Trying to be environmentally friendly in Switzerland

I’ve been meaning to write this post for weeks… or actually more like months. It was partly inspired by Kezzie, who does a much better job than me at protecting the environment – here’s a post she wrote about refusing to buy fish and chips that came served in a polystyrene container – although I did have a vague idea of writing something about how to recycle in Switzerland before that. So, today I want to tell you about how I try to be environmentally friendly in Switzerland (which turns out to be slightly harder than it was when I lived in Germany…).

When we first moved to Switzerland, we were shocked to discover that residents are not provided with bins for recyclable waste at their homes. Instead, a scheme of making people pay for ordinary household waste by volume is supposed to encourage you take your recyclables away to the collection points yourselves. How the payment works differs by municipality… where we live you buy a sheet of stickers to stick on your bin bags, whereas in Basel city itself you have to buy a special kind of bin bag and only those ones will be taken away.  It took us a few weeks, but eventually we figured out exactly which kinds of materials could be taken where and now have a set up like this in our flat:

recycling bins

Paper is the easiest. It’s collected from outside the building once a month… our day is the last Friday of the month, so all we have to do is tie it together or place the loose paper inside a cardboard box/paper bag then take it down at the right time. You can also buy official bags for paper but they’re made of plastic so I’m not sure I see the point?

Tin cans and glass of all sorts can be taken to various recycling points that are dotted around. We have at least two within 5 minutes walk of us, so no problem there – well, other than the minor issue of not having a car, but that just means we have to go more often so that it’s kept to an amount that we can actually carry. Oh, and slightly annoyingly the recycling points are subject to the dreaded Swiss “quiet hours”, which means I’m not allowed to take cans and glass bottles away during my lunch break (even though the place I take ours is next to a school and a playground so I doubt I would actually be interrupting anyone’s rest!).

I’m ashamed to say that for about our first six months in Switzerland we threw PET and plastic bottles into the normal household waste. That’s how long it took us to work out that they could, in fact, be recycled by returning them to the supermarket. They only take bottles though (plastic milk bottles, shampoo bottles, bottles that contained cleaning agents)… no toothpaste tubes, yoghurt pots, cling film or the PET packaging that a lot of food comes in. Tetra Pak’s can’t be recycled either, so I’ve actually switched from buying milk in those to the plastic bottles so I can at least take them to the supermarket when we’re finished with them – glass milk bottles don’t exist here and despite the issues with plastic I feel plastic bottles are the lesser evil compared to Tetra Paks. Anything else that’s made of plastic unfortunately has to go in the regular household waste.

And the final type of rubbish that we collect to be taken away is organic waste. Some areas have neighbourhood compost sites where you can take all your food waste to be composted and in return buy compost for your garden (if you have such a thing, which we don’t). We use a slightly different solution… the organic waste container. At a local organic shop and café, you can pay a deposit for a card then all you have to do is grab your food waste, insert the card into a reader on the container, then you can open a flap and put in your offerings. I hate this job because it means walking through town with my smelly bag full of vegetable peelings, etc. that more often than not is already starting to mould and dissolve (it gets hot in our little organic waste container!), but I do it – inwardly cursing the whole way. I mean, I didn’t find dealing with the Biomüll particularly pleasant in Germany, either, but at least there I only had to take it to the Biomüll bin downstairs…

Biotonne

And that’s it as far as rubbish is concerned. Some other things I do to try and be environmentally friendly:

