Waste no time | Sunday Observer

Waste no time

21 May, 2023
Disposal points at a Swiss Bus stop
Disposal points at a Swiss Bus stop

Dramatic phases of modern human evolution have set in motion many global crises, the negative outcomes of which are unbelievably high if left fully unattended. The global garbage crisis largely resulting from haphazard waste disposal practices and mismanaged plastic waste is a classic example of man-made calamity which has taken its toll on the global environment and healthy living.

Matthieu Raeis

The saddest irony of human existence is that despite being the most intelligent and wisest among all living beings, homo-sapiens are the worst generators of non-degradable trash which is undoubtedly a key threat to environmental sustainability.

Human existence itself is interlinked with waste-production from the very beginning, but of late the rapidly growing industrial productions have changed the lifestyles of people and their consumption patterns thus exacerbating the waste production, more than ever before. The amount of global waste is almost unbearable to our planet.

It is a fact that sustainable waste management practices are essential for the sustainability of human societies. The Meethotamulla garbage landslide in Sri Lanka that hit the headlines across the globe in 2017 is a classic, yet terribly tragic example of the level of catastrophe an unmanaged or haphazard garbage disposing practices could bring about on human lives.

Garbage and the existence of human lives are almost like two sides of the same coin. Nature produces no garbage as it has its own perfect recycling system. Unlike animals who produce only compostable and eco-friendly waste, human beings, the most ‘intelligent’ of all living beings, always ‘leave’ dirty, un-compostable traces wherever they go! Such garbage is detrimental to our environment. Therefore, managing waste through recycling is the only viable option in front of us.

Seeing is believing

A senior citizen at a local garbage disposal centre

Anyone who visits Switzerland nestled between the Alps and Jura Mountains in the heart of Europe would soon realise how it remains a beautiful country exactly as depicted in picture postcards. You will never see garbage on either side of Swiss roads or public areas, which is quite the opposite of our local roads! Spotless streets, crystal-clear lakes, unblocked and clean drainage lines, beautiful parks, breathtaking landscapes and excellently managed urban roads without any trace of waste are indeed a feast for the eyes.

The secret behind this cleanliness and tidiness is Swiss Government’s long- term strong policies that are well-focussed on proper and dedicated waste management systems. Switzerland is one among the forefront European nations that have a laudable strategy on recycling!

An inspiring and a truly committed role on the part of the government and the Swiss citizens alike are behind this success story. It proved to me that what matters most is one’s attitudes and behaviour rather than strong policies when keeping a country clean by implementing proper waste management techniques ranging from thoughtful garbage disposal to efficient garbage collection and recycling.

Within yourself, you should develop a longing for keeping your surroundings clean. We hardly see such enthusiasm among the majority of Sri Lankans let alone the city dwellers. Each and every Swiss citizen owes a huge round of applause for keeping the environment amazingly clean!

Cantons and the communes

Switzerland is governed under a federal system at three levels: the Confederation, the Cantons and the Communes. It has 26 cantons, which are themselves divided into more than 2,300 communes. The Confederation, the Cantons and Communes share political and legislative powers. Apart from the main Laws of the Environmental Protection Act and Waste Ordinance, cantons have their own laws and procedures on waste management. Each Canton has its unique methods to manage waste and the Communes write their own rules. In short each commune handles the waste the way it wants using long-term, eco-friendly methods.

Principles of the Environmental Protection Act

The main Principles of the Environmental Protection Act are to reduce production of waste, recycle them wherever possible and to dispose of them in an environmentally compatible manner.

The Swiss Ordinance on the Avoidance and Disposal of Waste attaches greater importance to the avoidance, reduction and targeted recycling of waste. It aims to protect people, animals, plants and their biological communities, waters, the soil and the air from harmful effects or nuisances caused by waste and, to limit environmental pollution by waste through precautionary measures. According to this Ordinance, the cantons ensure that recyclable parts of Municipal waste such as glass, paper, cardboard, metal, green waste and textiles are collected separately and recycled as far as possible.

Though Switzerland is among the highest per capita waste production countries in the world it also stands among the leading waste recyclers in the world. It is a country with over 52 percent of municipal waste currently being recycled.

