Raw materials, waste and the circular economy: In brief

In terms of volume of municipal solid waste per capita, Switzerland is among the top of the list internationally. The goals of using raw materials sustainably and systematically ensuring closed-loop material cycles have yet to be achieved. This must be done by designing products so that they use less material and energy to manufacture and use, are more durable and can easily be repaired, reused or recycled. Additionally, waste management must increasingly become a platform for (secondary) raw materials.

1. Economic growth, housing, food and mobility (drivers)

The strength of Switzerland's economy and the spending power of its population encourage the high demand for raw materials and high levels of consumption.

Increasing use of raw materials can be attributed to the following factors:

  • technological advances
  • social changes and trends (new products)
  • an increasingly rapid succession of product generations
  • faster changing fashion trends (fast fashion)
  • low-price strategies and extensive product lines

In the current market and regulatory environment, incentives to design products to be durable, repairable and reusable are lacking for many manufacturers. Many of the raw materials (minerals, biomass, fossil fuels and other materials) quickly become waste on account of the above factors.

The increasing technical complexity of products, especially of electronic applications, and the mobility towards electric vehicles means the recycling or reconditioning of batteries will become more important, as will the recovery of rare technical metals.

As the economy and population grow, so, too, do construction activities. In volume terms, the construction sector will continue to dominate material flows. Due to climate policy requirements, buildings are becoming increasingly more energy-efficient. This means that efforts to reduce 'grey energy' or 'grey emissions' (emissions along the supply chain both in Switzerland and abroad) are increasingly coming into focus.

Reducing food waste has great potential as a way of reducing the environmental impact of food. Swiss food consumption causes 2.8 million tonnes of avoidable food waste per year along the entire value chain. Although much of this waste is currently used as animal feed or for energy production, the potential for reducing environmental pollution is high.

The consumption sectors of nutrition, housing and mobility currently account for around 70% of the environmental impact generated by Swiss consumption.

2. Growing consumption of raw materials and rising waste volumes (pressures)

The total quantity of raw materials required in Switzerland or abroad to cover Swiss demand for goods and services continues to grow.

Material efficiency has improved, as the Swiss economy grew significantly more from 2000 to 2019 than its material footprint. Fortunately, a certain decoupling has taken place here. Nevertheless, the consumption of minerals, biomass, fossil fuels and other raw materials has continued to rise in absolute terms. At just under 17 tonnes per person, the material footprint is above both the European average and a long-term sustainable footprint of five to eight tonnes.

The largest volumes of raw materials are used in the construction sector (building construction, and civil and underground engineering), which uses some 62 million tonnes annually (of which 75% is concrete, sand and gravel, and 9% is fuels). A further 7 million tonnes of resources are used for mobility, 88% of which is in the form of fuel. Around 18 million tonnes of materials are used for production and consumption, of which half is used for domestic food production.

Overall, Switzerland generates about 80 to 90 million tonnes of waste annually, and it is fair to assume that the total quantity will continue to rise in the future.

The largest share of waste in Switzerland is generated by construction activity: excavated and quarried materials comprise just under two thirds of all waste (57 million tonnes), and a fifth of the waste stems from the demolition of buildings, roads and railway lines (17 million tonnes).

The second largest waste category is the constantly increasing quantity of municipal solid waste (7%): In 2020, 6.1 million tonnes of waste was generated (from households, office buildings, small businesses, yards and gardens as well as from public waste bins) compared with 1.9 million in 1970 and 4.7 million in 2000). At the same time, the per capita quantity of waste rose from 659 kg in 2000 to 700 kg in 2020. This makes Switzerland one of the highest waste producers in Europe.

Of the remaining waste in 2020, more than 6% was of biogenic origin (predominantly food and wood waste, as well as much smaller proportions of biowaste from industry and commerce, green waste and dry sewage sludge), 2% was hazardous waste, and another 2% was iron and steel scrap.

In addition to the increasing quantity of waste, the composition of the waste is also changing. The trend towards the production of more complex products poses additional challenges for environmentally friendly disposal. Composite materials (e.g. composite packaging, composite materials in construction) that cannot be easily broken down into their individual components are problematic.

