waste. It soon became clear the soil from GAJA contained too much plastic. The whole thing became a huge controversy.

GAJA cost some 6 billion Icelandic Kroner (€42,5m) and for a while, it looked like the investment was wasted. It cost the Sorpa CEO his job. Ólafsson says that GAJA’s original purpose was to produce organic soil from mixed household waste.  

“As soon as we got the results of the chemical analysis of the soil back, we saw that this was not possible. For the soil to reach the required quality the organic waste had to be collected separately. 

“So that also pushed the municipalities to prepare for the collection of organic waste. When GAJA gets the organic waste separately, it will not only produce soil of required quality – it can also produce more gas than from mixed household waste.” 

Plastic exported for recycling

This has not been the only controversy regarding waste collection. For years, Iceland has been forced to export some of its plastic to Sweden for recycling since Iceland does not have the resources to recycle it all. 

In December, the Stundin news magazine reported that 1,500 tonnes of plastic registered as recycled in Iceland had sat in a warehouse in Sweden for five years. That is roughly half of the plastic that was exported to Sweden. 

“It’s very bad for the credibility of recycling when something like this comes up. We are trying to get people to recycle and they have to trust that what can be recycled is actually recycled,” Ólafsson says.  

Later, the Icelandic Recycling Fund said only a small part of the plastic found in the Swedish warehouse was from Iceland and that there was no indication that the two large waste recycling companies – Terra and Íslenska gámafélagið – had done anything wrong in connection with their exports of plastic for recycling.

Ólafsson says some plastic is recycled in Iceland, for example plastic used by farmers to roll up their hay.

“However, it’s not practical for us from a resources point of view to recycle all our plastic waste in Iceland.”

Not all plastic is the same

Then there is the issue of having to deal with different types of plastic.

“If it is too mixed you can’t recycle it. So there needs to be a discussion with the producers to make plastic that is more easily recyclable. Today, only half of the plastic we get is recyclable. The rest can only be burned, or worse, landfilled. Our biggest landfill site is shutting down at the end of next year, which also means huge changes for Sorpa,” Ólafsson says.  

But back to the changes to household waste collection. According to Ólafsson, people are very happy with them, which is not always the case when people are asked to change their behavioural patterns. 

“This tells us that there is room for more changes. We have started to consider which types of waste we should focus on next. This would most likely be more paper separation and more plastic separation. We are already experimenting with foam plastic, whose fibres can pollute other kinds of plastic and prevent recycling. 

"So we are asking people to bring foam plastic to our recycling centres instead of putting it in the household waste. From there we can either send it to companies that can use it to make other things or press it down to 2% of its size. 

"Then it has a value and we can sell it to reduce the taxpayers’ cost of running Sorpa. We are also looking at further big changes in waste management in the capital area,” Ólafsson says.


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