The Swiss Approach to Household Waste Management: An Example of Cohesion in Environmental Policy

 By Kwok Lai Kuen (Hazel)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2.  An Integrated Legislative, Educational, and Financial Approach

3. Going the Extra Mile – Purchase Behavioural Changes 

4. Conclusion

5. References

6. About the Author

1. Introduction

Out of various environmental issues, household waste management provides the greatest opportunity to change individual behavior in favor of the environment: repetition is key in affecting behavior, and individuals generate waste on multiple occasions throughout their day. While the definition of household waste varies by country, it is the main subset of municipal waste, for which there is a globally accepted statistical reference. In 2015, Switzerland was second in the world in terms of economic wealth and consumption power as indicated by its GDP/capita of USD 80,990 (The World Bank, 2016), and it was the second highest municipal waste producer (725kg/capita) in the EU/EFTA (Statistics Explained, 2017) (see figure 1). Despite this alarming waste production, the Swiss waste recovery rate stands at 53%, ranked fifth worldwide, besting the European average of 25% and other well-developed non-EU areas with comparable wealth, including the U.S., Japan, and Australia (OECD, 2015; Skjellaug, 2016).

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This entry will focus on Swiss household waste management as a lever for raising personal awareness of how one’s own behavior makes a tangible difference, enhances one’s sensitivity to the environment, and provides a vector for individual compliance with regulations. As this entry shows the Swiss approach to the environment and ecology is comprehensive and strongly supported by regulation and law. More importantly, the Swiss integrate education and financial incentives under environmental policy in order to be more effective. The aim is to make people sensitive to their ability to impact the environment, change behavior, and ultimately enhance individual compliance in doing their parts.

2. An Integrated Legislative, Educational, and Financial Approach 

Environmental regulation in Switzerland consists of 6 federal acts in addition to its Constitution wherein article 74 states: ‘the Confederation shall legislate on the protection of the population and its natural environment against damage or nuisance’ (Wehrenberg, Reich, and Rich, 2016). Specifically, for waste management, the 1995 Environmental Protection Act (EPA) stated a clear priority in waste management: ‘first, waste must be prevented; then wherever possible, it must be recycled and finally, disposal must be ecologically efficient and, whenever possible and appropriate, performed on the national territory’ (Petitpierre, 1999, p. 86).

For decades, the United Nations has stressed that informal and formal education are critical for sustainable development and must be integrated in all disciplines (UN, 1993). The 2012 Swiss Education Report showed that schools are the principal source of information on the environment (Wolter et al., 2014). Zeyer and Roth (2009) stated that for Switzerland, environmental protection is  a common topic of public discourse. This topic gains even more attention in education, where ‘resonances are found not only in the current curricular, but also in teachers’ engagement and in school culture and school infrastructure, where an environmental commitment plays an important role’ (Zeyer and Roth, 2009, p. 980). 

Switzerland puts environmental education in its formal curriculum by integrating Science, Technology, Society and Environment Education in the lower secondary level. Students learn the ways in which science has degraded the environment and how science contributes to preserving it. ‘Acting responsibly in the environment and society’ (Zeyer and Elin, 2013, p.208) is one of the 4 teaching goals of science education. Intensive and comprehensive coverage is identified in 6 aspects (Zeyer and Roth, 2009, p. 965) :

a)     acquire insights into environmental issues;

b)    form personal positions on environmental topics;

c)     become involved in local, national and global environmental problems;

d)    be ready to conserve the natural environment;

e)     consume and live in an environmentally friendly manner;

f)     respect the environment during leisure and sports time. 

Jackson (2016, p. 59) stressed the importance of cultivating teacher awareness of a school’s own ‘hidden curriculum’/active role in ESD (e.g., recycling campaigns), emphasizing how including this component in training promotes buy-in is ‘seen as critical to successful integration,’ and noting that ‘ESD may be less effective’ otherwise. In 2013, a national competence centre was set up to provide support for schools and universities in Teacher Education for ESD (Wolter et al., 2014). Zeyer and Roth (2009, p. 966) reported that beyond curriculum design, authorities also tailor-made science teacher programs for Science, Technology, Society and Environment Education, helping teachers deliver topics of environmental protection to students.

