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on the environment


Waste (Iceland)

Why should we care about this issue

Waste Waste
Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Principle 1 of the Rio Declaration states: ‘Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.’ Sustainable development has three pillars: economic growth, social welfare and environmental protection (1).

For sustainable development, the main focus was, and still is, placed on systematic solutions for waste management and on products that do not cause damage to the environment. For the implementation of sustainable development in the waste sector in the future, an increasing understanding is vital of how necessary it is to gain control of the growing quantity of waste that is accompanied with today's consumer society and decouple the relationship between economic growth and waste generation.

Iceland's authorities are implementing strategies of systematically reducing waste formation and channelling waste into reuse and recovery. Emphasis has been placed on waste disposal, and progress has been made in improving the handling of waste, increasing recycling and shutting down previous practices with open-pit burning and unsatisfactory landfills. Municipalities have joined forces to deal with these issues and find solutions. The results are fewer, larger and more efficient places for waste disposal (1).



(1) Welfare for the Future. Iceland’s National Strategy for Sustainable Development 2002–2020. Report in English.

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Trends in waste generation

In 1995, the average total waste generation was around 390 000 tonnes. This increased to around 580 000 tonnes (49 %) by 2007 and had an apparent steep increase to 720 000 tonnes in 2008. Waste statistics improve with better waste management, better reporting systems and increased coordination. Therefore, better statistics may explain some of this apparent increase. The population increased by 18 % in the same period.


Figure 1. Waste amounts by waste categories (classified by source) generated in Iceland in 1995-2008

Figure 1. Waste amounts by waste categories (classified by source) generated in Iceland in 1995-2008


State of the waste management system

The implementation of government policies and more efficient waste management has improved waste treatment in the last decade. Recycling and composting has increased from 13 % to 61 % and landfill has decreased from 80 % to 36 % between 1995 to 2008 (Figures 2 and 3). Technical improvements are seen in incineration. Incineration is decreasing and moving from primitive technology towards high temperature incineration with energy recovery. Figures 2 and 3 show a significant reduction in the quantity of waste going to disposal and as a consequence improved resource management.  


Recycling is growing fast in Iceland, especially composting and plastics recycling, with innovation in treatment technologies. However, the main part of collected and sorted recyclable waste (plastic, cardboard, paper etc.) is exported to recycling facilities in Europe.


Figure 2. Waste treatment/management in Iceland in 1995

Figure 2. Waste treatment/management in Iceland in 1995

Figure 3. Waste treatment/management in Iceland in 2008

Figure 3. Waste treatment/management in Iceland in 2008


Since 1991, The City of Reykjavík and six other municipalities have coordinated their solid waste disposal through a cooperative enterprise of Reykjavík and adjacent municipalities, named SORPA, which serves about 196 000 inhabitants. In 2008, Sorpa received 107 240 tonnes of waste compared to 117 792 tonnes in 2007, or a decrease by 9 % between years (1). In 2009 the trend continued and waste generation decreased by 26 % compared to 2008. Houshold waste, however, decreased only by 11 % in 2009 compared to 2008.



(1) SORPA - Year Report. Report in Icelandic.


The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Increased economic growth and material consumption are key drivers for increased waste generation per capita in the last decade. Iceland shares this trend with other western European countries (1).


The rate of total waste generation increased by 84 % between 1995 and 2008 and municipal waste by 39 %. In the same period the population increased by 19 % and economic growth by 50 %. Increased economic growth may thus be considered as the key driver for increased waste generation in this period (Figure 4) and population growth is in the second place. Improved waste statistics may account for some of this increase.


Figure 4. Temporal trend in waste generation in Iceland per capita compared to the growth in GDP at the same time

Figure 4. Temporal trend in waste generation in Iceland per capita compared to the growth in GDP at the same time.



(1) European Environment Agency, 2005. The European environment – State and outlook 2005.

