Sunday, February 10, 2013

Waste not, if you are Swiss

To paraphrase the old Police song:
Every bottle you throw,
Every bag you trash,
I’ll be watching you …………

And yes indeed they are watching, and when you least expect it, nemesis will catch up with you. Nemesis being the trash collectors who also serve as trash police (I have no idea what their official title is).   

The canton of Vaud where I live introduced strict garbage disposal rules starting this January. Well German speaking Switzerland has had them for years (St. Gallen as far back as 1975) but the French speaking areas were more laissez faire till now (and even now Geneva city is holding back). Household trash can now only be disposed in special bags issued by local authorities. What’s special about the bags? Nothing really except the price. An average dustbin sized bag costs all of 2 Swiss francs. And I am lucky as in some parts of the country it can cost as much as 6 francs. The price is the ‘tax’ that is levied for throwing garbage. The more you throw the more you pay, simple as that. But that's not all. Not only do you have to use the right bags to throw your garbage, you have to make sure that you only throw what you are allowed to throw …………….

As I said, if you sin and throw what you can recycle, or use the wrong bags, you will be discovered. We witnessed this in action a few days ago when we saw the garbage truck stop by at the large bins at the end of our street. While loading the garbage they found that some of it was in the wrong type of bags. Well they simply opened up the bags and started rifling through the trash, taking the odd photograph, until they came across an incriminating piece of paper (which no doubt had some clue to the identity of the garbage thrower). Leaving the bags behind, the truck disappeared only to reappear 10 minutes hence with a red faced man in tow. A long ‘discussion’ ensued as the bag and its contents were displayed to the man who seemed to grow redder by the second. An embarrassing 5 minutes later he walked off with his trash bags in hand. 
PET bottles being brought to the recycling point in such large numbers after the new rules that the collection bins have no space for them

None of the Swiss friends to whom I narrated this, found it unusual, uncommon or even mildly offensive. If you break the rules, you should be named and shamed is it not? Well maybe it’s this fear, maybe it's the natural thriftiness (something that Indians of our parents’ generation had and we have lost) or their pride in their environment or their civic sense but Switzerland consistently has the best environment performance index in the world and is the country that recycles more of its waste than any other country (52% of all recyclable waste does get recycled). And with us French speaking Cantons getting their act together, this percentage can only rise. 

I suppose cleanliness comes at a price. As for me, I have now become rag picker of my own garbage way before it leaves the house and Saturday mornings are devoted to ‘sanitizing’ my trash. You get used to it. Hmm …I know there are places to throw green bottles and white bottles and brown bottles …but what do I do with my little blue one? Is dog poo legitimate trash? Oh and I brought myself a paper shredder to get rid of all my identifying and incrementing junk ……except that I don't know where to throw all the paper confetti that the shredder keeps generating!


  1. Hi Bela,
    Interesting article. I guess this is acceptable, as long as this finickiness is not imposed by a small vocal group on an unwilling society.
    It does feel though that the tax seems to be too high.
    Here in our county, we dump most of our recyclables into a single bin, the county hassome sort of system which sorts out the stuff.
    Finally, I don't think I will ever move to a country which is aspiring to be a Singapore.

    1. Switzerland has a strong bottom up democracy and neither the center nor a vocal minority can really impose anything. So this in keeping with Swiss nature and not a draconian imposition.

      The tax is high for sure but its also surprising how many things you start to recycle once it starts to make economic sense to do it ....

  2. Till recently,the accepted way of garbage disposal was straight delivery on the road from the balcony or the front door.The concept of garbage bag is non-existent in rural areas.The problem of garbage sorting is dealt with complete indifference in big cities and even by educated families and entirely left to the mercy of illiterate servants.If inspired by the Swiss Govt,we may form a commission whose members will have a grand Switzerland trip to study how to solve the garbage problem.There will be a mushrooming of small factories to produce bags similar to high-priced govt bags with ,may be a little lower price,which sure will be a booming business.The personal impact will be on a visit to Switzerland.With my limited knowledge of garbage sorting (how do I sort my medicine tab foils?),I don't wish to be a pain-in-neck for my host

  3. Its rather an ingenious way to tax the 'producer' of waste. However one realizes that the amount of waste that gets taxed is minimal once you actually separate out the recyclable waste. In a way, the new system encourages you to recycle rather than produce less waste.
    On the other hand, a lot of the 'non-recyclable' waste which gets taxed under this system comes from packaging material e.g. milk cartons, plastic / paper wrappings of food products etc. Wonder if manufacturers are also subjected to disincentives to use less packaging material? Why should one want bananas to be wrapped in plastic wrap??

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  5. Nice beautiful place for visit....


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