The consumption of non-renewable resources also leaves its mark: despite the well-functioning waste disposal system, around 14,000 tonnes of plastics are released into the environment in Switzerland every year.

3. Closing cycles, environmentally-friendly disposal, and technical innovations (state)

A circular economy is guided by the principle that raw materials and products should be used efficiently and for as long as possible. As opposed to a linear economy, products and raw materials are re-used and therefore kept in the cycle. There is great potential for a more sustainable use of raw materials in:

  • construction and building materials
  • electronics applications and rare technical metals
  • packaging (including plastics)
  • biowaste (including food waste)

At present, over two thirds (70%) of Switzerland's total waste volume is recycled. Measured against total material consumption, materials recovered from waste (known as secondary raw materials) make up only a small proportion: 14% in 2019, with the remainder coming from domestic extraction or imports. The proportion of secondary raw materials has risen steadily over the past 20 years. But even if all waste could be recovered, it would still only correspond to a fifth of the current need for materials. For a circular economy, therefore, additional strategies besides recycling are needed to help reduce material consumption.

Around 70% of deconstruction materials are recycled because they are valuable secondary materials; 75% of excavated materials are recycled. The quantity of deconstruction materials that is currently landfilled or incinerated in waste incineration plants (WIPs) amounts to over 5 million tonnes, which is still a substantial amount. Building material recycling can be further optimised from a qualitative perspective as well. One challenge that must be met is eliminating pollutants from deconstruction materials, for example asbestos or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

While the volume of municipal solid waste being incinerated has risen only slightly since 2000, the share of waste collected separately and recycled has steadily increased. Since 2005, more than half of municipal solid waste has been reintroduced into the economy as secondary raw materials (2020: 53%). Recycling focuses on established materials such as glass (recycling rate in 2020: 99%), PET (recycling rate in 2020: 82%), aluminium (recycling rate in 2020: 97%), paper (recycling rate in 2020: 82%).

When it comes to plastic waste from households, the challenges with regard to sorting and recycling are still great due to the numerous types of plastic and additives as well as the sometimes considerable contamination.

The potential of biowaste is high. Every year, from farm to fork, around 2.8 million tonnes of avoidable food waste is generated in Switzerland every year. In households alone, around one million tonnes of food that would still have been edible is disposed of as waste every year. Around half of this ends up in the refuse and is thermally recycled.

In 2020, approximately 1.85 million tonnes of hazardous waste underwent special treatment in Switzerland or was exported for environmentally sustainable disposal under strictly monitored conditions (0.5 million tonnes). This hazardous waste mainly originates from the remediation of contaminated sites, which must be completed by 2040. Almost a third of hazardous waste is recycled.

Switzerland has established a well-functioning waste disposal system in which public and private waste disposal companies work together. The disposal infrastructure needs to be constantly improved to incorporate the latest technologies so that valuable raw materials from electronic scrap, plastic waste and residues from waste incineration can be recovered in the foreseeable future.

4. Increasing scarcity of raw materials, environmental impact and disposal costs (impact)

Both the manufacture of products and the disposal of waste have ecological and economic impacts. In addition to the consumption of scarce raw materials, the disposal process, including the necessary infrastructure, is costly.

Approximately half of global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress is caused by the extraction and processing of raw materials.

Production and consumption still rely to a large extent on non-renewable resources. The extraction and processing of many imported raw materials and energy sources have a heavy environmental impact in the country of origin. Due to the large quantities of imported goods, two-thirds of the total environmental impact associated with resource use in this country currently occurs abroad. The worst offenders are feedstuffs (such as soy), cotton, coffee, cocoa, tea, animal products, palm oil, peat, fossil fuels and metals.

The disposal of all waste costs Switzerland a good CHF 3 billion a year. The 'polluter pays' principle is widely applied in Switzerland, i.e. whoever creates the waste must also pay for its disposal. Polluter-pays charges help to increase the recycling of waste. In addition, they ensure the financing of a well-functioning and environmentally sound municipal waste disposal system and bring about a certain pressure on the authorities and associations involved to organise their activities as economically as possible.

