recycling // an outsider’s view of switzerland, part 1

IMG_9294Hi! This is Kate’s sister, Greta. I am taking over Home Schwiiz Home with a four-part series that will allow you to experience some of the uniquely Swiss aspects of life in Zurich from an outsider’s perspective. After visiting for the fourth time in three years, it is time to share some of the interesting differences between life in Switzerland and the United States. Kate is not qualified to describe these differences anymore; she has lived here long enough that this has become her second nature. I will start with the topic that I have continued to comment on nonstop since my first visit to Switzerland: trash and recycling. Kate wrote on this topic in 2011, but has since overly adapted to the extreme system.

Recycling is a way of life in Portland, Oregon, where I live, but in Switzerland, they really take it to the next level. Since many people live in apartments around Zurich, trash is taken to dumpsters for disposal. Rather than charging tenants a flat monthly fee for unlimited trash service (as would typically be the case in the states), all residents pay for trash by the bag. You can only dispose of trash inside of specially-marked bags that you purchase at the grocery store or post office. The purchase price of the trash bags includes the cost of trash service. Thus, the fewer trash bags you use, the less you pay for trash service. As with most Swiss things, this is very sensible. Residents seem very motivated to keep trash to a minimum and recycle and compost as much as possible.


Where I live, we dump all recyclable paper, cardboard, and plastic into one trash bin, and we only separate out the glass into a small crate. In Switzerland, everything gets separated and recycled differently. Paper and cardboard are separately bundled into little rectangular bundles tied up with string. These are set out on the curb in a designated location once a month. If your bundle is not orderly enough, or contains items which cannot be recycled (e.g. shopping bags with fabric handles) it will not get picked up! Isn’t that crazy?

Glass and aluminum are recycled at drop points located on sidewalks around town. Each drop point has separate bins for aluminum, brown glass, green glass, and white glass. Kate and Martin happen to have a drop box immediately across the street from their building, which is very convenient but also very noisy on Friday mornings when the recycling is picked up. On my current visit, Baby Reese has woken up from her nap every Friday morning during glass pickup time because of the noise of glass sliding into the recycling truck. Located next to many of these glass and aluminum recycling points is another bin that allows you to donate unwanted clothes and shoes, as long as they are all in bags.  I think it is so nice to have donating in parallel with recycling because there is nothing greener than reusing donated items.

At the grocery store, you can also recycle plastic bottles, batteries, light bulbs, and water filtration cartridges at a station inside with separate bins, depending on item type. Plastic bottles are separated into PET and remaining plastics.

All this recycling allows you to keep your trash volume at a minimum and use fewer trash bags.

The other way to keep trash volume low is through disposing of compost separately. Most home kitchens in Switzerland do not have garbage disposals, so food waste does not go down the drain. If you put food scraps into your trash, the trash quickly fills up and begins to stink. So, in Switzerland, the sensible solution is that pretty much everyone saves all food scraps in a compost bin which is dumped weekly into a large compost bin for pickup. Saving these food scraps indoors, even in a closed compost bin, can quickly generate a huge volume of fruit flies, so some people do what Kate does and store compost bins on a terrace or in an outdoor space to keep fruit flies at bay. This is the hardest part of the trash disposal process for me because it means that you have to carry food scraps from the kitchen to the terrace, and then once a week, the stinky compost bin has to be carried out to the community bin. This helps me to be thankful for the garbage disposal I have at home, as well as the compost/yard debris bin we have that always remains outside or in the garage.

I hope I was able to convey just how intense and involved the recycling process is here. We are forever carrying bottles to and fro to be recycled, as we walk to the grocery store or head out on a walk across the street.  Kate and Martin constantly have a bag for collecting bottles next to Reese’s stroller. And, I am always trying to figure out whether something is cardboard or paper (it is harder than you might think), so it can be properly stacked into a cute little bundle tied up with string!


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