Swiss residents produced 707 kg per person of municipal waste in 2010, 40 per cent above the European Union average, but with a model disposal and recycling system in place, dealing with that waste has become a profitable business.
There is a demand for all kinds of recyclable material, from building rubble to elephant dung, as long as it is economical to move it from one location to another.
With 650 companies active in the sector, competition is growing to cash in on the 20 million tonnes of used material changing hands in Switzerland every year.
One Swiss firm – abfallboerse.ch [waste exchange] – has carved out a niche providing an online matchmaking service between those generating and disposing of waste. Information about who is getting rid of what is confidential, company founder Kurt Muther told swissinfo.ch.
“Based on what waste a company is producing, industry insiders can make accurate estimates about production which can be sensitive information,” Muther said.
“Apart from radioactive material we can handle any other category of waste, including carton, paper, plastics, metals, scrap metal, hospital waste, organic waste, construction waste, liquid waste and wood.”
“Organic waste, such as dung, is one category that has moved across from the debit to the credit side of the balance sheet,” Muther added.
“Dung is very much in demand by compost producers or bio gas plants,” Muther said. Through its internet platform abfallborse.ch, which represents the waste producers, scans the market and gets the best price for waste, whether there is a cost or a gain for its removal.
“Competition is working well throughout Switzerland with some regional variation, particularly in French-speaking Switzerland where lack of competition means disposal costs are 20 per cent higher,” Muther said.
“We have reliable figures that at the moment more than 20 million tonnes of waste are shifted on the streets of Switzerland every year. When you put a market price on the costs for transport and disposal of this volume of waste, not including the whole disposal infrastructure, you come to a market potential of SFr2.8 billion ($2.9 billion),” he added.
The construction sector alone accounts for more than two-thirds of Swiss waste volume. The good news is that 80 per cent of this material is recycled, mostly concrete. The EU rate is 46 per cent.
The Federal Environment Office played a key role in boosting the rate of recycling in the construction and demolition sector over the past decade.
The strength of the Swiss waste management system is that the legislation is consultation based. “As a result, it is quite balanced and possible to enforce efficiently,” Robin Quartier of the environment office told swissinfo.ch.
One important regulation is the requirement to sort materials at the demolition site. “In Switzerland you cannot just break down a building, have a big pile of rubble and take it to the nearest landfill site. You have to sort between combustible and non-combustible demolition waste,” Quartier explained.
Builders also have an incentive to bring as little material as possible to landfill because the charges are relatively high.
Broken concrete can very efficiently be crushed down and used to make fresh concrete. The authorities concentrated their efforts over the past 10 years in creating a demand for these recycled materials.
“Building with recycled materials has long been technically feasible but people building a house or something would choose primary materials instead. There was a lot of work done, such as introducing technical norms for engineers to work with those materials, to ease access to the market,” Quartier said.
One of the laws in force since January 1, 2000 is the ban on bringing combustible waste to landfill sites. The Swiss rule is if it can burn it has to burn. Now 50 per cent of all municipal waste ends up at Switzerland’s 29 incinerators, while the rest is sorted, collected separately and recycled.
According to the environment office incineration helps to reduce pollutant emissions and preserve resources. The volume of waste is reduced by 90 per cent.
Incinerators, which are owned and run by the local canton or municipality, are accepted as part of the landscape and the system in Switzerland despite meeting resistance in other countries, such as France and Ireland.
All plants are fitted with electrostatic filters that trap ash and dust. Most of the ashes collected by the filters are treated in Switzerland, the rest is sent to Germany, where it is safely stored in disused salt mines specially equipped for that purpose.
In 2010, Switzerland exported 214,000 tonnes of hazardous waste, 12 per cent of the total. In the same year the Swiss imported some 31,000 tonnes of waste in this category.
Switzerland has submitted an application to join the European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL), one of the benefits of which will be “to coordinate and solve problems in the cross-border movement of waste”.
Waste management is a global business and large multinationals such as Veolia, Loacker Recycling and Remondis also have a presence in Switzerland. According to Muther they are buying up medium sized local disposal firms. “This is the right strategy because local knowledge is essential,” he said.
With the waste end of the chain well regulated and managed, policy attention is now turning to ways of reducing the environmental impact of the goods and services used by the Swiss population.
However there is a long way to go to reach sustainability. As a recent WWF report estimated, if the rest of the world lived in a similar manner to the Swiss, 2.82 planets would be needed to support global consumption.