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What a waste Why the Swiss dump their rubbish in France

Sacchi di rifiuti

Rubbish mounts in canton Valais, one of the last Swiss regions to introduce a tax on household waste. 

(Keystone)

French border towns are reacting after a slew of incidents of Swiss residents being caught dumping rubbish across the border in France.

"When they come to shop at our supermarkets at the weekends, the Swiss bring their garbage and leave empty-handed," an outraged Bernard Mamet, mayor of Rousses, recently told francetvinfo.fr. 

In 2017, customs for the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté on the northwestern Swiss border, intercepted nearly 10 tons of waste from Switzerland. In one year, around 140 Swiss were caught transporting or illegally dumping waste on the French side of the border – 20 more incidents than in 2016. That doesn’t include others who were not caught or identified. 

+ Find out what it costs to keep Swiss streets so clean

Those apprehended leave with a fine of 150 euros and their illegal cargo in tow. "Of course, they have to return to Switzerland with their rubbish. Some protest and think paying a fine still gives them the right to leave their waste in France,” a customs officer told parisien.fr. 

Detective work

Faced with this growing trend of dumping trash anywhere, French border guards have gone on the offensive. They were able to track down a Basel resident who left behind a number of bags through identifying documents left in one of them. 

The phenomenon has been widely reported in the French press and led to an outcry online and on social networks. One of the hundreds of comments on Facebook stated: "It's really typical of the Swiss. Clean and perfect at home, but as soon as they step foot in France, they are real pigs!” 

The Swiss authorities have condemned the dumping. But Marc Arlettaz, an official from the large town of La Chaux-de-Fonds near the border told Swiss public television, RTS: "Ten tons is a fairly large amount. Not to minimize this issue, but compare that with the 25,000 tons of waste produced each year in the canton of Neuchâtel alone." 

Household rubbish tax

The main cause of this waste tourism has been the introduction of a tax on household rubbish almost everywhere in Switzerland. 

Following trials at the communal level in the 1990s, almost all cantons have now introduced taxable rubbish bags. The amount varies from one commune to another, but it is generally quite high, costing the equivalent of a dollar or two per bag. 

Sacchi ufficiali di diversi colori

Colourful but costly: The official rubbish bags were introduced to help raise awareness of the environmental impact of household waste.

(Keystone)

The measure, which aims to encourage people to reduce and recycle waste, seems to be working. In Lausanne, waste volumes have decreased by almost 40% since the tax was introduced in 2012. The fallout is that those living near the border are tempted to try and find cheaper alternatives.

Somewhat relieved, French authorities welcomed a recent statement by Canton Geneva Environment Minister Luc Barthassat that "there will be no question of introducing a tax on rubbish". 

Geneva exception

Canton Geneva shares over 100 kilometres of the border with France. When it comes to taxing waste, it will continue to be the exception in Switzerland, even though the decision contravenes federal law, which prescribes taxation in proportion with the amount of waste produced. 

The situation isn’t limited to the French border. In 2015, media reported German authorities’ anger at waste dumped by Swiss residents in forests and along highways. 

Signs have also recently appeared in German waste sorting and collection centres near the border, explicitly banning the "export of waste from Switzerland", according to the Blick am Abend newspaper. 

Italy case

Nor is the problem new in Italy. In 2016 security cameras caught a man illegally dumping waste from a Swiss-registered car, reigniting an ongoing controversy after a number of incidents in the area. Local authorities then announced that up to ten bags of Swiss rubbish were recovered each week on the roads leading to Canton Ticino border control. 

It later emerged that the man caught on camera was an Italian citizen. But in the meantime, border residents had been quick to voice their opinion to the media, fed up that their country was being used as landfill by the Swiss. 

In Ticino, media attention was also followed by outrage online, where the discussions quickly escalated, with criticism revealing deeply rooted prejudices. 

The lack of concern manifested by some is enough to jeopardize good neighbourly relations.

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