Waste sorting starts at home

Recycling is made easy to the cantonal authorities and the government by its residents through sorting the waste at the initial stages before simply dumping them into garbage bins. For instance, every Swiss citizen sorts their trash from their households as kitchen organic waste, paper waste, plastic waste, glass waste, aluminum, textiles, batteries, electronic and electrical equipment, kitchen oil and CDs DVDs. Plastic waste mainly includes PET water bottles, juice, sauce and other bottles made up of plastic. Glass waste is sorted according to the colour of the item. (Eg: White or others) or shape i.e. jars or bottles. Switzerland being a major wine consuming country, empty wine bottles undergo recycling process.

Senior citizens

One would be surprised to witness how senior Swiss citizens are coming to local recycling points nearby in wheelchairs irrespective of their physical inability to dispose utilised items such as wine bottles, water bottles, food cans to the assigned bins.

Their undying dedication to keep the surroundings and environment clean has always been the driving force behind their success story – a clean, healthy and eco-friendly Switzerland.

The feeling is unique when you take the responsibility for the cleanliness of your surroundings and thereby perform your duty to protect this planet. What Sri Lankans should develop is such a positive and environmentally-friendly mindset. It is important to know that each person has a big responsibility in recycling.

Eco-friendly method

Recycling is considered an environmentally friendly garbage disposal method compared to forms like incineration and landfilling. This helps to preserve the resources and reduce green-house gas emissions. Recycling of recyclable resources is also important as it allows to turn waste resources into new products and materials which will help in turn to preserve the existing resources for future generations. For example, recycling of plastic water bottles, paper and cardboard help to preserve unused/virgin resources on the planet as these recycled items are used again to make new products. It conserves resources, saves energy, reduces CO2 emission and creates secondary raw materials.

In Switzerland, landfilling is not allowed by the Swiss Federal law. Therefore, dumping of garbage on roadsides, bare lands and sensitive areas such as wetlands, marshy lands as we do in Sri Lanka is prohibited. Instead, they recycle more than 50 percent of urban waste and the rest is incinerated and used for producing energy.

Matthieu Raeis, Head of the Waste Sector at the Office of the Environment in the Geneva Canton stated that landfilling urban garbage is forbidden in Switzerland for over 20 years. “We still have landfills, but only for incineration ashes, mineral materials that can’t be recycled, and some other mineral waste from construction for which there are no other management solutions.”

Prevent, Reduce and Recycle – the Swiss strategy

Switzerland has established a well-functioning waste disposal system in which public and private waste disposal companies work together. The Swiss waste system works according to the hierarchy of Prevent, Reduce, and Recycle. What is emphasised is that ‘prevention’ should be at the very initial stages. The best waste is that which is not produced in the first place. Waste must be reduced as much as possible. For example, in the manufacturing stages of a certain product this concept of prevention is targeted by using resources sparingly or by making the product last as long as possible. Especially regarding food items, it is encouraged to design products and packaging in order to generate as little waste as possible.

Durability and reparability

Head of Section ‘Municipal Waste’ of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, Isabel Junker said that durability and reparability of products should be taken into account at early design stages to make sure that the product can be kept in circulation for as long as possible. A product only becomes waste at the end of its lifecycle. She added that it is enormously important to think first and foremost about the product’s recycling when designing a product. PET water bottles recycle is a good example of a well-functioning Circular Economy. In Switzerland, more than 80 percent of plastic PET drink bottles are recycled. The cost of recycling is included in the price of the bottle as an early recycling contribution.

At this important phase when the world is realising the value of a circular economy with the concept of elimination of waste by restorative and regenerative methods in production cycle, recycling is the paramount principle. Switzerland is currently promoting the Circular Economy at all levels, but still much needs to be done to reach its full potential. Therefore, as mentioned earlier, Prevent, Reduce and Recycle strategy of Swiss waste management recognises the importance of resource regeneration without ‘throwing them away method’ as used in Linear Economy. The same resource is recycled and reused as much as possible to produce new items rather than wasting new raw materials avoiding a possible raw material shortage.

Garbage creation

Global consumer behaviour plays a vital part in garbage creation. The strategy of ‘Reduce’ applies in this context. The waste production can be reduced based on the consumer behaviour patterns.

Isabel Junker added that if waste cannot be avoided, it should at least be reduced.

“In your daily life it means to think twice before buying your seventh pair of trousers or your new smartphone in a second-hand shop.’ The Swiss government encourages the purchase of goods depending on its essentiality and not to buy things in abundance which will finally end up in garbage bins. Preventive policy is quite emphasised in this system. Even daily individual behaviour such as buying items like clothing and other amenities only according to one’s requirement will help the waste management policies at prevention level.

