Nothing gets me more excited than recycling and composting (or pisses me off more than people who don’t). Just ask my boss Steve how many times I went through his trashcan to remove Coke cans while simultaneously scolding him. Or our Denver tenants, who I’m sure are enjoying the smell of three defrosting and very full compost bins I left behind.
So, I was super excited to move here and find out that Switzerland recycles everything from cooking oil to clothing. Recycling here isn’t just environmentally friendly, it saves you money because unlike trash disposal, recycling and composting are free! In true Swiss fashion, they have neat and organized places in which to recycle. Unfortunately, as I soon found out, the list of rules and regulations surrounding recycling could rival the US Tax Code.
While living in our temporary housing in Zurich proper, we had a cleaning service provided by the building. I would leave out my recyclables in one pile and throw trash in the bin. I thought they were handling the recycling of my goods until one day I came home while they were still cleaning and discovered they were taking my painstakingly sorted recyclables and chucking them into a massive garbage bag along with the garbage. Horrified, I started taking matters into my own hands.
Every few weeks I would notice neatly tied up bundles of paper that were left out on the curb, each tied in the exact same sized and colored twine. Got it, okay paper recycling check. For around $5, I purchased some of this Swiss-Regulation-Paper-Recycling twine. Easy enough. Then I noticed the self recycling center half way between my apartment and the tram. There were four bins and some strange looking receptacle I later found out was for recycling oil. You sort by white glass, green glass, brown glass and aluminum. Got that too. But where do plastic and milk cartons go? What about plastic bags?
Swiss Style Recycling – Neatly tied bundles of paper
While I was still trying to figure out the great plastic/milk box mystery, I started paying attention more to the glass/metal recycling station. I noticed without fail, at a minimum of once a week, someone had posted a sign. Was it about a missing dog, a stolen bicycle? Curiosity got the best of me and word by word I started to translate these notes. To my surprise, these were notes written by neighborhood residents complaining about the lack of recycling etiquete. Someone had made to much noise recycling, another person had dared to recycle on a Sunday. Gasp- the horror! Someone else was super pissed that a large glass bottle, too large to fit in the recycling hole was left next to it instead. Holy Shit, recycling is serious business for the Swiss.
Out of sheer paranoia, I started to google recycling rules in Switzerland and found page after page of do’s and dont’s. One Expat had even written about being given a hefty fine for recycling on Sunday and another had received a fine in the mail from the city. Their transgression? They hadn’t recycled their paper properly and the paper recycling dude dug through their pile of paper to find evidence of who the culprit was. The American Womens Club of Zurich even hosts a seminar on how to recycle here which is high on my to do list.
Someone is totally getting in trouble for leaving stuff next to the recycling bin- wasn’t me!
I had done my due diligence and I thought, hey, I’m on top of this I TOTALLY know what I’m doing. I even figured out the plastic and milk carton thing (kind of). Naturally, they get recycled at the grocery stores. Then a few days later, it all went to shit.
We had just moved into our permanent home in Au and I discovered a recycling center right near the bus stop and in walking distance from our house. My only mission for the day was to recycle so I headed out to the recycling center armed with my stroller piled high in recycling bags, hand sanitizer and my two kids. It was bitter cold, sleeting and both kids were starting to meltdown. One sticky beer bottle at a time, I quickly placed each one in the appropriate bin and was feeling VERY accomplished. As I started to walk away, I noticed a dumpster that had a round hole that looked just like a plastic bag recycling container in America. I was so excited that not only did I not have to carry these gross sticky bags home, but I found a place to recycle plastic bags as well. I shoved the bags in the hole and was adjusting the rain cover on a the stroller of a screaming child when a man in a bright orange prison jump suit jumped out from between the bins and started screaming at me in German.
I should tell you my German totally sucks. Three months ago it was even worse. I hadn’t even managed to master the phrase “I don’t speak German” without looking at it written on paper. There was no way in hell I was going to be able to recall this phrase when put on the spot by a man screaming at me. I managed to mutter “Nein Deutch” at which point he pulled out an official looking badge and pointed at it. I can only surmise he was granted a title such as “Master of the Trash Bins” or something equally impressive.
He clearly spoke no English, I no German, and so we continued on, pointing, gesturing all while he continued to scream at me. He asked me for ID, which of course I didn’t have, nor did I have my cell phone, purse or anything to hit him with. Lilybelle started crying profuselly while Lincoln screamed back at him in English trying to defend me. WTF had I done???? Was I going to be arrested by the recycling police? He motioned me over to the dumpster I had deposited my plastic bags in, my bags still peeking through the hole. Then he opened the entire top to the dumpster and pointed at what was inside. Inside was a mix of plastic bags and other garbage. The bin was clearly labeled “Plastik Sack”, but absent Google Translate, my deductive translating capabilities were clearly “kaputt”.
Here they take garbage very seriously too. It is expensive to dispose of garbage and can only be done so in city specific mandated garbage bags that of course you pay for and are all uniform in size and color. Disposing of garbage in any other kind of bag is strictly verboten and they will hunt you down and fine you.
City mandated garbage bags – nothing can be disposed of in anything else – or else.
He then proceeded to accuse me of being the one to throw all the garbage in the bin and even yelled at me for throwing so many plastic bags in the bin. Apparently the rule is one bag per person or something along those lines. I guess the jump suit clad asshole didn’t appreciate just how many bags of recycling I had brought that day.
Lincoln was now crying, wet and shivering and clinging to my leg, Lilybelle was terrified and was cowering in her stroller. That’s when I lost it. I started to bawl. And that my friends was my ticket out of there. If there is anything that I have learned about the Swiss (other than their analness surrounding trash disposal and their love of yelling at ex-pats), is that they do not like noise – unless it is bell related. This man needed to shut down these three loud American hysterics and he needed to do it fast.
He extended his hand to me, a white flag if you will, and shook mine gently. Through my tears I muttered “entschuldigung” (excuse me) which was the closest thing to sorry I knew. He then walked me over to the recycling bins and slowly pointed to each one mouthing the German words for each – Grünes Glas etc…Recycling 101 for dumb foreigners.
What did I learn that day??? Stay the F away from that recycling center for the rest of my life. Like a true environmentalist, I now drive to one that is in a field with no structures anywhere nearby in which a person could hide. I also do all my recycling in private; early in the morning or late at night when no one can see me and only after I have confirmed there is not a soul in sight. So if you have any tips, tricks or insight, please, for the love of God, comment here so that I know what I’m doing wrong (or right).