Swiss Saturday, err Friday: Garbage Tourism

In the United States, we had a huge garbage can and the garbage truck came around twice a week. They would take anything we put in that can, and if we had more than would fit (like when we put in new carpet and had the old carpet piled up on the curb), they would take that too. Super big objects, like a couch, would go if you called and told the garbage company you were putting it out.

We threw away a lot of garbage.

The Swiss? Well, they don’t do that. Just today I paid 250 Swiss Franks ($261.94 in USD) to have someone come haul away old and broken bookshelves. In the US, I could have put that on the curb and called the garbage company and they would have taken it.

Garbage here is done very differently than in the US. You pay per garbage sack–my current town charges 1.50 CHF ($1.57) per 35-liter bag (kitchen garbage bag size) and my last town charged 2 CHF ($2.10). For larger objects, you pay via weight. 7 kilos is equal to a garbage bag. But, if it’s much bigger than a garbage bag, you have to take it to the dump yourself. I don’t own a car, and I would have had to rent a van or a truck to haul the bookshelves, hence hiring someone to take them.

When you take it to the dump, you drive your car onto a scale, then unload your car, and drive back onto the scale and pay the difference.

You should see how a Swiss person can pack a garbage bag. They have those things so tight there isn’t a bit of air, and they are heavy as can be. (As long as it’s in the bag, weight doesn’t play into it.) I’ve watched Swiss friends flatten milk cartons (not recyclable) and have been amazed at how flat they can get them. Truly, the Swiss garbage game is fascinating to watch.

It’s also super annoying. In my town, we buy regular garbage bags at the grocery store and then garbage stickers to put on them. In Basel, you have to buy special blue garbage bags to put your garbage in.

As you can imagine, this can make getting rid of large objects or lots of trash a bit difficult. Enter Swiss Garbage Tourism.

I just learned this term today from The Local article: France kicks up a stink over Switzerland’s ‘rubbish tourists’.

Switzerland is small and France has looser garbage regulations, so it seems some Swiss people (and undoubtedly some expats like us), drive over the border and dump their garbage. You can see that the French are not pleased. I’m sure some do the same in Italy and Germany as well, although I suspect less in Germany because Germany is also a bit neurotic about trash.

The Swiss are good, though, at recycling. Recycling is free, although a pain in the patootie. Cardboard and paper get picked up once a month, curbside, in my town, but you better have it bundled properly. Metal is picked up once per year. Yard waste costs, but is relatively cheap and is picked up weekly during the summer. You can take your food waste to the town compost center for free, or pay for curbside pickup. Glass and aluminum are taken to local stations (our closest one is about a 7-minute walk). Soda bottles and other plastics are taken back to the grocery store. Electronic equipment goes to any store that sells electronics, regardless of where you bought it. Clothing goes to pick up points, or charities will come collect a couple of times a year.

What happens to you if you don’t put a sticker on your garbage bag or you try to throw something away you shouldn’t? Well, the latter, you probably won’t get busted that often–the garbage men (and yes, men, I’ve never seen a female garbage collector in Switzerland, although there may be some), don’t make it a habit of going through your bag. But, if you don’t put the proper sticker, they’ll slap a big red sticker on your bag saying why they didn’t take it. If you try to dump your garbage somewhere, they will go through it, looking for a piece of mail or a name, or something and if they find you (and they will) you’ll face a fine.

Now, I hate to throw useful things away so in the past I’ve hauled many things to the Salvation Army. They used to take anything–and by anything I mean I’ve seen half-filled bottles of lotion and open tampon boxes on their shelves. They went through a remodel last year though and have become extremely picky. The woman at the counter rejected my English books because they “had too many” even though their English bookshelf was half full. She rejected an umbrella because the velcro wasn’t up to her standard. And she rejected DVDS that I had originally purchased there because they were in English.

It makes sense when you consider that if they can’t sell the items they have to pay to throw them away. And so now, I have several bags in my garage of stuff that I can’t give away, but I can’t bring myself to throw out. I will, eventually, or maybe I’ll try going back to the Salvation Army when that woman is not there and try again.

So, I totally get the frustration that can build up and the urge to just drive to France and dump it and run. But, it’s certainly not fair to the French (who already deal with the Swiss factories built right on the border).

Now, from a policy standpoint, I do think this is a great system. We are dedicated recyclers now. Families only have to pay for the garbage they generate rather than the family of 6 paying the same amount as the little old lady who barely throws anything out, as it was in our town in the US. From a practicality standpoint, I sure do miss that 50-gallon garbage can.

