Switzerland's mountains of trash are eroding, thanks to effective waste management. Currently, the Swiss recycle more than 40 percent of their municipal solid waste (MSW). They have the oldest recycling tradition among Western industrialized nations, the highest rate of waste incineration with energy recovery and substantial recovery rates of organic waste through composting.
Each resident generates 400 to 425 kilograms of household waste a year. In 1993, approximately 2.8 million tonnes of household waste were collected.
Local authorities are responsible for collecting, processing and disposing of waste from homes, offices and industry. Traditionally, trash was collected in standard-sized bags and costs were covered by a fixed fee or taxes.
However, "chargeable bags" were introduced in recent years, mainly in German-speaking areas. Each locality devised its own system, which resulted in a wide variety of labels, colors, fees and billing methods (bag or tag). This, in turn, pushed up manufacturing and distribution costs and caused supply problems. The trend now is moving toward pay-by-weight systems, which have been tested in various pilot programs for four years.
Making the generator or polluter pay is an integral part of Switzerland's new focus on waste prevention. To induce manufacturers to avoid waste, the canton of Zurich requires department stores and shopping centers to take back certain wastes, such as used appliances and batteries. Large retailers also are encouraged to collect other materials voluntarily, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), metals and glass.
Approximately one-third of the household waste collected in 1993 consisted of packaging materials. Various statutes have been issued to ensure that packaging is environmentally friendly. For example, the Ordinance on Beverage Packaging (VGV), which regulates the sale and return of beverage packaging, requires the use of labeled, recyclable material.
The VGV also sets a maximum quantity of packaging material allowed into the municipal waste stream, thereby forcing industry to take care of the surplus. For PET, the limit was reduced from 3,200 tonnes in 1991 to 2,500 tonnes in 1993.
For as long as 20 years, effective collection systems have been in place for recyclable household packaging such as disposable bottles, tinplate and aluminum cans. Since introducing the pay-per-bag systems, however, some communities have experienced increased contamination of the collected recyclables. Consequently, market prices have dropped while the costs for collecting and incinerating residual wastes have risen.
The Swiss' successful recycling rates can be attributed to the country's reliance on voluntary measures taken by producers, distributors and consumers rather than mandatory deposits, the green dot and other government-driven instruments. Such systems in neighboring countries "have sufficiently proved how not to do it," according to Angsar Gmur, director of the Association of the Swiss Cellulose, Paper and Cardboard Industry.
As a result, national collection and recycling rates remain high. For example, 95 percent of the population receives collection services for used glass by color. Having collected 78.3 percent in 1993, Switzerland is ahead of other nations (see chart).
Used packaging made of paper, paperboard and cardboard amounted to 966,600 tonnes in 1993. Currently, the Swiss paper and cardboard industry recycles about 750,000 tonnes each year; capacities are expected to increase to approximately 900,000 tonnes by 1996.
As of 1993, 13 percent of Switzerland's MSW was composted. Source-separated biowastes are collected each week using containers equipped with electronic chips; citizens are then billed according to weight. The biowaste is transported to an anaerobic digester which, in addition to compost, produces carbon dioxide and methane used to fuel cars and generate electricity.
By law, all nonrecycled refuse in Switzerland must be processed in an incinerator. The central role of combustion dates back to the beginning of this century, when the practice of dumping garbage onto city streets caused cholera and typhoid epidemics. The authorities' solution was to build special incineration plants.
The past practice of disposing wastes in substandard landfills has left an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 potentially contaminated sites. The Confederate Institute for Water Supply, Treatment and Protection is encouraging alternative waste treatment methods, such as the Thermoselect process, which reportedly can reduce the heavy metal content in slag to levels found in naturally occurring minerals. Ultimately, the Swiss plan is to replace current landfilling techniques with "final disposal sites" for solids. This will prevent contaminated sites from threatening the environment for centuries or millennia to come.