Recycling the Swiss Way

And now—ta-da! – the blog entry you have all been waiting for, wherein I lay out everything there is to know about recycling in Switzerland.

I can say that recycling is an important matter in all Switzerland.  For one thing, there isn’t much land to waste on landfill.  Even more, because the ground is porous, drainage from landfills would quickly pollute its pristine lakes.  Consequently, since 2000 all garbage that isn’t recycled is incinerated and the energy produced converted into electricity.  Nationwide about 40% of solid waste is recycled.  To encourage recycling, many cantons require payment of a fee for each garbage bag used.

As it turns out, Zug, my home canton, is the recycling capital of Switzerland.  It pioneered the establishment of what are called Ökihöfe, or recycling centers.  (“Öko” is the equivalent of our prefix “eco” as in ecology; a hof is a yard or courtyard.)  To these centers in each of the canton’s towns come residents in impressive numbers to dispose of their goods – not only used paper, bottles and cans, as is common in the US, but many forms of plastic, old metal, textiles, etc. – even broken crockery.

I have long been an enthusiastic recycler.   When Pennsylvania instituted recycling for glass, cans and paper back in the ‘90’s, I was delighted even though it meant extra work to separate out recyclables and remember the correct times when each would be picked up.  More recently, even in Philadelphia recycling was made easier by allowing residents to throw all recyclables into the same bin.  What has impressed me about Zug is the effort that residents are willing to make to separate their materials and then transport them to recycling centers.

It’s undeniable that people are committed to the idea of recycling, but there’s an added incentive: regular garbage will only be picked up if it is in special plastic bags sold by the canton.  I use a 35 liter bag, which I buy at the local supermarket for 29 Swiss francs for a roll of ten, or 2.90 apiece.  Larger and smaller sizes are available, priced accordingly.

And there are many ways to recycle.  Residential neighborhoods have banks of bins for glass bottles, plastic drink bottles (PET), and cans, and you can put out newsprint on certain days of the week, as long as they are carefully tied up in bundles with string.  You can also keep organic material separate from your other garbage and deposit it in green containers for composting.  Each town and village in the canton has its own Ökihof, which accepts different categories of things.

The towns of Zug and Cham have an Ökibus that circulates on a set schedule, and Baar has its own Rösslitram, or horse-drawn wagon, where one can drop off items.

But my choice is the Ökihof in Zug, near the main train station.  Here one can dispose of practically anything, including any type of plastic.  Think of how much of our garbage today is made up of plastic packaging and you will understand the appeal.

There are also bins for unwanted CDs, batteries, espresso machine capsules, and even the corks from wine bottles.   There is also a Brockenhaus (Thrift Shop) where you can donate unwanted but still usable goods.

For expats, the first trip to Zug’s Ökihof is something of a rite of passage.  Like many things about living in Switzerland its orderliness and punctiliousness can provoke anxiety, so it is good to go the first time with an old hand to show you how it’s done.

First, if you drive, there is likely to be a wait to get into the center, especially on the weekend.   As I sit in a line of cars with my motor running, I feel terribly un-ecological as I watch the numbers of people bringing in their stuff in the baskets of their bicycles or on foot.  To assuage my guilt I volunteered to do the recycling for my rowing club, which generally entails lugging large plastic crates of empty beer and wine bottles, so a car is definitely required.  The center is so popular that it recently began restricting use to residents of canton Zug; neighboring cantons are beginning to organize their own.

When you finally find a place to park, you can then begin carrying in your stuff, which has ideally been pre-sorted into appropriate categories and stored in separate bags.  This saves time but also avoids those awkward moments when you dump something into the wrong bin and the worker fishes it out and hands it back to you with a disapproving look.  (Other expats have told stories of their shame at another local center when a worker upbraided them loudly in Swiss-German, one reason why I stick to the Zug center.)

Most of the staff are genial, but the gentleman in charge of collecting karton, or cardboard, is a joy to meet every time I go.  With a broad smile, he greets everyone in a German that is heavily inflected with Jamaican.  For many Zug residents, a trip to the Ökihof is a social occasion, and one sometimes has to navigate clusters of chatting friends.  I have even run into friends and acquaintances on occasion.

When I have finally emptied all my bags and bins I feel terribly virtuous.  And often I proceed to complete the cycle by stopping at a supermarket on my way home and refilling the bags with more stuff.