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31 thoughts on “Swiss Saturday, err Friday: Garbage Tourism

  1. On Facebook we have these great “buy nothing” groups just for your local area; the idea of “another man’s trash is another mans treasure…” so I always post stuff online for free before I toss anything! It’s a great trade!

    1. I do that as well, but my experience is that if you post something that’s cheap or free, people feel no obligation to actually show up, or they want you to come meet them.

      I had a woman that wanted me to travel 20 minutes for the privilege of giving her a free book.

      So, yeah, I can do that, but it’s a huge pain in the butt.

      1. Are you about to put big things outside and post a photo for FREE and then remove when gone? I’ve done that and always had luck. I put something out on my curb, go online and post the photo and the address with a brief description, say it’s free, and say I’ll remove the ad when it’s gone. Someone ALWAYS comes and takes it away.

  2. Most Gemeinde have a „Bulky item“ removal service. You buy a sticker, put the item on the street on the proper day and it gets collected. Look in your Gemeinde website under „Entsorgung“ for „Sperrgut“.

    Still not cheap, but better than CHF 250 unless that was a HUGE bookcase!

    1. It was two huge bookcases, two dressers, and a wardrobe. But, because we moved, I would have had to bring the stuff to my new house to wait until the next bulky item day. Then, hope I don’t miss it!

      No thanks!

  3. I’m laughing because in the 10 years I have lived in Basel (from the US), the two different garbage systems have fascinated me and my US friends. In Switzerland, I have turned into the “Ed Gien of Garbage, and am like the other Swiss cutting up garage in a piece of garbage’s least bulky form. My stuffed Blue Basel Bags are epic. However, I must say my US garbage system is overall better, at least where my US home is located. In addition to the 50 gallon garbage bin that comes weekly, my community also collects single-sort recycling bi-weekly. Most everything now goes into the recycling bin, all of which get collected (no sorting), so I tend to have almost everything now recycled and extremely little garbage anymore. I end up recycling more in the US that in Switzerland, ironically.

  4. Well thank for writing an article that has absolutely NOTHING to do with Human Resources, managing, business, the United States, or anything else anyone in this here country really cares about.
    While a fascinating treatise on garbage, if you did indeed live in the United States, or at least kept current, you would understand you are living in the past. Of course, most of your other articles are mostly wrong and give dangerously incorrect advice.
    But back to the subject. Here in the good ole US trash pickup has changed (long ago) in most areas. Putting anything and everything on curb typically results in stuff just sitting there. Most cities regulate the amount and type of garbage, the size and weight and number of bags. Quite a number require separating recyclables or have recycling centers.
    The next time you write perhaps you might want to investigate what actually happens in the US (that goes for your HR stuff too). But really, we could care less what happens in Switzerland.

    1. Parker, I’m so glad you commented! I was afraid you were sick or injured when you didn’t complain about my last post that I was sure you’d find objectionable!

    2. Kindly refrain from saying ‘we’ and speak for your own snooty disinterest, Parker. The Swiss Saturday posts have been a feature for a while and I for one enjoy them. It’s her blog and she can write whatever the heck she wants.

      For someone who doesn’t care what Suzanne thinks, you sure seem invested in telling everyone about it.

    3. I like the Swiss stuff. And I’ve been an HR practitioner for 33 years and EHRL is most factually correct. And about US trash: where I live none of the stuff you said applies.

    4. A) I love “Swiss Saturday” posts.

      B) What “most cities” are you talking about? Here in the Boston area, they’ll pick up pretty much anything – unless it’s home furnishings, and the students get to them first.

      (we have zero-sort recycling, too, but I’m not really a fan. Certainly more stuff winds up in the recycling bin, but less of it can actually be recycled by the time it makes it to the processing centers)

  5. Aw, c’mon, Parker, some of us really do enjoy Susan’s entries on how life in Switzerland is different from the US. And she picks such interesting subjects to challenge our American assumptions about how life is. Even HR people have lives, after all.

  6. The company I use here in the US does take into account how much trash you generate. I managed to get the price dropped since I only put out one or two bags a week. I do wish recycling were mandatory here–it would reduce waste, and it would make more jobs too (processing, pickup, etc.).

    Sometimes, if I want to get rid of something, I put it by the curb with a sign that says “FREE” and it disappears. Once I put a lawnmower with a leaky gas tank out (I did warn people on the sign I attached) and went inside. I came back out three minutes later and it was gone, LOL.

    1. I got my bike because someone put it out on the curb with a free sign.

      I did that here with my kids old, big toys. They were gone within minutes and I’m happy that they went.