Finally, ‘a majority of experts ascertain that financial incentives do effectively alter environmentally relevant consumer and producer behaviour’ (Joos et al., 1999, p. 422). In Switzerland, household waste management is based on the polluter-pays principle (Skjellaug, 2016). Tax on waste is always an efficient means to arouse attention. Taxpayers realize that the amount of cost represents the elimination of waste, and will change their behaviour. The expected outcome is a reduction in waste production, increased recycling rates and less incineration (Genoud, 2016).

As household trash is unavoidable and the necessary unwanted daily by-product of every household, taxed trash bags are a major financial initiative in household waste management, with widespread and immediate impact on the public. Taxed bags pro-actively encourage every individual to engage in the problem of waste, putting effort in reducing waste at home, in addition to sorting trash before disposal. While the Swiss have made a habit of sorting regular trash like paper, glass, PET bottles, aluminium cans and food waste, introducing taxed trash bags further refined both waste production and waste sorting, given the financial benefits of using fewer bags (Genoud, 2016). 

Since taxed bags were first introduced in Switzerland in 1975, the recycling rate has increased more than three-fold from 16% to 53% in 2015 (Mombelli, 2017; "Le Valais,” 2017).  Enforcement is not easy, however. According to Le Régional, at launch stage in the Vaud Canton in 2013, household waste was inappropriately or illegally disposed of, and offenders were hard to identify (Hess, 2013). Yet officials were determined to enforce policy. Swiss health officials and police would open up non-taxed i.e. illegal bags, looking for utility bills as evidence to connect these bags to individuals (Hess, 2013). The fine for using non-taxed bags is up to CHF 10000 in some districts (Genoud, 2016), a substantial deterrent to non-compliance. This financial initiative together with the protocol of implementation and strict penalty system combine to drive behavioural change in an effective manner.

Figure 2.  Taxed Trash Pack in Switzerland: CHF1.95/piece (Source of picture: the author (2017).

Figure 2. Taxed Trash Pack in Switzerland: CHF1.95/piece (Source of picture: the author (2017).

For most non-daily household waste, disposal is free of charge. Coupled with the taxed bag and awareness of environmental protection, the Swiss are more motivated to further refine sorting of these household wastes. For example, for high-value items like electrical and electronic equipment, the disposal and recycling cost is built in to the selling price at the point of purchase. As such, these items may be disposed of at any retailer;‘problematic’ household waste like unused / expired drugs can be given to pharmacies; used batteries to stores selling batteries, while bulky household waste like furniture is disposed of at designated collection points.

3. Going the Extra Mile – Purchase Behavioural Changes 

Sorting and disposing trash is not the endgame of waste management.  A more proactive and substantial contribution to ecology is to avoid producing trash. Green consumers engage in addressing ecological damage through everyday activities such as consumption (Connolly and Prothero, 2008). A recent study showed that 84% of Swiss minimize waste when buying a product, and there is certainly a link between each purchase decision and one’s awareness of how that purchase impacts the environment (Hainard, Cecchini, and Jacot, 2012). The pulling force created by this eco-sensitive action at the customer level drives retailers and manufacturers to act accordingly. One of biggest supermarket chains in Switzerland, Coop, announced its first environmental initiative in 2001, and in 2015, a sustainability campaign called actions-not-words committed the company and its brands to sustainability, encompassing external as well as internal aspects, involving employees and corporate philosophy (Coop, 2015). An example is the promotion of the Oecoplanbrand, a range of products made from recycled materials, e.g. recycled paper and cleaning products with recycled bottles. Suppliers who demonstrate environmentally production methods will be given priority to carry their products in the shop (Coop, 2015). This accelerated individualization of responsibility encourages the purchase of a vast array of green or eco-friendly products in the belief that such behaviour leads to a healthier planet. A survey revealed that more than 70% of Swiss will pay more for environmentally-friendly products. More than half of them support fair trade, low energy products, and avoid excessive packaging (Zeyer and Roth, 2009)

4. Conclusion

Although the key intention behind the Swiss eco-friendly behaviour in waste management might vary, either out of environmental protection (96%), habit and convenience of nearby collection points (57%), financial considerations like tax (25%), or family influence (20%) (Hainard et al., 2012), there is abundant evidence that waste management is done effectively. 98% of the Swiss have a habit in sorting waste, and 86% consider themselves active in waste separation (Hainard, Cecchini, and Jacot, 2012, p. 42). Also, young people in Switzerland in 2006 scored higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average (OECD, 2009; Wolter et al., 2014). These pro-environmental behaviours and green knowledge do not come by chance. They stem from a well-considered and coordinated three-pronged approach. Well-established policy and regulations encompassing education and financial incentive provide the impetus for individuals to actively contribute to environmentally favourable household waste management.

