COMMENTARY: Trash Talking

When it comes to garbage, American consumers could learn a few things from the Swiss

The Swiss have a sensible solution to garbage collection and recycling that is so, well, Swiss. In most North American cities one hurls great numbers of black garbage bags into trash cans, where they’re often ripped open by marauding animals. Of course, some of the bags are green, boasting of extra-strength-easy-grip twist-ties or whatever "new" labor-saving innovation is being peddled at the mega-shopping center.

The Swiss put all their garbage in uniform, pay-as-you-use bags. So why can"t we?© Getty Images

Our system celebrates free enterprise, but the Swiss discard their garbage in official state-produced bags that come in three sizes: 15-, 30- and 60-liter and cost around $1.50 for the medium bag. In other words, you pay real money for the amount of trash you create. On the eve of garbage day, then, one can look down the road and see neat stacks of identical blue bags, and there’s something soothing in this uniformity.

What might first strike the uniformed outsider (like me when I first moved here) as typical Swiss rigidity, soon appears as obvious simplicity. Here is direct taxation at work! The family next door that throws out 17 bags a week is responsible for paying its share just as I am responsible for paying for my share, every scrap of it. The key word is "responsible," for I am so much more aware of what I throw away. I never bring a bag to the curb until it is full.

Beyond the direct taxation and shifting of responsibility to the individual comes a more significant result for me: no choice. That is right, I do not want to choose. I am tired of choosing from an endless array of similar products. There is only one bag I can buy. And I don’t care. Why should I? The bag works. It is sealed at the bottom, has a large opening at the top, twist ties to close its hungry aperture, and offers no chance of any garbage escaping. In other words, it is of good quality. If it were not, people would complain and presumably the local authority would replace the bags with a higher-quality alternative.

But back to this lack of choice. We are bombarded with too much choice, with too many products whenever we go shopping. And we have been told for decades that we need to choose, that choice is good. There is always an insinuation that choice is an essential tenet of freedom, democracy and the Western way. But do I really need to choose from dozens of different types of extra-virgin olive oil which all cost about the same? The same is true for garbage bags. Why would we care about a product that we use only to rid ourselves of waste products—as quickly as we can?

The system here in Basel, Switzerland neutralizes excessive packaging, branding and advertising. In its place springs thoughtful, mindful recycling.

Looking down the Rhine River, Basel, Switzerland© Wikapedia

Responsibility for one’s consumption in Switzerland also extends to recycling. During my recent three-week holiday in Toronto over the Christmas holidays, I was re-introduced to the toss-and-forget style of recycling and waste disposal in North America. Although there were four different recycling boxes, conveniently color-coded, people do not consider what they put in them. The boxes merely give the illusion of being eco-friendly. The boxes do not make people responsible for how much they consume—once that empty plastic bottle hits the blue box, it is forgotten.

In Switzerland, on the other hand, one must walk to the local neighborhood recycling station, a group of four or five tent-sized bins camped on a street corner. Here one must sort the various colors of glass into specific bins. Tins and cans must be loaded in a feeder-box and then, my favorite part, I have to spin a strawberry-red ship wheel to crush the cans myself. Take that, tuna can.

Again, when I lug the two bags of recyclables, which I have been collecting on my balcony for a few weeks, down the road, I cannot help but notice how many plastic water bottles I have used, and question the logic of paying for water in a country that has clean, even pristine, water gushing from its taps. And as I drop glass bottles into the recycling bins, I also note that I need to cut down on my maple syrup consumption.

Plastics, though, do not go here. They must be brought back to depots either inside or outside a supermarket. And these areas often have a staff member hovering about. I always feel just a bit guilty when I recycle here, as the staff are watching and can see that I have brought too much, consumed too much.

More than anything, though, these excursions are hassles, another reason to make me look at what and how much I consume. Although training (and city by-laws) has made me a conscientious recycler, I still dread hauling my recyclables to the depot and, therefore, am constantly reminded of what I use. It is this lack of convenience that is needed in North American communities, for odious convenience has turned us into insatiable consumers, and the introduction of proscribed garbage bag use is one solution.

Thanks to Swiss sensibility, there is one area in my life where I am no longer a slave to persuasive and deceptive marketing. No longer do I stand in the grocery aisle, weary, staring at an infinite variety of tomato sauces. My most difficult decision is which size bag to buy.

CHRIS HAMBLEY is an English teacher and freelance writer who has taught in both Canada and Switzerland. He currently works at an international school in Basel, Switzerland, a city of about 200,000 people who all throw out their garbage using identical blue bags.