Littering, where people throw away or leave small amounts of municipal waste without using the waste bins or collection points provided for this purpose, is a growing phenomenon which creates additional work for waste management. Littering generates annual costs of around CHF 200 million for communes as well as for public transport, not including the additional costs incurred by private individuals and, in particular, farms.

When it comes to construction waste, the environmental impacts result less from the contained pollutants and more from the very large volumes of waste itself. Although the vast majority can be recycled, approximately 17 million tonnes of construction waste take up the limited available space in landfills every year.

Plastics enter soils and water bodies through the use of plastic products (e.g. tyre abrasion, decomposition of films from construction and agriculture) and through the improper disposal of plastic waste. The environmental impact of plastics in Switzerland stems from two main factors: on one side, the high consumption of plastics (1 million tonnes per year) and the waste that results from this (790,000 tonnes per year) and, on the other, the large number of emission sources and the durability of the material. This leads to plastics being found in soils, surface waters and their sediments, the air as well as in the digestive tract of living organisms. However, further research is needed on the environmental and health impacts of such exposure.

5. Waste avoidance, strengthening of the circular economy, and international agreements (responses)

The principles of avoidance and recovery of waste are enshrined in the Environmental Protection Act and thus an important principle of the circular economy. The aim of the Ordinance on the Avoidance and Disposal of Waste (Waste Ordinance, ADWO) is to protect living organisms and the environment from harmful effects or nuisances caused by waste.

With the enactment of the Waste Ordinance, the Federal Council already sent a strong signal for the circular economy in 2016. In that year, Switzerland became the first country in the world to make it obligatory to recover the nutrient phosphorus: from 1 January 2026, phosphorus has been recovered from sewage sludge, animal and bone meal and reused in agriculture or the chemical industry. The Federal Council has granted the cantons and the business community a 10-year period of grace.

In 2020, the federal government took stock of its previous activities to promote the sustainable use of resources in its Green Economy report. Based on this report, the Federal Council mandated the Federal Administration to propose further measures to improve resource efficiency and to promote the circular economy.

The 2021–2023 Action Plan accompanying the 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy also features a number of measures dealing with consumption and production. Examples include action on food waste, the revision of the foreign economic strategy and doing more to monitor the impact of free trade agreements.

To achieve the goal of halving avoidable food waste by 2030 in accordance with the 2030 Agenda, the Federal Council drafted in 2022 an action plan to tackle food waste.

The Federal Act on Public Procurement, revised in 2021, and the Federal Administration's procurement strategy accord sustainability a higher priority when awarding contracts. Environmental impacts should therefore be taken into account throughout the entire life cycle [of a product or service].

In 2020, the Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy Committee (ESPEC) of the National Council launched the parliamentary initiative entitled ‘Strengthening the Swiss Circular Economy’ which calls for a revision of the EPA. By strengthening the circular economy, the environmental impact at home and abroad is to be reduced along the entire life cycle of products and structures, material cycles are to be closed and resource efficiency improved. A circular economy can reduce the economy's reliance on (imported) raw materials, open up new business models, promote innovations and create local jobs.

Furthermore, on the basis of various political initiatives, the federal government is reviewing measures to tackle environmental damage through plastics as well as framework conditions for establishing a nationwide plastics collection and material recovery scheme.

Switzerland is also actively involved in various international agreements and conventions:

  • For example, Switzerland has launched a Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative and a Partnership on Computing Equipment, as part of the Basel Convention, to promote sustainable management of mobile telephones and computers that are no longer in use and has thereby helped to ensure that mixed plastic waste has been brought under control.
  • In 2016, the federal government ratified the Minamata Convention on the reduction of mercury emissions.
  • On the international stage, Switzerland also participates in an OECD working group with the goal of strengthening cooperation in resource and waste management.
  • As part of its involvement in the EU Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL), Switzerland has stepped up its efforts to combat illegal waste exports.
  • The Interest Group Plastics of the European Network of the Heads of Environment Protection Agencies (EPA Network) supports exchange among European environmental agencies on the reduction of plastic waste.

Further information

Last modification 30.11.2018

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