what the swiss can teach us about waste

When I made the decision to move to one of the world’s tiniest and most prosperous countries, I had a short list of reasons why I thought this would be a good idea. Mountains, lakes, cows and chocolate are in no short supply, quality of life is valued above all else and most decisions are made with the goodwill of the community in mind. But aside from that, there was something about the crispness of the Alpen land and the streamlined way of Swiss life that drew me to the Confederation Helvetica.

What I didn’t expect was how this would lead me to fall in love with the public systems that kept the communities so pristine, including water treatment, street cleanup and how they manage personal waste accumulation. Whether I was walking around a little dorf looking for the local cheese shop or strolling through one of the many clock tower-laden cities, I couldn’t help but notice how impeccably clean the streets and sidewalks are (save for some stray cigarette butts and socially accepted graffiti, which is an interesting but separate issue). Coming from Los Angeles, where the smell of grime is just something you’re expected to get used to, I was curious about how the Swiss were able to maintain this so well.

If there’s one thing that transcends all barriers of human nature, it’s that we are incentive-based creatures. We like working towards a goal knowing there’s a reward for us upon completion. While many of us DO provide goods and services out of the kindness in our hearts, it’s no secret that a bonus typically goes a long way. On the other hand, we also respond well to punishments associated with negative actions (read: Ivan Pavlov’s approach to behavior correction). The Swiss have capitalized on both of these systems to encourage citizens to recycle, and it’s working.

In most Swiss cantons, or counties, waste management and trash removal is categorized using specific, pre-purchased trash bags that are marked with a symbol that is only applicable to certain areas. You can purchase these sacks, at a pretty pricey fee of about 3-5 CHF per piece, from authorized retailers such as Coop or Migro grocery markets. Waste management usually comes once a week, and they will only pick up receptacles that meet the requirements for that canton or region. In Zurich, these are called Zurisacks and you can see specially marked trash bins scattered all over the city. If you are caught disposing of trash improperly, you can expect to receive a hefty fine.

Since the trash bags required by the local governments aren’t cheap, citizens are encouraged to recycle more to eliminate excess garbage and to extend the life of the purchased bags. You can find recycling bins all around most cities, and there are separate bins for PET (or regulated plastic bottles), glass, paper, and compost in addition to general waste. This translates to a pretty simple equation: the more you recycle, the longer your trash bags will last, and the less money you will need to spend on them. While most recycling areas don’t offer money for your contributions the way we are used to in the States, you can also return plastic and glass bottles to the place of purchase where they will refund you for the deposit included in the initial price (usually about 0.10-0.20 CHF). It’s also not uncommon to see people leaving their recyclables on top of or near the official receptacles for scavengers to pick up more easily, since it is still possible to receive money back for certain items.

In short, this system works and it not only helps to reduce waste, but it encourages recycling which benefits the health of our planet, improves the quality of locally-grown produce, enforces package integrity, and increases overall curb appeal in your respective community (+ about a million other good reasons that make us all happier). Waste management and reduction is a global issue whether we like it or not, and I have to commend Switzerland (as well as other EU and EFTA states) for prioritizing this like they have. The cost is manageable, but significant enough that even people who may not believe in the severity of waste accrual and the importance of environmental protection still have a reason to think twice about what they’re throwing in the bin. It may not be a perfect system, but it would be a vast improvement from the waste management programs we use back home.




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what the swiss can teach us about waste