What’s up With Trash in Switzerland? The Swiss Garbage Police Are on the Case
Basel, a city where gothic spires rest beside industrial smokestacks and glassy pharmaceutical high rises. Storefronts advertising the latest gadgets share walls with antique cartographers and signet ring manufacturers. The contrast between old world and post-modern industry gives the city a romantic and modern flavor. And the cleanliness so extreme it’s noticeable.
Apart from plastic yellow bags strewn all over the street gutters (a no-joke legal way for residents to dispose of animal waste) it’s hard to spot any litter. Rain or shine, Helvetian mornings are heralded by man-steered machines scrubbing the asphalt streets. And, semi-seriously, I suspect the river flowing through the city is cleaned. At the very least, a few times a week, I see a barge anchored in the middle of the Rhine sifting what looks like the river bed sediments.
When I first moved here, I had little understanding of the city’s strict regulations. Garbage and recycling were on a different plane of complexity compared to what I was used to in America. After a long day unpacking and assembling an apartment’s worth of Ikea furniture, I ended up with a room full of flattened boxes. Ignorant of the criminal nature of my act, I walked them calmly down the street to a recycling bin in a nearby park. In just the time it took me to scale the three floors to my walk-up flat, the police were on scene. My crime of improperly recycling cardboard had been reported.
The seemingly disproportionate police response was no accident. Switzerland places a high priority on reducing its environmental impact and, as a city with a zero-carbon footprint, Basel is its pride and joy. Garbage here is strictly regulated. And that also means it is taxed exorbitantly. Depending on the size, a set of garbage bags can set you back 23 Swiss Francs. That’s almost $3 each! If you (like me) are thinking ‘well I’ll just buy my garbage bags up the road in Germany,’ think again. The garbage Gestapo will write you a ticket for using anything other than city-approved, bright blue Bebbi Saggs.
At first, I was incensed. Queue self-righteous inner monologue on being punished for producing waste. But with some time the initial indignation healed. Taxing garbage incentivizes you to produce as little as possible. As the price to buy the bags is so high, you generally try to minimize what you throw away and recycle whatever you can. Provided you follow the rules and pay for the correct bags, garbage and paper pick-up occur at no additional expense from your home. And there are other options. To offset the cost, many apartments have compost bins for food waste. Plastics can be recycled at major grocery stores and bottles and cans are sorted at recycling stations placed at walking-distance points along the city.
Now, there may be a slightly less-honorable side to Basel’s waste management efforts. The city landfill is located at what is known as the “Three Country Point,” a landmark where Switzerland, France, and Germany all border — and unwise tourists gather to take photos. There’s an incontestable slyness in storing your small landlocked country’s refuse at a historically contested border.
The city warns on their website that failure to comply will result in “a fine, or worse.” Worse? I still have no idea what that means. The local police may seem to have a peripheral presence, but perhaps don’t test your luck. They are more than happy to ticket a Lamborghini for parking in a red zone or enforce waste disposal violations at 11pm on a Friday night. The learning curve may be steep, but it’s a beautiful city and the waste rules are a model for any country; even for the ones where cleanliness is not a matter of cultural pride.