  • Carry a canvas bag with me wherever I go. This is used for any shopping I do. I will only occasionally accept a bag from a shop if I’ve either bought more than I expected or an item is too big for my bag. At the supermarket, I will occasionally buy a paper bag to take my groceries home in so that I can use it to put paper in for the monthly collection.
  • Any plastic bags I do end up getting always get reused, either as bin liners for the bathroom bins (they are then placed into the big bin bag with the sticker on to go out) or for carrying the bottles and cans to the recycling point.
  • Take re-usable vegetable bags to the supermarket. They’re just large mesh bags with a tag on the side where you can stick the little labels you get when you weigh your fruit and veg. This means I never need the plastic bags the supermarket provides – although annoying most organic produce here seems to come pre-packaged in plastic, so I have a choice of avoiding plastic or eating organic fruit and vegetables!
  • Fill a flash with tap water to drink when we go out for the day. This doesn’t help if I fancy drinking something other than water, but at least means I’m not constantly buying plain old water in plastic bottles.
  • Use eco-friendly washing powder, dishwasher tabs, washing-up liquid and bathroom cleaner. I’m afraid the oven cleaner contains chemicals though… I tried the baking soda thing and it just didn’t work!
  • This one is cheating a bit since I can’t actually drive, but I walk or take public transport almost everywhere. Jan drives but, like I said, we don’t have a car… instead he’s a member of a car-sharing scheme, which allows you to pick up a car at short notice when you need one. We will take a car if we want to go out for the day to somewhere that’s not easily accessed by public transport (or if we want to stop off at several places) or if we’re buying some bigger items that we wouldn’t be able to carry home by ourselves, such as furniture – although we have been known to bring IKEA purchases home by train and bus (not recommended, if you can avoid it!).

That’s about all I can think of. Like I said, I could do so much more, but it’s a start. And admittedly a lot of these things are not specific to Switzerland (I’ve always reused carrier bags – my dad did so it never occurred to me not to!) but hopefully at least the first part of this post will give anyone else who’s living in Switzerland a vague idea of what actually can be recycled around here! Although I should add that on some things I can only speak for the Basel area – all Migros should have a place to recycle plastic bottles but I can’t guarantee that everywhere has a paper collection from outside residences, for instance. Still, I hope this helps.

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10 thoughts on “Trying to be environmentally friendly in Switzerland

  1. Sounds like you’re doing a great job. I think if we all try to be at least a little better and are conscious of the waste we produce, something is bound to improve. It’s hard for me to return to the US and see how little people care about the environment and waste. “Paper or plastic?” “Neither! I brought my own bags.” “So…you want everything in those?” “That’s the idea, yes.” Why can’t this one simple idea take on over there??

    We have it much easier than you in Switzerland. At least our stuff (except glass) is still picked up.

  2. I have reusable bags in the house but I’m TERRIBLE at remembering to grab them. It makes me mad every time I accept a bag from the store or vendor. I need to be so much better about that. We recycle all our tin, glass, plastic, and paper, though. I also only use reusable water bottles.

  3. I have just noticed on the side bit to your blog that you are expecting twins – congratulations. You may have mentioned this in an earlier blog but I have been a bit preoccupied/busy recently and have not kept up to date with blogs I enjoy following, so apologies if this is old news. When are you due? Having one baby at a time is hard enough, but twins is scary. I hope you will have lots of support. Do you intend to carry on working?

  4. A sensible idea, you’ll need time away from them to stay sane (at least I did…). I had six months off with each of mine then went back to work two days a week, which I needed. Happy mums make happy kids…. I hope you’ll keep us posted.

  5. It is great that you are encouraged to be environmentally friendly, but it seems like a lot of hard work compared to how simple it is now in the UK (and also in California, though we can’t recycle food waste yet). I can imagine some people are discouraged so don’t do it as well as they could.

  6. That sounds complicated!!!! Well done to you for doing what you are doing and making the effort! Many drops make an ocean as they say! I am considering giving up crisps (this is the biggest sacrifice for me- seriously!) as a protest to the crisp companies for not coming up with a recyclable solution to their packaging- not quite brave enough to do it!!!!

  7. This sort of stuff always fascinates me, even though I’m never going to live in Switzerland. It took me ages to get the trash sorting figured out when I lived in Germany. And I remember the one time I tried to get an Ikea purchase home on the bus… it did not work out well. 😀

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