      I think it makes a ton of sense to charge based on usage. Contrary to Parker’s assertion, not every town works the way he thinks it does. I was at my sister’s this summer and the whole big garbage can stuffed with whatever was still going strong. However, they also had a big recycling can as well, but they didn’t accept cardboard for recycling! How weird is that?

      1. In the US, mandatory sorting for recycling has very little to do with the environment, and everything to do with shifting the cost of sorting from the trash hauling company (which has to pay its employees to do it) to the consumer (who works for free). It increases the profits to be had from recycling (which are mostly from subsidies, except for certain metals like aluminum and copper).

  7. I think Switzerland is simply ahead of the U. S. As America runs out of landfill space — which it, rapidly, is — we will, probably, have to start paying more for our garbage collection and receiving more pressure to recycle. I say “paying more” because — even though City garbage collection is “free,” there is a charge for it on our water bills. I, also, have put useful items out on the curb and found them — almost instantly — picked up by others. I also donate books to the Public Library, or put them in the Little Public Library boxes or sell them to Half-Price Books. There are a lot of collection boxes around for used clothing and shoes. And, we can also donate just about anything to Goodwill or Salvation Army. The local Police are allowing people to meet on their premises for the purpose of transacting donations or sales arranged through Craig’s List, eBay, etc. Reuse, Repurpose or Recycle!

  8. I lived in Quincy, Illinois from 1994 to 1998. We had to buy stickers at the grocery store and put one on each bag of trash we threw out. Like the Swiss, I got very, very good at stuffing those bags full.

    1. Yeah, my friends live in a town with the “blue garbage bags” and the bags are even more expensive than the Swiss ones ($3 each). After noticing how many bags their new neighbors were generating, they gave them some tips on getting more efficient at trash packing.

    2. How odd! I was just coming here to talk about my experience living in Quincy and nearby areas (grew up in a town near Qcy, but lived in Quincy after I moved back to the area after college). I lived there after 2002, but they had a two-tiered system for the stickers at that time. The regular one required one sticker for the smaller, white garbage bags and this had a weight limit (I can’t remember it it was 30 or 50 pounds), but they required two of those stickers for the larger, black bags or anything over that weight limit. If you weren’t sure, they’d somehow figure it out and leave whatever was over weight limit on the curb.

      Recycling was ridiculous. You’d get ONE, tiny recycling box (and God help you if something happens to that, like it blows away in a tornado), but it had to be packed very specifically or they wouldn’t pick up the items in it. Newspapers had to be flat (can be founded in half) on the bottom. Then metal in one paper bag on top of the newspapers and plastic in another paper bag. If you didn’t have a paper bag on hand, too bad, because they wouldn’t pick up anything that wasn’t already bagged. (They literally just threw these things in the truck, so I have no idea why we had to sort so carefully.) I didn’t know this the first few times, so I finally had to ask my landlady why they weren’t picking up my recycling.

      They’d do grass clippings and such in special yard-waste bag, which required an additional and separate sticker.

      The companies were very particular about all of these things, so my landlady (who lived in the bottom part of the house) paid to have regular garbage cans from a different company that she could put whatever bags in she wanted for a monthly fee. The two apartments upstairs weren’t supposed to use it, but I finally asked for special permission just for my cat litter. It did NOT remotely weight 30 or 50 pounds, but they refused to take a bag that only had a little pan’s worth of litter in it, because it was “too heavy.” (The whole bag of litter that I purchased was only 25 pounds, and that would last me months for my one cat.)

      I was so glad to move to another state after all that. I do not want to think THAT much about my recycling. Washing and sorting it without the special configuration requirements in the recycling box is enough for me! (We do still have to sort it, but I have no problems sorting my recycling–just having to have a very specific bento-box style to get it picked up.)

  9. I live in the USA, like another commentator, and, yes the rules for trash disposal have changed radically over the years. The last big item I threw out ( a worn out old couch), I had to check with both my city dumping department and the actual trash truck workers to see when and if I could place it at curbside at one of the pickup dates. It took real planning to get correct timing. They actually prefer you bring all big items to local dump site and pay for dumping the item. I have no problem paying for removal if I can get a reliable company to do this, which I plan to do when I get my TBB bed set. Big items like furniture cost money to dispose of, which causes people to just dump them at curb without regard to local neighborhood.
    My state has mandated rules on how trash is to be dumped but we have many who totally ignore the rules. I am currently trying to get cameras put up in spots in my neighborhood where constant illegal dumping is occurring because those doing the dumping don’t want to pay the fees at dumpsite.
    Granted it would be nice to not have fees but it is worth it to remove garbage. The point of your article is that we need to be aware our environmental impact and lesson the amount of disposal trash including the big items. I would not utilize anyone who advertised on Facebook as they aren’t local. I may try using the Next Door app which has only people in my local area to find someone to take my stuff to dump site.( paying the fees and cost of the pickup)

