Going green in Iceland

Sustainability, fighting climate change and going green are the words of these days. I have been acting accordingly all my life – and visiting Iceland has brought many new inputs.

My home country Switzerland is one of the cleanest countries – that is the word on the street. And as a swiss, I can assure this is true. But after 11 days in Iceland, I have to say, there is lots of room for improvement. Iceland is the cleanest country I have seen so far – and it has been Country Nr. 64 on my „visited“ list.

But what makes Iceland so green and clean?
Well, for one, Iceland has as clean and pure (and drinkable) tap water as does Switzerland. But in Iceland, you will even get a pitcher of water for free and without asking at every Restaurant or take away. Everywhere! So, there is no need to have that many bottled drinks or cans.

Recycling is also a big thing in Iceland now. Of course, in the 70s, there was not much recycling going on yet, trash has been burnt in open pit burning facilities and there were wild garbage dumps. 1994, Iceland joined the European Economic Area (EEA) and therefore had to fulfil the new regulations. This is where the country went with what was needed but even took it a big step further. They were one of the first countries to put recycling fees on products like special rubbish, used cars, multilayer packaging, agricultural silage films and used tires, to finance their collection, transport and recycling or disposal.

In Reykjavik for example, there are different types of garbage bins for household waste. A blue one for paper and carton and all packaging made from carton like milk or juice cartons. The green bin is for all kinds of plastics, soft and hard. The grey bins are for light residential waste, there is even a smaller and cheaper version of it for households with less waste. Out on the street, the public trash bins have an extra rack around it to put down bottles, cans and glasses that have a deposit on them. Poorer people can collect them and get the deposit in stores without having to dig through the trash and tourists don’t need to bother going back to the shops to bring them back.

In Iceland, also the energy is the greenest you could get. In 2015, renewable energy provided almost 100% of the total energy production, with about 73% coming from hydropower and 27% from geothermal power. Iceland is the world’s largest green energy producer per capita and largest electricity producer per capita, with approximately 55,000 kWh per person per year. In comparison, the EU average is less than 6,000 kWh. Above all, Reykjavik has set itself the target of being entirely free of fossil fuels by 2050. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it is already one of the greenest cities in the world.
But of course, not everything is perfect yet in this beautiful country. For example, Iceland has no public rail service, and long-distance buses are rare. But almost every bigger town has an airport so many Icelanders use internal flights – probably the least sustainable type of transport to get between major towns. Also, many of the people in Iceland own more than one car, thus resulting in horrible traffic jams in Reykjavik at rush hours. Most tourists get around the island in a rental camper or car or with organised tours. Of course, there is also a lot of hiking, but you need a means of transport to get from town to town. In all the time over there, I saw only once someone on a bike. Ok, it was also wintertime, but the bigger problem I guess, is the lack of a proper bike route network. In Switzerland I use my bike daily, in Iceland with those roads and tourists driving, I would hardly dare to cycle.

It is great to see how Iceland turned around its habits and made a change for the better of the planet already in such short time. And nowadays, the awareness for climate change and environmental issues is widespread in the country.

Yes, there are still plenty of tourist offers like „Snowmobiling on the glacier“ and similar, but a lot has been improved already. For example, this year, Iceland made a statement by officially declaring the Okjökull glacier in Borgarfjörður as „lost“. It lost the definition „glacier“ and that fact has been mourned with an official ceremony. At the former glacier site, a memorial plaque has been installed, warning about the impact of climate change. Okjökull, along with many other Icelandic glaciers, took serious hits from warming summers over the past two decades. Worldwide, glaciers are disappearing at five times the rate they were in the 1960s.

There are around 500 named glaciers in Iceland, 56 of them melting within the last 17 years. Scientists in Iceland are now trying hard to save them by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. To reduce industrial CO2 emissions is one of the main challenges of this century, not only in Iceland.  But here, scientists have developed a new method: they capture CO2 from variable sources and inject it into deep rock formations. The carbon that is released like that is returned back to where it was extracted, instead of freeing it into the atmosphere. This technology slows down climate change, as injecting CO2 at selected geological sites with large potential storage capacity can be a sustainable and environmentally friendly storage solution.

As for my personal impact of this travel, I wrote down exactly all of the things I bought and used during those 11 days. Yes, we also went around by car and flew there by plane (as there wasn’t really another option), but I compensated the C02 emissions of that through Myclimate.org already at least. As for the food, I have to say that Iceland didn’t make it as easy for us as I hoped. We chose to rent apartment rooms with cooking facilities, but the words „kitchenette“ or „cooking facilities“ differed in meaning from town to town. Mostly, those facilities only applied to a microwave and a tea kettle. Sometimes we were lucky to even have a stove and pans. But even then, you need to find a store to buy things for cooking, and only the bigger towns really have stores like that. So, whenever we came across a store (that was also open at that time), we had to stop and buy things to eat. As you can imagine, unpackaged options were not really available. So we decided to eat at local restaurants more often than cooking at home, to have less waste and also to support the local economy.

In total, my personal waste during these 11 days came down to this:

6 small paper bags in grocery stores (for croissants, bread etc)
3 plastic sandwich wraps around meals on the way
3 paper napkins
2 paper handkerchiefs (as toilet paper during hikes, collected and trashed in garbage cans at parking spots)
2 plastic spoons and cutlery
4 reusable chocolate milk glass bottles (3dl)
4 small chocolate wraps (chocolate brought from home)
2 plastic bags of rice and pasta
1 can of beans
2 glasses of pasta sauce
1 ice-cream box (oatley, dairy free)
1 cake carton


Did you ever keep track of your travel waste? Why not?

So, how did I do this?

I always carried my own water bottle and filled up at all the hotels and restaurants. When buying a drink like a chocolate milk or something I chose the option in reusable glass bottles over PET and tried to get everything as unpackaged as possible. In restaurants, I also always only use napkins when they are not made of paper, but sometimes they put them before you can refuse. I always use cotton handkerchiefs that I can wash. Luckily, I brought many of those, as they were also perfect to dry and clean my camera from time to time around waterfalls.

And of course, being a trash hero, I also pick up my (and other people’s) trash that lies around and put it in the garbage bins provided. But as I said, Iceland is the cleanest country I have seen so far, so there was not so much to pick up in the beginning.

So, YES, it is possible to do a low impact travel, and next time I will go there, I will be even better prepared to keep my impact even lower. And one day, I surely will be able to travel also outside of mainland Europe – without making any impact at all. Simply by  following my mantra:
Take only pictures – leave only footprints – kill only time.