How it works and why I love it

The Matterhorn in between a Valais canton flag and a Swiss flag
Beautiful Switzerland

I’ve been living in Switzerland for more than 2 years now. There are many things I love about my host country, but probably the most unexpected one is the waste and recycling system. It’s pragmatic and effective and I’d like to see cities and towns in the US, my home country, adopt it.

The system is built upon the principles of self reliance and individual responsibility. The Swiss don’t want to trash their beautiful country and they don’t want to be reliant on other countries to take their waste and recycling¹. Therefore, they reason, they have to have a system to deal with the waste they create — and the effectiveness of the system is a point of national pride. This should strike a chord with Americans, who have recently seen China refuse to take its waste, disrupting a lot of American recycling.

The Swiss system starts with trash bags. In the canton where I live, Zürich, they’re called Züri-Sacks.

What a Züri-Sack looks like

Instead of a flat fee garbage collection fee (like many US cities have), the trash bags in Switzerland are taxed. Instead of costing ~20 cents USD per bag, a 35L trash bag will cost ~$2.50 each². Using any other type of trash bag is illegal — throw something away for public trash pickup in anything but a Züri-Sack, and you risk getting fined. People actually do get investigated and fined for doing this.

This means, unlike in a flat fee system, there is an incentive to care about how much trash you’re creating. If you make a lot of trash, then you’ll spend a lot of money. If you don’t make much trash, then you won’t spend much. You, individually, have some control³.

While garbage is taxed, recycling is free and easy, although you are expected to sort it.

Glass and metal collection points are scattered throughout the city.

Recycling bins on a square near my apartment (metal is just out of shot)

Cardboard and paper can be left outside of the house on scheduled days.

Cardboard waiting to be picked up on recycling day

Certain types of plastic + things like batteries can be dropped off at grocery stores.

Recycling bin at my local Migros (grocery store). I don’t know why Medium stretches out the image, but I can’t fix it :(

Items bought at grocery stores usually have information about how or if they should be recycled (note: I suspect that retailers are taxed based on the types of packaging they use, but I haven’t been able to confirm this; if you know, let me know).

The bottle on the left can be recycled (see the R next to the bar code); the one on the right can’t (see the trash bag beneath the 1L on the right hand side)

It all works together as a system. The price of the trash bags incentivizes people to recycle. Having separate streams of recycling means that more of the material can be reused. This creates an actual market for the recycled material because it’s higher quality and costs less to recycle.

If you can’t be bothered to think about your waste, that’s your choice, but if you take the time to do the right thing, you benefit and society benefits. Your effort is rewarded. Put it together and you get one of the highest rates of recycling in the world. It’s no wonder the Swiss are proud of it — they participate in it.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect that this benefits Swiss society over time. Switzerland is one of the highest trust societies in the world. It also has many systems like this one that work like this one, rewarding prosocial behavior. Of course it’s possible that high trust society lead to good systems, that’s almost definitely true. But I suspect that systems like this also create the conditions for more projects like them in the future, building a civic habit.

The values that undergird the Swiss system — self reliance and individual responsibility — are ones that many Americans share. The cynic in me says that the sticker shock of the trash bags would be too much for most Americans to take, but I’d love nothing more than for some American city to prove me wrong.

Footnotes

1: It probably also helps that it’s (comparatively) a small country. There isn’t space to waste on massive landfills.

2: I’m pretty sure I end up saving a small amount on this program. Oakland, California, where I last lived, charged $474.20 per 20 unit building per month in garbage fees in 2014. Assuming this was split evenly amongst the building units, it would be $23.71 per month. I am almost certain we buy Züri-Sacks less than once a month and we pay $22.79 USD per pack of 20 (20.20 CHF).

3: This obviously raises household expenses, which not everyone can afford. The cost of the trash bags is included in other social welfare programs — it is part of the cost of living.

operating a bit outside the lines

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