The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The National Plan for waste management 2004-2016, published in 2004, includes some quantitative targets for waste management until 2020, and also more general policy targets to reduce waste generation stepwise and to decrease waste disposal by reuse and recycling. As a consequence, waste management and waste treatment have been improving in recent years in general. There is, however, still potential for the future towards more sustainable waste management and to decrease waste disposal and increase recycling, composting and high-temperature incineration with energy recovery. Strategies for the future aim at these possibilities and put focus especially on collection and management of organic waste, electrical waste, packaging waste, vehicles, batteries, household waste, construction waste and hazardous waste. New national targets are under preparation.


The implementation of the goal to reduce waste generation and decouple the use of resources and the generation of waste from the rate of economic growth is more complicated. A steady increase in waste generation has been the trend up to now. A temporary break in the trend is foreseen due to the economic crisis. Main strategies addressing waste prevention initatives are economic incentives, environmental information and education, and support of environmental policies with the aim of utilising raw materials better and creating less waste. Economic incentives have been used to a certain extent in Iceland, for instance with levies on a number of product categories such as hazardous waste and a deposit fee on disposable beverage containers.

Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The objectives of Iceland’s Policy on Sustainable Development relating to waste are (1):

  • Waste generation should be reduced as much as possible and the handling of waste should cause minimal negative impact on the environment.
  • It should be ensured that hazardous waste does not find its way into the environment.
  • Current and future legislated targets for the recycling of different kinds of waste, including packaging, organic waste, electronic devices and equipment, should be met.
  • Disposal expenses should be taken into account in the pricing of goods.


The government policy is manifested in the legislation on waste management, in the regulations based on this legislation and in the national plan for waste management. The Environment Agency publishes a National Plan for waste management that applies to the whole country (5). The plan has the objective of reducing the generation of waste in a targeted manner, increasing re-use and recycling and reducing the proportion of waste that is sent for disposal. The National Plan provides advice for municipalities for their local plans. The current National Plan for waste management covers a twelve-year period, 2004-2016. The National Plan is now under revision.


Icelandic legislation covering waste management is in accordance with EU legislation. Iceland has transposed into national law the acquis on waste covered by the EEA (European Economic Area) Agreement.


Policy for Economic instruments

Processing charges should be collected on domestically produced goods and imports to cover the cost of recycling. This would achieve two things: on the one hand the Polluter-Pays Principle is adopted instead of the cost falling on a third party. On the other hand, an economic stimulus is created to reduce the quantity of waste and to find the most efficient means to recycle or dispose of it (1).


The Act on Recycling Fees was passed in order to create conducive economic conditions for reuse and recovery, lowering the volume of waste going into final disposal and ensuring the proper disposal of hazardous substances. A recycling fee is collected on each product before it goes on the market after its manufacture or importation. The fee is to cover the recovery cost on any waste remaining when the object's service life is over. The recycling fee is imposed on a number of product categories:


  • Packaging. Includes cardboard, paper and plastic.
  • Plastic hay bale wrap. Accumulates in considerable quantities among Icelandic farmers. An organised collection programme maximises the return rate.
  • Tyres. Some 5 000-6 000 tonnes of tyres are imported to Iceland each year.
  • Vehicles. A recycling fee is levied on every vehicle, for a maximum of fifteen years. When the vehicle is scrapped and turned in at a collection point, a return fee is paid.
  • Hazardous substances. Many types of goods and substances are subject to a recycling fee under this category, including refrigerants, chlorinated compounds, mercury products, organic solvents, photographic materials, paints, pigments, petroleum products, and car and other batteries. Hazardous substances are estimated to comprise about 4 % of all waste, with the greatest accumulation of waste oil, vehicle batteries, developing chemicals and leftover oil-based paints.
  • Fishing gear made of synthetics. Iceland's large fishing fleet discards a great quantity of fishing gear.



(1) Welfare for the Future. Iceland’s National Strategy for Sustainable Development 2002–2020. Report in English.


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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