Likewise, the authorities raise awareness among the public to be cautious about the waste production and the government has also imposed taxes from the public (laws change according to Cantons) for the size of their waste bags and if more waste is produced more taxes are levied. Accordingly, people are aware about their garbage disposal levels and tend to adhere to the concept of ‘prevention.’

To reduce waste, over packing should be avoided. For instance, certain food items can be introduced with simple packaging with recyclable materials rather than using more compact and unnecessary packaging. This can reduce the number of unwanted items such as plastic paper and other packing items which will finally end up in trash cans.

Single-use plastic shopping bags

To reduce the plastic consumption, free issuance of single-use plastic shopping bags is not allowed at all supermarket chains in Switzerland. They only can buy them if they need to carry merchandise. Even for fruits and vegetables which are available in bulk in supermarkets, it is encouraged to use one single bag to weigh them to avoid using multiple bags for different fruits and vegetable items. In this way, the number of plastic bags which will unnecessarily end up in trash cans are kept at a minimum. The move offers enormous environmental benefits in the long run.

A similar method could be introduced in Sri Lanka to reduce the volume of plastic bags entering the environment.

Little green garbage bin

Switzerland being a Federal State, each canton has its own laws and methods to handle garbage. Each canton has several communes. Each commune handles garbage. In order to encourage the sorting of kitchen waste, Municipalities in the Geneva canton recently introduced ‘little green garbage bin’ for kitchen waste. This garbage bin is freely distributed to the residents of Geneva along with free rolls of compostable bags.

Bio-waste recovery

In Switzerland, recovering bio-waste is a significant part of recycling. Head of the Waste Sector at the Office of the Environment in the Geneva Canton, Matthieu Raeis explained that ‘Bio-waste is composed of two main categories: food waste and garden waste.

“Garden waste is transformed into compost in industrial or agricultural composting sites. Food wastes are methanised (production of biogas) in a central plant. Residues of methanisation are composted with garden waste to produce compost. This compost is sold to farmers or landscapers or given to the population for their gardening purposes”.

Matthieu emphasised that the most important type of waste to recycle is bio-waste. “It is composed mainly of water and sending water to incineration is not sensible and also very costly. Bio-waste is a waste that can produce energy by methanisation and compost that is used in agriculture.”

He also said that plastic recycling is costly as there are different categories of plastic that cannot be recycled together. “It costs a lot to sort it by category and transport. There are always some plastics that cannot be recycled. Hence, in the Geneva canton we try to reduce single use of plastics instead of proposing sorting solutions.”

Separate waste disposal points

Every resident of the canton has separate waste disposal points near his/her house or apartment assigned for common waste, organic waste, cardboard and paper waste. For glass bottles, aluminium cans and PET plastic bottles there are special common collection points close by.

Swiss citizens, having well understood their collective responsibility to keep their country and environment clean, never fail to dispose of waste to these assigned points. If not for their undying dedication, it would not be possible to maintain such a clean, beautiful and eco-friendly environment.

Educating the children

Waste management is not merely a single mechanical process. It requires enormous joint effort. A positive environmental- friendly mindset, awareness of individual responsibility and genuine concern for the future generation, well backed by prudent government policies are essential to move forward the whole process.

In Switzerland, it is quite interesting to see how the primary education system itself gives priority to inculcate proper waste management and recycling habits in children. For instance, in all the cities of the Geneva canton, there are sensibilisation programs through animations and workshops on waste management for children from pre-school to middle school. In this context, COSEDEC (Waste Management Awareness Cooperative), an independent organisation has been working with the Canton of Geneva since 2002, as a service provider for educational activities about recycling and resource management. Even parents can learn about recycling from their children and children are given tours to recycling centres in Geneva. Thus they become more aware about the importance of the recycling process for future sustainability of our planet.

A city dweller’s views

A busy city dweller sorting and disposing of some waste items at a collection point said the cleanliness of the surrounding reflects our mindset. “No one else can make our environment clean, it is solely our responsibility. It is highly important that people join hands with government policies for a cleaner environment while preserving the planet for future generations.”

This echoes the words of Mother Teresa; ‘If everyone would sweep their own doorstep, the whole world will be clean.’

In this technologically developed era that even explores the possibility of life on Mars, the concept of garbage recycling is of paramount importance to protect this planet - make it a safe and clean place to live while preserving the natural resources for future generations. It is this recycling strategy well supported by positive mentality and empathy for others - who are already born and yet to be born - that has made Switzerland the world champions in recycling.