Switzerland has a reputation for its orderly user-led approach to recycling. Yet a provocative analysis suggests that entrepreneurs and machines should take over.
Switzerland closed its landfills in 2000, and since 2005, more household waste has been landing in recycling bins rather than incinerators. This is thanks to several factors, including increased awareness, better infrastructure and the introduction of fees for garbage disposal.
But is it good enough? In a recent article*, think tank Avenir Suisse flags potential for higher collection rates for recyclables.
“Despite numerous information campaigns, almost half of an average refuse sack consists of essentially recyclable material; according to estimates, around a fifth of a sack could be recycled economically,” reckon Avenir Suisse authors Patrick Dümmler, Fabian Schnell and Mario Bonato.
This suggests that many people in Switzerland are either unwilling or unable to sort their rubbish properly. The authors question whether it makes sense for consumers to bring their bottles, cans and other materials to central recycling depots, which is how it is done in most towns in the country. Could single-stream recycling – a method where all recyclables go into the same bin for later separation – be a solution?
700kg per person
Over the past five decades, the volume of Swiss household rubbish has more than doubled – to over 700kg per person per year. At the same time, people in Switzerland are recycling seven times as much waste as they did 50 years ago.
The Avenir Suisse study argues that while saving recyclable resources from the incinerator, single-stream would also save time and money.
“If you valued the time spent by consumers separating the waste at an hourly wage of CHF25 ($26), the savings for single-stream recycling would amount to around CHF2.3 billion in comparison to the current system,” calculates Avenir Suisse, deducting CHF0.3 billion for additional investment and operating costs.
The Swiss Waste Ordinance requires that waste must either be recycled or recovered for energy – provided that incineration does less harm to the environment than any other form of disposal, or the manufacture of new products, or the acquisition of other heating fuels. The law also requires that incinerators be state-of-the-art.
But that’s just a hypothetical savings, counters the Federal Office of the Environment.
“Sure, it’s not productive time, but we’ve got very good participation and relatively low costs. It’s a very stable system,” says Michael Hügi, deputy head of the office’s municipal waste section. “For a small country like Switzerland, single-stream wouldn’t be suitable. The installation of sorting facilities – in addition to the existing collection systems, which have to be maintained for some waste fractions – would cause extremely high costs.”
Yet thanks to robots, there is potential for more automation. As Avenir Suisse points out, Switzerland’s most modern recycling facility, Sortera, opened in Geneva late last year. Its specialty is sorting waste from businesses and construction sites; it doesn’t handle household waste at present.
Wet paper, broken glass
Single-stream can be problematic, regardless of whether humans or machines are doing the sorting. “An important point is the risk of cross-contamination, which influences the purity of the collected goods. The quality of the material for recycling is crucial,” Hügi says, citing PET beverage bottles as an example. In order to make them into new drink bottles [R-PET], they can’t be mixed with other items – not even PET boxes for fruit, for example.
Avenir Suisse also acknowledges the potential danger of cross-contamination.
“Paper loses recycling quality due to moisture and foreign matter. So it could make sense to maintain separate collections for paper and cardboard. The same applies to glass: if collected in a single-stream system … around 40% of it is unusable for further use. Too much glass breaks.”
Yet glass is one of the many things accepted by a Swiss recycling service called Mr. Green. For the past ten years, it’s been collecting bags of mixed recyclables from homes and businesses. Today the business has 10,000 customers in several Swiss cities.
“It’s a niche. We have customers who are happy to pay to recycle more items – including corks, drink cartons and various plastics,” says Valentin Fisler, one of the founders of Mr. Green.
Prices start at CHF17.90 for a monthly pick-up of three 35-litre bags of mixed recycling. Fisler says the materials arrive rinsed and ready for sorting by employees, many of whom have disabilities. He says it works well because the customers are more environmentally and socially aware than the general public.
“They don’t just want to get rid of stuff on the cheap. I don’t know if [single-stream] would work for everyone, especially not if it was free,” Fisler says.
In a pilot programme, the city of Bern has begun collecting a wider range of recyclable items kerbside – and charging by the bag. It works like this: residents sort recyclables into colour-coded bags that are collected along with the general refuse and compost. Unlike the municipal recycling depots, the wheelie bins for this system are open 24/7 – but they and their bags both require storage space at home.
On its website, the city of Bern embraces the popularity of the neighbourhood waste collection points, but says these have “reached their limits in terms of capacity” and need to be emptied and tided up to three times a day.
Single-stream is a no-go for Bern, explains a city worker in the FAQ on the new system: “The effort to separate everything from a bag afterwards is high and not sustainable. Moreover, it doesn’t correspond to the ideology of recycling. For decades, people in Switzerland have been trained to sort their rubbish… It is foolhardy to pretend that throwing everything together is the better alternative.”
For Switzerland, it seems that paying to recycle is more likely than widespread adoption of single-stream systems.
“In theory, it could be that we’ll have to pay to recycle everything based on the amount, because it is rubbish, and it costs money to get rid of it. The actual financing of the waste elimination in Switzerland imposes higher costs for incineration than for recycling, so there is an incentive for the consumer to recycle,” says Hügi of the environment office.
In the meantime, he says the quality of what’s recycled in Switzerland is very good, as are the recycling rates. “People are prepared to do the work and perhaps go to the recycling depot.”
Popular in parts of the US and Canada, single-stream is credited with encouraging more people to sort recyclables from household waste destined for the landfill. However, some municipalities have recently done away with it due to downcycling (reduced recycling quality) and “wishcycling” – which is when people toss any old thing into the bin and hope for the best. China’s 2018 decision to stop importing foreign waste was another reason, as it meant a reduced market for plastic waste in particular.
The Scottish capital, Edinburgh, has a dual-stream system for recyclables. Residents use one bin for paper, cardboard and clean plastics as well as cans and tins. The second bin is for glass, small electrical items, and batteries (in clear plastic bags) and textiles/shoes (also in plastic bags).