What the world can learn from Switzerland’s recycling system

For most of us, ‘thinking green’ has become a natural part of our existence.  Acting green is often another matter.  We consumers devour tons of plastics and create enormous heaps of waste which end up in an incinerator or landfill or sometimes in barges that roam the sea looking for a country that will take it. Older generations (me!) still remember a time when everything went into the same garbage can, with no further thought given to the consequences of our mindless consumerist mentality. It was garbage, after all, so why should we think about it any more than we think about what happens after we flush the toilet? Once in the can, it’s someone else’s problem.  In most places we pay a monthly fee for garbage collection so that we can wash our hands and minds of the matter.


Recycling in Switzerland means recycling in four languages (Photo Ludovic Péron).

Some countries have dealt with this problem better than others. 


Consider Switzerland, a tiny land-locked country with few natural resources in the middle of Europe, home to beautiful but space-consuming alps and a whole lot of cows.  Few people alive today know that not so long ago Switzerland was a dirt-poor backwater of Europe.  There was never much room for landfills – every square meter of land was jealously guarded for agriculture or enterprise.  Landfills squander precious space and have been known to pollute ground water, and boy do the Swiss value their land and water!


Before ‘green’ became a ‘thing’, the Swiss became thoughtful and enterprising enough to plan and deal with waste in an ecologically friendly manner with the help of the citizenry.  Every Swiss from an early age is educated and cajoled and empowered to assist in the task of improving the environment in ways both large and small.  By distributing a critical part of the task to the citizenry, the job is relieved from the public purse and the enterprise of recycling becomes at least break-even or even profitable.


Buying these bags is how you pay for home trash collection. But anything remotely recyclable is free if you take it to the Oekihof.

From a family perspective, the solution to the waste problem begins at the grocery store. Alongside the usual groceries, one can buy rolls of 5 liter kitchen compostable bags (made of a starch-based material) for organic trash, plus rolls of ‘Gebührenkehrichtsacke’, which are specially marked fee-bearing trash bags.  In the Kanton (state) where I live, Zug, the fee-bags are a distinct blue plastic and have special markings on them.  They are not cheap – a single 35 liter plastic bag will set you back almost $3, and 35 liters is not very big. The premium cost over normal trash bags represents the trash pickup and disposal fee by the Kanton. You can throw anything in these bags that will fit, without restriction.  These bags go curb-side, or into an optional brown wheelie-bin which is emptied weekly by a magnificent gleaming trash truck that always looks like it just came from the factory.


The small compostable bags are usually used in the kitchen for food scraps. These small bags, plus any other organic material (grass and tree cuttings for example) go into a green curb-side wheelie-bin which is also emptied weekly. The compost bags are quite cheap, and the service of picking up.


compostable material in the green bin is free.  There is no other tax or monthly fee for trash pickup – the entire cost is contained in the cost of the blue bag, plus maybe some Kantonal or Federal support money which comes out of general taxes.  But the Swiss never get a bill for trash pickup!


The Secret Life of the Oekihof

The ‘Oekihof’ (literally, ‘Eco-yard’ or ‘Eco-place’), is a staffed recycling center found in a great many Swiss villages always within a convenient drive.  There are also a great many self-serve standalone glass bottle bins dotted around the back roads and industrial areas.  In the valley where I live, the Aegerital, there are two Oekihof centers about 10 minutes apart from each other, each serving a small village only a scant 2km apart.  The one in my village serves a population of only 6,000.


It’s at the Oekihof where the magic really starts.  On open days, residents will pack their cars with all the stuff they can fit in – newspapers, cardboard, bottles & jars of all types, construction materials, used clothing, used books, electrical appliances, metals, and even the mixed garbage of the type normally reserved for a special blue bag.


The number of bins at the Oekihof for distinct rubbish types is astonishing! It’s trash separation on steroids – micromanaged down to wine corks (really!), coffee capsules, bottle-glass color, and types of styrofoam.  And it’s all free! – other than the ‘general mixed trash’ category, for which one pays a little for each kilogram, the only obligation is a time investment to separate the types of trash yourself.  For ‘general mixed trash’, a supervisor weights the stuff on a platform scale and you pay cash by the kilo.  In this way you can dispose of things for which there is no specific bin for a small price.  It’s actually cheaper to dispose of mixed trash this way compared with the blue bags.


Preparing for an ‘Oekihof’ run is quite important. It’s extremely helpful to have bags or boxes at home for pre-sorting your trash before loading in the car so you don’t have to futz around with separation at the Oekihof; parking there can be a big issue (it’s extremely popular) so getting in and out quickly during busy times is important.  This in turn ripples back to your daily life – any time you finish a bottle of wine or get a carton in the mail that you need dispose of, the well-organized citizen will immediately sort the item in the right bag or box so that loading and unloading the car goes smoothly.


The village Oekihof in Oberaegeri, Kanton Zug, population 6,000.


What is also great about the Oekihof is that it’s an interesting meeting place for villagers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people stop to chat with neighbors, or hand off an old lamp or printer to someone.  I’ve personally bumped into many people at my Oekihof that I’d not seen in many months, and once had a nice chat with a neighbor while throwing glass bottles into a hopper. Who would have guessed that a recycling center could be a social gathering hotspot?


Oekihofs have gotten much more sophisticated over time.  There are ever more sorting categories and the gigantic dumpsters for cardboard, paper and general trash have taken on hydraulic rams to compress down. Bottle bins (brown, green, clear) are now at waist level and empty into a deep underground receptacle so that broken glass fragments can’t come flying back at you.  Every so often, a specially designed truck with a hydraulic lift takes these out of the ground and empties them into the truck bed.  The Oekihof manager is there to answer any and all questions you might have about what-goes-where.  The manager also watches everyone like a hawk, to make sure village ‘newbies’ – expats like me – don’t make dumb mistakes.


Hydraulic dumpsters compact cardboard, paper, and general trash.


The Swiss take it all very seriously.  And it works.


The next question is, ‘where does it all go’? 


The Oekihof manager greets a citizen with his well-organized trash.
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