The production of plastic has increased twenty fold since 1964 and continues to grow. According to data from 2018, Lithuania tops the European rankings when it comes to recycling plastic with about 74% while Iceland ranks #16 on that list recycling 42% of plastic. The UN has launched a global campaign to combat plastic pollution in the ocean and once of its principal efforts is ending the use of disposable plastic packaging. The EU has approved a ban on disposable plastic table items (plates, cups, utensils and chopsticks), plastic straws, plastic cotton swabs, plastic balloon sticks and oxo-degradable plastic food containers (plastic takeaway boxes). The ban will enter force in 2021. France has been remarkably diligent in the initiative by banning plastic bags at retailers and disposable plastic table items. In comparison, Icelanders throw away around 70 million plastic bags per year, which accounts for 1,120 tons of plastic. Since about 2 kg of oil are needed to manufacture 1 kg of plastic, this corresponds to 2,240 kg of oil to make the plastic bags Icelanders throw away every year.
Icelanders typically throw away their disposable plastic bags immediately after use. It’s estimated that each plastic bag is used for an average of 25 minutes. And on average each and every Icelander generates about 40 kg of waste plastic packaging per year.
On September 1, 2019, a ban went into effect prohibiting retailers from providing free shopping bags, no matter what material the bag is made from. Iceland’s parliament has also approved a ban on the sale of all disposable plastic shopping bags effective January 2021.
How good is Iceland at recycling its plastic?
Icelanders are good at recycling plastic bottles and agricultural plastic wrap for hay, but bottles offer deposits that consumers can claim when the bottles are returned for recycling. Other plastics, like plastic packaging, do not make it into recycling channels as well with only 10-11% being recycled. In total, about 30% of plastic is recycled, meaning about 70% of plastic ends up in landfills. We Icelanders need to do a better job of of recycling our plastics. For example, about 8% of manufactured plastic bags end up in the ocean, which corresponds to about 5 million bags every year in Iceland.