Switzerland scores well in areas like innovation and quality of life, but it’s also a champion at waste generation. Can recycling plus energy production through incineration compensate for Swiss consumerism?
Every year, the Swiss generate more than 700 kilograms of rubbish per capita – one of the highest rates in the world according to the European Environment Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The amount of garbage in Switzerland has tripled over the past 25 years, and gone up by 350% over the past 50.
“The rampant selfishness of our society manifests itself in the form of rubbish and its disposal. It’s a sign of our throwaway society,” finds Andy Werren, a tour guide at the Forsthaus power plant in Bern – the only Swiss power plant that generates electricity and heat using wood, natural gas and garbage.
Opened in 2013, the Forsthaus facility is operated by ewb, Bern’s electricity and water provider. As part of its mix, ewb gets most of its electricity from nuclear power, and the balance from wind and hydropower.
On an average day, Forsthaus processes 400 tonnes of municipal waste. That adds up to 120,000 tonnes per year, which it converts into 63 gigawatts of electricity and 144 gigawatt-hours of district heating. To put those numbers into perspective, it’s enough to provide about 3% of Bern’s 448,500 households with a year’s supply of heating and electricity.
More than 90% of Switzerland’s electricity comes from hydropower and nuclear energy.
During a tour, Werren, ewb’s retired marketing manager, explains the process. Municipal garbage trucks as well as private clients deliver waste to the main hall. From a separate room perched high above the mountain of rubbish, a claw crane operator scoops up mouthfuls of material to feed the incinerator, which runs at about 1,000°C.
Once in a while, there’s a surprise.
“A few years ago, a dead body tumbled out of a rolled-up carpet. If we hadn’t noticed him right then, there’d have been no trace of him afterwards,” Werren tells a startled group of visitors.
There were no signs of foul play in connection with the corpse, yet Werren says Switzerland has plenty of “sinners” when it comes to waste disposal.
“Too many people throw away batteries rather than recycling them. We can tell by the chemical make-up of the flue gas and the slag,” Werren says. At the end of the incineration process, a magnet combs the slag for recyclable metals. The rest – which is toxic – ends up in a repository.
“Domestic material consumption has been increasing since 2000. This trend is not good news for the environment,” states the federal Environment Switzerland 2015 report – which goes on to say that of the 5.71 million tonnes of municipal solid waste generated in 2013, about half was incinerated and half was recycled.
“Although a well-developed recycling service exists, too many recyclable substances still end up in our waste today. Waste and raw materials policy should be further developed in the context of the green economy,” notes the report, which also calls for the conservation of resources by using recycled materials.
Patrik Geisselhardt, head of Swiss Recycling, points out that the Swiss are world leaders in recycling, but he notes that good recycling habits don’t quite compensate for the increasing levels of consumerism.
“Although we’ve already achieved a lot, we shouldn’t forget that our lifestyle consumes more resources than planet Earth can provide. To ensure that our children and grandchildren have enough, we must use our resources more sustainably. Recycling is an easy way to do that.”
Despite the infrastructure in place, plenty of recyclables fall through the cracks.
“We get the rubbish from Bern’s street sweepers, and there are loads of plastic PET drink bottles. They burn well, but they should really be recycled,” notes Werren.
Currently, there’s a motion underway in the Swiss capital to install recycling bins at key points around the city – such as at parks and tram stops. This summer, the city of Bern launched a more consistent recycling system at 52 schools and public buildings. The focus is on PET, aluminium, paper and cardboard.
To improve the recycling rate at train stations, Swiss Federal Railways have invested in a better sorting system. A pilot scheme launched in Bern in 2012 was successful enough to merit expansion to Zurich, Basel, Lucerne and Geneva in November 2014.
“The result has been impressive, with customers disposing of 95% of waste materials correctly. We reckon with 500 tonnes of recycled newspapers, plastic bottles and aluminium cans per year that would otherwise have been incinerated,” Daniele Pallecchi of Swiss Federal Railways told swissinfo.ch. However, items left on the train are not recycled.
But what about the stuff that doesn’t fit into a small round hole or a thin slit?
One man’s junk is truly another man’s treasure at RESAG-Recycling, a Bern-based business that turns trash into cash. For about CHF200 ($199) per tonne, they accept all kinds of rubbish – like waste from construction sites or the contents of out-of-control basements. They process 50,000 tonnes of waste per year. This is how they do it:
About 85% of what RESAG collects can be recycled; the rest ends up in the incinerator at Forsthaus. Like Werren, RESAG manager René Schneider has also observed increasing levels of wastefulness.
“We’re a fast-moving consumer society. We’re quick to buy a new mobile phone or furniture – and the lifespan of these is increasingly shorter – so there’s automatically more waste,” Schneider says, noting that 80% of the TVs that RESAG gets still work – but people want bigger ones, or ones with HD.
Zurich business psychologist Christian Fichter sees a connection between spending power and wastefulness.
“Where people live in abundance, they also tend to buy a lot of ‘extras’ – and these end up in the garbage. You often hear that affluent people become more conscious buyers, but I think that’s more wishful thinking than reality.”
Yet despite the high level of consumerism, Fichter says consumers aren’t the only guilty ones.
“Sellers offer non-sustainable wares because they believe that that’s the only way to succeed. Then consumers get seduced by things like excessively-packaged products. An independent supervisory body should intervene here and sanction such irrational behaviour,” believes Fichter.