Waste: In brief

In the area of waste treatment Switzerland now has efficient infrastructure, high standards and clear legislative stipulations. Although a well-developed recycling service exists for many types of waste, too many recyclable substances still end up in our waste today. To continue reducing environmental pollution we must act at the beginning of the production chain and on patterns of consumption.

1. Population increase and increasing consumption expenditure (drivers)   

 The population of Switzerland has more than doubled since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900, the country had 3.3 million inhabitants and in 2012 the Swiss population passed the 8 million mark.

Between 1990 and 2012, the increase in the number of households (20%) exceeded population growth (15%). Thus the number of persons per household is decreasing.

Private household consumption was the main factor driving the growth of the Swiss economy in 2012: between 1990 and 2012 consumer spending grew by 74% to CHF 328 billion.

2. Increase in waste, construction activity, remediation of contaminated sites (pressures) 

From 1990 to 2012, the volume of municipal solid waste generated increased by a good 30 %. This increase is due to population and economic growth.

A total volume of around 21.5 million tonnes of waste were generated in 2013.

  • At around 12 million tonnes annually, construction activity generates most of the waste, a large proportion of which is recycled.
  • Municipal solid waste is the second highest category of waste: each inhabitant of Switzerland produced around 702 kg of waste in 2013.
  • The volumes of hazardous waste, industrial and commercial waste, and sewage sludge produced are also increasing continuously. A large proportion of these wastes is generated through the implementation of environmental protection measures such as the remediation of contaminated sites and treatment of exhaust gases and wastewater. Hence the quantity of hazardous waste may increase independently of the economic situation. 

3. Increased separate collection, environmentally sustainable disposal (state) 

Although the volume of waste generated in Switzerland is constantly increasing, waste management and recycling have also been improving on a continuous basis. In the case of municipal solid waste, 51% of the total volume was collected separately and recycled in 2013. The corresponding figure for 2000 was just 45%. Recycling rates are particularly high for the following types of waste:

  • glass (collection rate in 2013: 96 %)
  • aluminium cans (collection rate in 2013: 91 %)
  • PET beverage bottles (collection rate in 2013: 83 %)
  • waste paper (collection rate in 2013 91 %)

In Switzerland, around 1.3 million tonnes of organic waste are composted in 235 organic waste processing plants and processed in fermentation plants.

The proportion of municipal solid waste that cannot be recycled has been successfully reduced from a peak of 433kg per person in 1989 to 344 kg per person in 2013.

According to the study on the 2012 waste composition survey («Erhebung der Kehrichtzusammensetzung 2012»), which the FOEN carries out every ten years, a lot of recyclable material is still disposed of as waste. It is estimated that around one fifth of the waste surveyed could have been recycled. Two thirds of these unused recyclable materials are accounted for by so-called biogenic waste, that is waste that could be composted or fermented. These materials not only accounted for the greatest proportion of the surveyed waste, they also increased significantly from 2001. Waste incineration generates air pollutants, which can be largely retained through multi-stage flue-gas cleaning and denitrification so that only small volumes of pollutants escape into the environment. Compared with transport, heating systems and industrial furnaces,  waste incineration plants are only responsible for a small amount of pollution today.

Moreover, all 29 Swiss waste incineration plants use the combustion heat they produce to generate electricity or to supply district heating networks and industrial facilities. Thus they cover around 2% of Switzerland's energy consumption.

Littering, the thoughtless dropping or abandonment of waste, is a growing phenomenon which creates additional work for waste management. Littering generates annual costs of around CHF 200 million.

In 2013, approximately 2.4 million t of hazardous waste underwent special treatment in Switzerland (1.9 million t) or was exported for environmentally sustainable disposal under strictly monitored conditions (0.5 million t). This hazardous waste mainly originates from the remediation of contaminated sites which must be completed by 2025. Around one quarter of hazardous waste is recycled.

In 2014, approximately 3.7 million t of other controlled wastes, for example electrical and electronic devices, end-of-life vehicles, used tyres, wood waste and certain types of construction waste, were mostly recycled by licensed disposal companies in Switzerland or, with the authorisation of the FOEN, abroad.

4. Scarcer resources, pollution (impact)  

Consumption decisions always have an impact on the environment. In the case of consumer goods, for example, the quantity bought, source, quality and production methods are all crucial factors in relation to waste.

Today, the production and use of consumer goods generate a greater environmental impact than their disposal. For this reason, greater priority must be given to resource-conserving products in the context of consumption and production decisions, and the entire lifecycle of a product must be taken into account.

The scarcity of raw materials means that the conservation of non-renewable resources like metals and gravel is becoming a greater priority. For this reason, these materials are being recycled more.

If handled incorrectly (during transport, storage, processing), hazardous and other controlled waste pose a threat to the environment and population. Valuable raw materials can also be lost in this way.

5. Improved separate collection and controls of hazardous and other waste subject to controls (responses)  

Since 1984, federal waste policy has led to a marked reduction in the environmental impacts generated by waste disposal.

  • The regulations governing landfills and the handling of environmentally hazardous substances were tightened.
  • A ban on the deposition of untreated municipal solid waste in landfills was introduced in 2000.
  • The capacity of the waste incineration plants was increased to meet the demand.

The disposal of waste is regulated by the Ordinance on Waste (OW).

Waste disposal in Switzerland is basically financed on the basis of the polluter-pays principle. In 2011, around 80% of the Swiss population financed their waste disposal entirely or in part through volume-based charges, and the remaining 20% financed it through taxation or payment of a flat fee.

To optimise separate collections, the federal authorities, cantons, associations and private organisations raise public awareness using the following measures:

  • campaigns and advice,
  • fines (e.g. for littering).

Domestic waste disposal and the export of hazardous waste have been subject to stringent controls since 1986. International transboundary movements of hazardous and other waste has been regulated by the Basel Convention since 1989. Exports and imports of waste are only authorised by the authorities if the disposal method used is environmentally sustainable and the other countries involved give their consent. With the exception of specific types of waste like scrap metal and uncontaminated plastics which are suitable for recycling, the export of waste to countries which are not members of the OECD or EU is prohibited.

Efforts to increase awareness regarding illegal exports of waste resulted in the intensification of cooperation and controls in Europe. Between 2009 and 2013 alone, the number complaints filed by the Swiss customs authorities and foreign authorities doubled from 80 to around 160. Approximately two thirds of cases involved illegal exports.

Further information

Last modification 12.04.2018

Top of page