Having just returned to Switzerland from our summer vacation in the USA, I am relieved to be sorting my trash again. I know this sounds strange. It just feels good knowing that I am doing my part in a system that actually works.
Look at the numbers: The USA recycles 32.5% of total waste, compared to 60% in Austria (the highest score in the EU), and 10% in Greece. Switzerland comes out ahead with 76% of waste recycled (source: swissrecycling.ch).
One reason for the USA's bad score could be that it is a land of consumers, when one considers that the average American generates 4.6 pounds of trash per day! The primary reason for the USA's mediocre score is a lack of incentive to recycle, and a lack of trust in inconvenient recycling systems.
Switzerland creates an incentive to recycle by taxing garbage bags. This is where I think the USA can learn from Switzerland. In Switzerland, trash bags cost A LOT. For example, a roll of ten gray 35-liter trash bags cost SFr. 19 or $18.50. That means that each bag costs nearly $2! (You can also buy stickers for regular trash bags, but this ends up costing more in the long run.) Conversely, recycling is free.
What happens if you use a normal non-taxed bag? Well, the garbage police will search the contents of that bag, looking for clues such as an address on an envelope. If you are caught, fines can amount up to $10,000!
Where my mother lives in Newport, Rhode Island, recycling does happen, but people don't trust it. I remember when the program began--sometime in the early 90's--there were eyewitness accounts of recycling trucks dumping their contents into the normal garbage that was slated for landfill. Plus recycling in Newport is only offered to residences. Business, i.e. bars and restaurants, are not required to recycle, and hence, most do not. And if you consider that Newport has one of the highest number of bars per capita in the USA, you can just begin to imagine how many empty beer bottles and cans can be generated on any given weekend.
In Switzerland, everyone recycles. It doesn't matter whether you are a business or a private person. It just makes money sense. Just one trip to a Swiss recycling center is enough to convince of the seriousness of their system. Why would they go through the effort of sorting their recyclables if they are to mix them up again?
Let's start with batteries.
During our vacation in the USA this summer, I asked my mother where I could dispose of used batteries. She replied that once a year, during a special toxic material disposal day, one can bring used batteries to the dump. That's crazy! I am not going to keep used and leaking batteries in my house for an entire year! I suspect most people don't save their old batteries and simply dispose of them in the regular trash, which IS HORRIBLE! In my village here in Switzerland, recycling is convenient. Every major grocery store makes available a battery recycling bin.
Even though there is no recycling pick-up, there are plenty of places to bring recycling: the municipal recycling center, my neighborhood recycling spot, or closest grocery store, which are all open and available every weekday and Saturdays. Each grocery store has bins for recycling batteries, plastic PET bottles and milk bottles, as well as whipped cream dispensers. Every neighborhood recycling spot has bins for disposing glass, metal, and plastic PET bottles. Our neighborhood even has a bin for disposing of Nespresso capsules!
Plus, you pay a fee to dispose of that television set when you buy it, so every electronics store and the recycling center will take your broken old TV.
You can say that the Swiss are too strict in regards to rubbish. But I think that they are acting responsibly, in light of the fact that they have limited space and seem to care about not contaminating their ground water supply. Interestingly, they banned the direct disposal of combustible waste in landfills 10 years ago. Now, all municipal waste is incinerated, and landfills are solely used for the disposal of non-burnable waste.