Few Holes in Switzerland’s Recycling Program

By some measures, Switzerland is the greenest nation in the industrialized world. Not only does it boast one of the densest rail systems, it also leads Europe by recycling 50 percent of all household waste. Annual garbage production is just 880 pounds per person—half the U.S. figure.

These municipal recycling bins in Interlaken, Switzerland separate green and brown glass. Switzerland has achieved stellar 90 percent recycling rates for glass and PET plastic.
Nick Hawkes; Ecoscene/Corbis

"We do it in a very pragmatic way," says Hans-Peter Fahrini, chief of waste management for Switzerland’s Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape. "We’re a small country of seven million with few of our own natural resources, so it’s part of our national character to be good recyclers."

The pragmatic Swiss target only highly recyclable PET plastic, and it is separated at the source. "That allows us to produce a quality product that can be competitively marketed and reused," says Fahrini. Aided by more than 40,000 collection points, the approach means that, in 2000, Switzerland recycled 82 percent of all PET sold.

Key to Switzerland’s success is the linking of waste management goals to other benefits. For instance:

To keep trash out of landfills, financial incentives were created in the early 1990s. People can now buy special 7.7-gallon bags for household waste. The proceeds of this "bag tax" fund local waste disposal services. Users can save money by disposing of recyclable materials separately.

To reduce reliance on foreign energy, municipal incinerators are tapped to produce electricity and cheap steam heat that fuel plant operations and heat public buildings. The incinerators have also created a market for the purchase of burnable waste from industry. In 2000, Switzerland closed all of its landfills to burnable waste.

To put the onus on sellers for wasteful packaging, all stores selling electronic goods must accept unwanted packaging from customers and properly dispose of all old equipment returned to them.

Jacques Ganguin is director of solid waste management in Berne, the second largest of Switzerland’s 26 provinces, and has achieved recycling averages of 90 percent for glass and PET. But he says the Swiss can’t rest on their laurels. "About one percent of all waste burned in Switzerland is burned illegally," he says. "And because illegally burned wastes generate 1,000 times the amount of dioxins created by municipal incinerators, these crimes produce 41 percent of all toxic emissions in Switzerland." In Berne, pursuing environmental violators has become a top-five crime category.

In the eternal "paper versus plastic" debate, the Swiss answer is "neither." Most Swiss bring reusable bags from home, a practice encouraged by supermarket chains that charge 15 to 20 cents per paper bag. In that other endless debate, over disposable diapers, Swiss life cycle assessments show no advantage to cloth, so the practical Swiss use Pampers.