    1. I had to add another note to my comment, especially after re-reading the article. We actually have all those rules in place here in the USA, ( breakdown of what is re-cycled and when to put out for pickup). Yes it is a pain to do, especially when I know I could get money if I bring the re-cycle cans and bottles to the crusher machines at our local supermarket but since people hog the machine ( those professional collectors who earn a living doing this, tax-free), I simply make sure that I put it in the right bag. The biggest problem with being recycle conscience is dealing with those who don’t and those who go through the trash for items to make money on.
      Sending items to a Goodwill center is problematic as they only want sellable items, plus there are people who go to these places to “buy” to resell at a profit. Like others, I find it hard to throw away something that can be used (books,DVDs, clothing) so I give those to places that are known to be recycling use to those who need it. But lately, I just find a way to put these items into recycle trash to avoid the thieves. After all, I brought it, so I can determine when it is trash.

  10. My US system (in Oregon) seems more like your Swiss system than your former US system. Here, you do pay based on how much trash your family generates, because you can choose the size of your trash can, and smaller is cheaper. I actually have a larger one because I’d rather pay a little more per month to only have to take the can to the street every 2-3 weeks rather than being forced to do it weekly (I have a long gravel driveway).

    We also have recycling for “free” included with the trash service, which incentivizes folks to recycle. However, all our recyclables except glass can be mixed together in one (very large) bin. At my old house, this was picked up every other week (with yard waste being picked up in the in-between weeks during the spring, summer, and fall). At my current house, it’s only picked up once a month, but you provide your own trash cans for it (and mark them with a big obvious R, for recycling), and they’ll pick up as many as you put out for the same base fee you pay for your trash. I actually bought a second and third can when I had a TON of stuff to throw out after moving, but now that I have a burn barrel, I don’t have nearly as much recycling.

    Our dump sounds similar to yours–your vehicle is weighed before and after, and you pay by weight. I took a small U-haul’s worth (though it was loaded in a friend’s horse trailer) and it was only like $30, though, or about what I was paying per month for curbside pickup, so that’s not bad. They take recycling and yard debris for free (and the yard debris, the compost and then sell the compost), plus they have various themed days throughout the year–free appliance day, free prescription meds day, free shredding day, etc.

    1. This is what we have in Washington too. A small trash can and a much larger recycling can, and anything that doesn’t fit in the designated bin isn’t picked up and must be hauled to the dump. Only difference is our recycling is picked up every week just like our trash.

  11. The tax trash bags arrived here in Valais/Wallis this year and there’s been a lot of complaining. Me, I’m still convinced the Swiss could do better: I come from Italy and there are a lot of things we recycle back there that you can’t recycle here, which baffles me.
    Anyway it’s important to recycle, reuse and generally try to reduce the amount of trash we produce, so I’m all in favor of making trash expensive, because that’s how most people are going to change, unfortunately.
    I’m at the border with France and Italy and so far I only read complaint about “trash tourism” in France: the frontier guards have probably been warned about this phenomenon on all borders I guess, because they usually inspect your car trunk every time, even if they don’t go through all the stuff.

      1. Note that I’m comparing what happens in my Swiss canton (or municipality?) with what happens in my Italian town. There can be differences in the same country… anyway: tetrapak, compostable waste including used kleenex and paper towels, all plastic packaging and not just PET are the first that come to mind. These are all types of waste that I could recycle back home and now I have to put in the taxed bags, unless I buy a compost bin (which I plan to do) or I bring some specific items to the supermarkets that collect them. You’ve probably seen the containers in Migros, Coop, etc where you can throw plastic bottles, batteries, etc, but they are often full.

  12. Happy Easter, EHRL!

    E-mail me your hard-to-dispose-of stuff. I’ll print it out and take it to the Salvation Army here in Denton, Texas. Glad to help!

    1. Happy Easter to you too!

      Your plan is a good one! Although there seems to be a small flaw in your reasoning…

  13. I’ve lived in a few places around the US and I’ve experienced each of those “novel” approaches to disposal. Where I live now, our property taxes pay for one container of “free” trash, but unlimited recycling. If we have extra trash, we buy special orange bags. Stuff that’s left on the curb just sits there until you buy a special sticker. Another place I’ve lived required us to weigh the trash and we paid by the pound — since it cost a lot to ship it off the island.

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