Wrong Garbage Bag? Swiss Trash Police Are On the CaseCatherine Bosley and Carolyn Bandel
Zurich police gave Judith Schulte two options: pay a 250-franc ($280) fine or spend two nights in jail. Schulte’s crime: dropping off her recycling on a Sunday.
“Who’d have thought that people would be such sticklers about garbage,” said the 35-year-old German communications executive, a Swiss resident for the last seven years, who opted to pay the fine after a neighbor in her affluent district in the hills above lake Zurich reported her misdemeanor. “I can understand that people don’t want to be disturbed, but going to the police over a few bottles seems a bit much.”
Municipal laws -- including bans on mowing the lawn on a Sunday -- are an aspect of Swiss public life that can prove difficult for newcomers. Failing to observe them irks the Swiss, who in February voted to reintroduce immigration limits for European Union citizens. The government is expected to present an implementation plan by the end of the month.
More than 20 percent of Switzerland’s 8 million inhabitants aren’t citizens, and in Zurich and Basel a third of the residents don’t have a Swiss passport. While many of the European arrivals are well educated and come to the country to take jobs at banks like UBS AG or with pharmaceuticals companies Novartis AG and Roche AG, fitting in isn’t always easy.
‘No Police State’
“We Swiss like it clean and appealing,” said Juerg Hofer, who retired as director of Basel’s Office for Environment and Energy at the end of May. The agency is in charge of a team of garbage detectives hunting for litter offenders.
The four-person crew, created in 2012 in response to public demand, works in pairs, slicing open trash bags for clues to ownership, such as medicine packaging. Putting the trash out too early incurs a 50 franc penalty, while dumping it illegally can carry a 200 franc fine. The objective of the inspections is to get people to follow the rules and not to raise money, said Hofer.
“We don’t want a police state, not even the semblance of one,” he said. “But on the other hand, people are upset by garbage.”
Garbage detectives are even protagonists in a tongue-in-cheek Swiss television show produced by public broadcaster SRF. The three-man team clad in neon orange gear never catches any miscreants.
Famous for its fresh air and tidy streets, Switzerland recycles more garbage per capita than any EU country except for Germany, according to Eurostat data for 2012. While not mandatory, recycling in Zurich or Basel saves people money as they are only charged for residual waste, for which they typically buy bags from the municipality. A 35-liter (9-gallon) bag costs 2.3 francs in Basel and 1.7 francs in Zurich. Not using the special bags gets the garbage detectives on the case.
While recycling is typically free, rules can take some time getting used to: Newspapers and cardboard must be separated, tied in neat bunches and placed at the curb no earlier than the evening before collection. Cans and glass bottles are deposited at neighborhood dumps, sorted by color, while light bulbs, batteries and plastic bottles are returned to supermarkets.
Not all cantons charge for garbage bags, occasionally leading people to dump their trash in a neighboring municipality to avoid fees, a practice dubbed garbage tourism. Towns across the border in Germany have also complained about Swiss people dropping off their litter.
The Basel office received 5,300 reports of illegally dumped trash last year, while in 670 instances old microwaves and other electronics were incorrectly left on the street. In 2013, the neighborhoods with the highest number of garbage infractions were also those with the largest proportion of foreign residents, according to data from the Basel statistics office.
“I think it has something to do with income and people’s relationship with the state -- whether you accept the rules of the game or not,” Hofer said.
To some, forbidding recycling on Sundays detracts from addressing bigger nuisances, such as airplane noise.
“It’s a bit strange that planes are allowed to fly over our heads early in the morning, but if you want to recycle your glass bottles at the same time of day it is a big problem,” said Scott Eaton, a Swiss-Australian citizen, who lives in Gockhausen, in the flight path of planes from Zurich airport.
To be sure, authorities do try to ease the acclimatization process. Like Basel, the city of Zurich prints information pamphlets explaining how to recycle and even offers an orientation class, including a visit to the city’s garbage incinerator. A free text messaging service sends people reminders on paper and cardboard collection.
“We want to have a population that likes living here and contributes to public life,” said Christof Meier, director of Zurich’s office for fostering integration. “In the past the Swiss had the image of foreigners who held undesirable jobs at low wages. The fact is, these days it’s more likely the foreigner is our boss.”
Julius Baer Group Ltd. Chief Economist Janwillem Acket, who holds a Dutch passport, experienced the national preoccupation with garbage when he applied for Swiss citizenship and was quizzed on which day of the week his trash was picked up.
“It has something to do with the way people understand the state -- nationhood isn’t understood to be linguistic, being Swiss has something to do with proving yourself worthy of being in the club,” said Michael Hermann, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Zurich. “The question of being Swiss and being different from neighboring countries, it’s a phenomenon that’s particularly strong in the German-speaking regions.”
In the meantime, Schulte, whom her friends teasingly call “criminal Judith” after the bottle incident, is still fuming about the police summons.
“I got so angry, it was almost funny,” she said. “It’s terrible that the neighbor didn’t speak up -- just to report someone without confronting them, that’s absurd.”