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…


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.


Where’s the magic housework fairy when I need her?

I really am a terrible housekeeper. I can just about manage to keep on top of the worst of it when Jan’s not around, but the minute he goes away somewhere I drop all pretence of being any sort of housekeeper and let the poor flat go to the dogs. Take this week as a case in point. Jan left for America on Friday. Since then I’ve:

– Failed to wash a dish
– Left all our CDs stacked in four messy piles on the living room rug (they usually live on the shelf that fell down)
– Left several tin cans standing around on the kitchen bench because I “didn’t get round to” putting a new ben liner in the bin
-Failed to hoover, despite the fact that the kitchen floor is crunchy and there appears of be dusty/gravelly stuff all over the flat from when I went out to a dusty place on Sunday
– Kept adding more stuff to the pile on the spare bed instead of clearing it ready for people to sleep in it this weekend

Life Is Short
Photo credit: Christina Saint Marche

In fact, the only thing I have done is take down the evil, smelly Biomüll – and I had no choice there. It really was that or be smothered in my sleep by some unsavoury creature. I’ve been meaning to do some cleaning all week, but I was out on Monday and Tuesday, and last night I feel asleep instead. So here I am, it’s Thursday night, I’m meeting some friends after work tomorrow and on Saturday both Jan and (hopefully) some guests are arriving. This is my last chance to get the flat looking semi-reasonable. So what am I doing? Writing a blog post. About housework. But I don’t have a problem with procrastination. Oh no, not me…

A rubbish experience

Deutsch: Bozen-Bolzano — Bioabfalltonne {| cel...
A Biomüll bin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of all the things about life in Germany, that annoy, amuse or simply puzzle me, the one thing I hate the most and don’t think I’ll ever get over is dealing with the Biomüll.
Time for a little German lesson at this point, I think. Bio means organic (lots of Bio shops around here!) and Müll is, well, rubbish – or trash if you prefer (hi Americans!). So Biomüll is organic waste or, in other words, food. This includes all fruit and vegetable peelings, but also leftovers, any out-of-date stuff that needs to be thrown away, teabags and – bizarrely – corks (although some areas have special cork collections as well). All of this waste goes in a special, separate bin to your ordinary household waste. So unless you want to troop all the way to the outside bin every time you have mashed potatoes for tea, you are expected to have what is basically a compost heap in a small container in your kitchen – unless you happen to live in Mannheim city centre, where there are no Biomüll bins. Instead food waste goes in the “Restmüll” – Rest meaning “everything else” basically. The decision on which types of bins to have outside is taken by the individual town (although the law states that there must be recycling bins, in some form or other) but as far as I know only Mannheim Stadt have chosen to do away with Biomüll. So I have to put up with having my compost container in the kitchen. However, having the thing there isn’t really a problem. It’s a perfectly simple system – recyclables (other than glass) in one bin, vegetable peelings in another and everything else in a small carrier bag we keep for the purpose (there isn’t much Restmüll). Glass and bottles that have a deposit on them go in the cupboard ready for either returning or taking to the large glass containers that are dotted around the place. All very easy. The problem comes when the Biomüll needs to be taken down…

This is actually supposed to be Jan’s job  – along with washing the dishes, although I am actually more forgiving on the latter and usually end up doing them myself. Most of the time, Jan actually does take down the Biomüll – if only because I nag remind him constantly until he does – I really, really hate the Biomüll! However, this time Jan had let it build up for several weeks (despite my comments!) and still didn’t take it down despite having an entire day off on Thursday. Supposedly to pack, but he didn’t do that either until 10 o’clock at night! Since he is now away for a week, and the stuff in there was getting to the stage where it no longer looked like food and I was beginning to fear it might actually come to life and take over the kitchen, I had no choice but to take the evilness down. So I grabbed the little bin, taking care to hold the handle with as few fingers as possible, and headed down two flights of stairs to the courtyard out the back. Once there, I opened the Biomüll container – causing a cloud of flies to swarm into my face –  and emptied our food stuffs onto the remains of everyone else’s that was already in there.

Bubbly Bins Dirty BinUnfortunately, I had forgotten to put the handle down, so the remains of the Biomüll bag (made of potato starch so it, too, turns into compost – and this one had already started to dissolve!) hung itself over it, meaning I had to use my finger to remove it. At this point I was almost physically sick! That trauma over with, I then had to take the Biomüll bin back upstairs using that very same handle – now covered in whatever horrid liquid substances had been lurking at the bottom of the bin. Needless to say, the first thing I did on reaching the top was wash my hands! Next followed the washing out of the dirty bin – squirt in a tonne of all-purpose cleaner, fill the kettle to the max. line and boil it, pour a couple of jugs of hot water from the tap into the bin while waiting for the kettle to boil, add boiling water, boil kettle again and add more boiling water, leave to soak for a while. Later the horrid mixture goes down the toilet , with lots of swishing around and pouring from different angles to makes sure all the edges get clean. Once the bin has been thoroughly rinsed out, it goes back to the kitchen to dry before having a new potato starch bag put in it, the toilet gets cleaned and the trauma of taking down the Biomüll is over. Until next time…