It’s My Recycling and I’ll Cry If I Want To

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

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!

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.

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). 

Categories: Switzerland | Tags: , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “It’s My Recycling and I’ll Cry If I Want To

  1. Susan

    That made me laugh, thank you! One thing though, recycling early morning and late at night could also get you into trouble, no noise before 7am or after 10pm. They have a mobile camera where we live which watches to make sure no one is recycling on a Sunday or at quiet times. Be warned!


  2. joanenglishteacher

    Here in Murten, we have a recyling centre run by the Gemeinde like a little dictatorship. I never go there because they are so strict. Fortunately we also have one run by a private company. It’s up a steep hill so you more or less have to go by car (how green!) and you still have to separate everything. But they also just take any general rubbish for which you pay by weight.


  3. Don’t go too late at night or that will get you a fine too ; )


  4. Gabriela Laasner

    I laughed and laughed! and now I just want to HUG you TIGHT!!!!! : ) I’m half expat kid and geneticaly half swiss.. I adore Recycling but can’t be arsed with any grief given by annoying locals (there is allways at least one hanging around..) so I do an enjoyable big recycle-run to Maag once a month where the Team is super friendly, super helpful ! Good luck, Keep up the good work and DON’T loose faith!! Life here is irritating but GOOD!!!


  5. Love this. I live near Basel. I can take my glass till 8 at night. I watched a programme on rubbish in England the other day and was amazed at how unorganised it was. All recycling is collected together and then sorted by hand. Much more organised here and no fly tipping.


  6. sachi mitchell

    Hilarious, Aviva!! Loved reading your blog!


  7. I share your pain. Here in Zug the Oki run by the Gemeinde is best avoided. The staff scowl and shout and I always end up queuing ages just to park. The workers have no concept that we tax-payers are paying their damn wages and that they are actually there to help. Even some of my Swiss neighbours get nervous ahead of a visit there.

    I go to the recycling at Migros in the Zugerland shopping mall. It is smaller scale and supervised, but the staff seem much more chilled than at the town facility. There must be a similar one attached to a large supermarket near you.


  8. Laura K Ockelkorn

    awww I’m not in Switzerland but in The Netherlands and we do recycling differently.
    Cans go in the regular trash.. they do recycle them but we don’t have to sort them out! Some machine does it.
    Cardboard and paper you can either bring to a bin that has zero rules on it or you can leave out in front of your apt building or in a special trash bin if you have a house once a month.
    Plastic is picked up 2x a month and we get special bags for it for free and again just toss in front of your home
    Glass is sorted by clear or colored and we have to bring it ourselves. You can get fined for not recycling glass but they aren’t doing it really.. they leave a note in your mail box if they can tell you put glass in the reg trash
    If you live in a house you also have organic garbage that you separate so food items, coffee filters that are used, egg shells, all that goes in there.

    If you buy bottles at the store that have a deposit (25 cents usually) you can return to the store for money.

    We pay 1 euro per bag we toss in the dumpster and we have to use a card to open it so they know to charge us so that def is an incentive to recycle!


  9. Sam

    I live in Baselland and was “caught” recycling glass bottles in Baselstadt – someone with nothing else to do with their life noticed my car number plate and that I was out of canton ! He played merry hell with me ……


  10. I couldn’t help but laugh – but mostly because this is something that would totally happen to me. Thankfully in the Netherlands, it’s not so bad. And when we lived in Spain they just had dumpsters marked with what went in each – super easy. But it’s always something, isn’t it??


  11. Ugh! I would have reacted the same way! The only time I’ve been yelled at by a local Swiss was just recently. I was on the bus with a big suitcase and apparently the driver didn’t like where I was sitting. He started talking to me in German and when I didn’t respond he pulled over and physically moved my suitcase to the back of the bus. Sooo embarassing! I had to blink back my tears of rage…of course two stops later a person in a wheelchair came on and I had to move again.


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