Bern shames its citizens into cleaning up their act

The centre of Bern was turned into a rubbish dump on Friday

Bern's inner city streets are spick-and-span again, after a 24-hour stoppage by street cleaners caused piles of rubbish to gather in the usually spotless streets.

This content was published on August 23, 2002

Locals and visitors alike were shocked at what they saw - bins overflowing, plastic wrappers blowing around in the wind and a sea of cigarette buts.

Worried that Bern is no longer among the world's cleanest capitals, city authorities let the rubbish pile up on the streets for one day.

The shocking - and very un-Swiss - move was part of an effort to shame Bern's citizens into cleaning up their act.

Between Thursday to Friday lunchtime, Bern's normally efficient street cleaners didn't lift a finger as part of an official inner-city "non-cleaning day".

The decision to leave the city's rubbish uncollected for 24-hours was sparked by fears that standards in Swiss cities are not what they used to be.

Those with an eye for such things say the cleanliness of Switzerland's public spaces are no better than those in the rest of Europe.

For the traditionally spic-and-span Swiss, this comes as a shock.


Two businessmen from Zürich, unaware of the cause of the litter mountain, returned home saying they were disgusted that Bern should be allowed to fall into such a state.

Some locals mistakenly thought the street cleaners were staging a strike over wages and conditions.

Foreign visitors said they had heard of Switzerland's squeaky clean reputation, and were very surprised to find more rubbish here than in their home towns.

At around lunch-time, dozens of the city's cleaning staff gathered on the Waisenhausplatz, before setting out in different directions to purge the city of this unfamiliar menace.

A calypso band played steel drums, and yellow balloons floated above the square, where an area had been fenced off to contain a mound of rubbish that was about to be dumped there.

Before long, brooms were sweeping, vacuum machines were sucking, and cleaners were sweating with the effort under the warm August sun.

Crowds gathered to watching them tipping their collected refuge onto a square crowded with cafés and people trying to enjoy their lunches.

Never before had rubbish collection been such a popular a spectator sport.

Bystanders gaped through the fence at the monster they had created, especially during late night shopping the night before.

The message - to take a personal responsibility for the one's own litter - seemed to have been driven home.

But whether this will have any long-term affect on people's rubbish disposal habits remains to be seen.

Beat Hunziker, head of the Bern's rubbish disposal service, says the project was designed to make people think about their surroundings.

Just getting worse

The drastic measure was the latest step in an ongoing campaign to sensitise Switzerland's public to the state of its cities.

Bern has already followed the lead of other centres concerned about declining public standards by erecting posters explaining why picnic rubbish belongs in a bin.

The campaign - which was launched last year by the Swiss environmental association, PUSCH, - aims to use humour, rather than a lecturing or moralistic tone.

In recent months, a series of witty signs have appeared around Bern - graphically and physically similar to road signs - forbidding urination or public vomiting. Sometimes, it seems, even the most basic points need re-enforcing.

Stefan Baumann, from PUSCH, says the Bern "no-cleanup day" campaign will help drew attention to a worsening problem.

"Swiss standards are definitely not what they were in the 70s," says Baumann.

He says while Switzerland still leads Europe as a recycler of glass, paper and plastic, its public spaces have become far less pleasant places to be.

Trash talk

While standards do appear to have fallen - not just in Bern, but also in Geneva, Zurich and Basel - not everyone agrees on the causes.

Thierry Diserens, the man responsible for rubbish removal in Lausanne, says standards on his turf are far better than in Bern.

The reason? "In Lausanne we don't charge for the removal of household rubbish bags," says Diserens.

"And we also regularly sanitise our streets, which are mostly clean," he insists.

By contrast, the Federal Office for the Environment rejects the notion that charging residents to collect their garbage contributes to the litter problem, while Alexandre Bukowiecki, the head of Basel's city sanitation service, blames worsening public habits.

Either way, according PUSCH, the shaming tactics appear to be working.

"Last year saw garbage levels drop for the first time," says Baumann.

"A lot of that has to do with the fact that the public has noticed that authorities are taking the problem seriously and are doing something about it," he said.

Hunziker, from the city of Bern, agrees. He says pressure from the public to do something about falling cleanliness was what prompted the cleaning freeze.

More packaging, less responsibility

François Hainard, a University of Neuchatel sociologist, blames the decline in standards on the fact that people care more about air and water quality, than rubbish.

"It's also the case that many more opportunities exist these days to create rubbish," Hainard says, referring to the popularity of fast food.

"Perhaps they don't feel responsible anymore because they know cleaners will come by anyway," says Hainard.

Fabio Mariani and Eva Herrmann, translated by Jacob Greber

In brief

Switzerland's reputation for cleanliness is under threat.

Public authorities are increasingly annoyed by declining standards. Fast food wrappers, cigarette butts, and other refuse clutter city streets.

Bern has decided to act. For 24 hours, city cleaners will left rubbish where it fell in an effort to shame citizens into taking better care of their city.

To drive the point home, cleaners then gathered the rubbish and dumped it in a public place.

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