Although consumption rates are above the global average, Switzerland is often cited as a recycling role model because of its waste collection, separation and recovery system. In addition to a state-of-the-art waste management infrastructure, the authorities actively encourage the population to recycle as much as they can.
Waste reflects society's consumption patterns. Switzerland has one of the highest municipal solid waste volumes in the world per head of population. As the economy grew, so too did the amount of waste which Switzerland generated. Volumes more than doubled after 1970, going from 309kg per person to 715kg per person in 2016. Over time, however, the Swiss have become champion recyclers.
Public and private stakeholders are involved in Switzerland's waste management system. The country has a series of legal provisions in place to encourage waste disposal. Raw materials are scarce and expensive, which is why material cycles of all kinds must be closed. This system is an integral part of a sustainable and comprehensive resource management policy. Recycling therefore is considered a specialised industry.
There are many ways to dispose of waste. Recycling is the most popular method in Switzerland. This means either the direct re-use of used products or the recovery of raw and secondary materials. Another method is thermal recycling. Here, household waste is sent to incineration plants where it is converted into energy. If material recycling or thermal treatment is not a technically or economically viable option, the waste is first treated before being deposited in a landfill.
Paper, glass and organic matter are the largest source of municipal solid waste. Half is collected and recycled. Switzerland has an extensive system for collecting paper, cardboard, glass, PET bottles, tin and aluminium cans. Switzerland has enacted a number of legal provisions on recycling. For example, the Beverage Container Ordinance requires that the recycling level of beverage containers made from glass, PET and aluminium must be at least 75%. If the target is not achieved, the federal authorities may require dealers, manufacturers and importers to charge a minimum deposit on the containers concerned.
Protecting the environment
Switzerland earmarks around 1.8% of its GDP for environmental protection efforts. The lion’s share goes on waste and wastewater management. The largest impact on the environment comes from food, energy consumption and mobility.
As a country with few raw materials, Switzerland began using circular economy approaches in the mid-1980s. The circular economy is an integrated approach that takes account of the entire life cycle of a material or product, right up to and including the recovery and recycling phase. The circular model is now widely adopted by the waste management sector. Federal measures to promote the circular economy are based on the precautionary and polluter-pays principles, technological advances and innovation, as well as cooperation with industry in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act.
Life cycle assessments
Sometimes the measures needed to close cycles do not yield much environmental benefit. Life cycle assessments are therefore an essential tool. They evaluate the potential environmental relevance of a circular economy-related measure, and factor in the potential environmental impact that a good or service will have during its entire life cycle. This is good not only for the environment but also the economy. Moreover, the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) works with associations that promote the circular economy.