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Posts Tagged ‘waste management; SWitzerland; garbage; recycling; compost

Juggling garbage in Switzerland

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Public art on a Basel roof - or, the delicate equilibrium of waste management

Public art on a Basel roof – or, the delicate equilibrium of waste management

Dinah and I were visiting our friend Sabine in Basel, Switzerland.  Basel has a lot of surprises to the visitor: a gorgeous old town, of course (it’s Europe, after all), a very vibrant arts scene (really!), and a peculiar approach to garbage.

It’s Saturday morning, and we’re all waking up a bit late, Sabine having introduced us to prosecco and grappa the evening before .  No time for a leisurely cup of coffee, though: Sabine is rushing out the door, a large bag of garbage in hand.  I run after her.

A regular neighbourhood in Basel. Uh, were are the garbage cans?

A regular neighbourhood in Basel. Uh, were are the garbage cans?


I didn’t have time to get my camera, but here’s the scene: we are delivering the garbage – all organic food scraps , it turns out – to a community group that does composting.  They only accept stuff Saturday morning – can’t be late.  A dedicated gardener and a group of volunteers take a look at our pile of food scraps, chop it up a bit with hoes, and off it goes into the mix.  The gardener adds a bit of ashes (for balance, he says – I’ll have to look into that), and then it gets mixed into the large community compost bin.

Over coffee (coffee, at last!) I asked what the rush was all about.  “Well, I can’t miss the delivery, can I? Otherwise, I’m stuck with the waste for another week.”  Now, I know Sabine is a dedicated environmentalist, but still.  Why not just put it in the garbage?  Once is not going to matter much, will it?

Well, the answer provided the explanation to a peculiar behaviour I had already noticed elsewhere in Switzerland.  The Swiss recycle like crazy, and everywhere you see containers for paper, plastics, aluminum, waste oil, green glass, brown glass, you name it.  And the recycling rate is the envy of most other nations, which raises the question: how do they get people to recycle so much?  There is a lot of civic pride in Switzerland, but that only goes so far, after all.

A recycling depot, Swiss style.

A recycling depot, Swiss style.

And where are all the garbage cans?  You normally always see the odd one in back alleys, but not here.

The answer lies in a bag they call the Bebbi Sagg.  It’s a simple blue plastic bag, the size of a regular white kitchen bag, with a tie.  But each costs about $2.50.  And this is why it works: the only thing that gets picked up on garbage day is these Bebbi Sagg.  It’s a very clever system: you want someone to take out the garbage, you pay for it.  You produce a lot of garbage, you pay a lot.  You recycle most of your garbage, you save a lot.  And it’s only pay as you go; garbage disposal isn’t imbedded in property taxes.  If you don’t make much garbage, it’s much cheaper than a flat fee.

basel bag



This is the reason why, in this working class neighbourhood where Sabine lives, an organisation has spontaneously emerged to produce compost.  It saves money, and you can take as much finished compost as you like if you have a garden.  And I saw some of the largest urban gardens ever, in Basel.  It all makes sense.

Community garden in Basel

Community garden in Basel


I know, I know, a tourist in Switzerland should pay attention to the cheese, the chocolate and the mountains.  Sorry for being such a nerd.  But I maintain that if you understand how a society deals with its garbage, you’ve gotten a unique insight into that society.

Whether it’s true or not, I sure like how the Swiss deal with garbage.  Simple, effective, and fair.


Written by enviropaul

February 3, 2013 at 4:22 pm