The traditional environmental education model in the 1980s claimed that a change in attitude is pre-requisite to behavioural change in environmental protection. Eilam and Trop (2014, p. 23), however, pointed out a contrary view in their latest research, that it is in fact easier to influence adult behaviour than attitudes, explaining the success of some intensive behavioural campaigns in environmental protection in a short time. Also, they stated that successes can be reinforced by law, regulation and social pressure. This provides useful insights for countries who have frequent debates over time and resource investments in unlocking people’s ecological mindset as a precursor to pro-environmental behaviour.

To conclude, formal education would be expected to be more effective in influencing changes in behaviour, and together with financial initiatives, effective household waste management could be achieved through collaboration between educational institutions and authorities (Eilam and Trop, 2014). Countries which already have good infrastructure, well-established environmental policy and law, and an education plan in place could take reference to the Swiss integration approach in order to influence their population towards pro-environmental behaviour. 

5. References

Connolly, J., & Prothero, A. (2008). Green Consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture, 8(1), 117-145. doi:10.1177/1469540507086422

Coop. (2015). Actions-not-words.ch[Brochure]. Retrieved from https://www.coop.ch/content/dam/act/themen/Publikationen/Coop_Flyer-Taten-statt-Worte_e.pdf

Eilam, E., & Trop, T. (2014). Factors Influencing Adults’ Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors and the Role of Environmental Schools in Influencing their Communities. Education and Urban Society, 46(2), 234-263. doi:10.1177/0013124512447100

Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). (2013). Swiss Environmental Law - A Brief Guide(Publication No. UD-1-72-E). Retrieved from https://www.bafu.admin.ch/bafu/en/home/topics/law/publications-studies/publications/swiss-environmental-law.html.

Genoud, F. (2016). Message du Conseil Municipal au Conseil General concernant le nouveau règlement sur la gestion des déchets et la modification du règlement de protection de l'environnement de 1994 (version 2002) [Message of the Municipal Council to the General Council Concerning the New Regulation on the Management of Waste and the Modification of the Environmental Protection Regulation of 1994 (version 2002)]. Switzerland: Ville de Sierre. Retrieved from https://www.sierre.ch/multimedia/docs/2016/10/Message_reglement_gestion_dechets_2016_avec_annexe.pdf.

Hainard, F., Cecchini, A., & Jacot, S. (2012). Pratiques de consommation en Suisse romande: enquête auprès des membres de la Fédération Romande des Consommateurs (FRC) [Consumer practices in French-speaking part of Switzerland: Survey of Members of the French Speaking Federation of Consumers (FRC)]. Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Université de Neuchâtel, Institut de Sociologie.

Hess, P. (2013, January 24). Pris la main dans le sac ! [Caught Red Hand !]Le Régional. Retrieved from http://www.leregional.ch/N45043/pris-la-main-dans-le-sac.html

Jackson, L. (2016). Education for Sustainable Development: From Environmental Education to Broader Views. In Handbook of Research on Applied Learning Theory and Design in Modern Education(pp. 41-64). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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Le Valais romand dévolile son sac poubelle taxé [The Romand Valais Region Reveals its Taxed Trash Bag]. (2017, September 4).Tribune de Genève. Retrieved from https://www.tdg.ch/suisse/suisse-romandevalais-romand-devoile-sac-poubelle-taxe/story/15831193

Mombelli, A. (2017, August 9). Recyclage du plastique - Quand les poubelles regorgent de matières premières [Plastics Recycling –Raw Materials Abundantly Found in Trash]. 

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About the Author

Kwok Lai Kuen (Hazel)

MEd, The University of Hong Kong

Email: hazeldeltheil@gmail.com