Waste and raw materials: In brief

Switzerland produces about 80 to 90 million tonnes of waste each year. Most of it consists of uncontaminated excavated materials and deconstruction materials. Because of its high standard of living, Switzerland has one of the highest municipal solid waste volumes in the world, at 716 kg of waste per person and year. Nearly 53% of it is recycled. To reduce the country’s high primary material consumption, the federal government wants all material and substance flows throughout the value chain – from raw material mining and product design to waste management – to be taken into account.

1. Economic growth, consumer behaviour and construction activities (drivers)

Switzerland consumes a large quantity of raw materials. The reasons for this are the population growth, the high per-capita income and the substantial consumption associated with it. Three-quarters of the environmental impact from the supply of raw materials occurs abroad because of the large volume of imports.

The consumption trend looks set to continue to rise with economic growth in the future. If consumption is not decoupled from waste generation, waste volumes will continue to rise. Rising consumption 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

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

As the economy and population grow, so, too, do construction activities. The Swiss construction industry is a colossal business, handling around 3,200 million tonnes of construction materials (primarily gravel, sand and concrete), with the figure growing at a rate of 63 million tonnes a year. The environmental impact of the building sector is 57 trillion eco-points (UBP) annually, the majority (56%) of which is attributable to energy consumption rather than the materials used. It is not surprising, therefore, that the energy-intensive operation of Swiss buildings (heating, cooling, ventilation etc.) has a greater impact on the environment than the construction process itself.

The total mass of vehicles in the Swiss mobility sector amounts to around 11 million tonnes, with steel clearly dominating at around 7 million tonnes. A breakdown by vehicle category shows that passenger cars account for almost two-thirds of the total mass of vehicles (approximately 7 million tonnes). 

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.

Raw material consumption per capita shrank by approximately 6% (to below 17 tonnes) between 2000 and 2015. However, Switzerland’s material footprint is still significantly above the average for EU countries (EU28 value) of 14 tonnes per capita. From a quantitative perspective, with a share of over 40%, gravel, sand and other non-metallic minerals contribute the most to Switzerland’s material footprint.

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.

Construction waste accounts for the largest portion of waste generated in Switzerland (84%). In addition to large quantities of excavated materials (57 million tonnes or 65% of all waste generated), construction activities generate about 17 million tonnes (19%) of deconstruction materials annually.

The second largest waste category is the constantly increasing quantity of municipal solid waste (7%): In 2017, 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 4.73 million in 2000). At the same time, the per capita quantity of waste rose from 659 kg in 2000 to 715 kg in 2016. This makes Switzerland one of the highest waste producers in Europe.

Biowaste represents the third largest waste category. The total quantity of biowaste generated annually (i.e. wood waste, food waste, agricultural waste and dry sewage sludge) amounted to about 5.5 million tonnes in 2017.

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 (e.g. composite packaging) poses additional challenges for environmentally friendly disposal.

With the increasing technical complexity of products (electronic applications in particular), technical metals such as rare earth metals, gallium, indium and cobalt are increasingly being used. Although they are only used in small quantities, the mining of these elements is a complex process with a substantial environmental impact. 

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

Of the total of 80 to 90 million tonnes of waste, a good two-thirds (around 68%) of raw materials are already in the economic cycle.

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).

The potential of biowaste is high. While 1.3 million tonnes are turned into recycled fertilisers, 4.2 million tonnes are incinerated each year. More than half of the food thrown away is still edible.

While the share of municipal solid waste that could not be recycled remained stable, the percentage of recycled waste increased (from 45% in 2000 to 53% in 2016). This makes Switzerland one of the highest recyclers worldwide.

Recycling focuses on established materials such as glass (collection rate in 2016: 96%), PET (collection rate in 2016: 82%), aluminium (collection rate in 2016: 90%), paper (collection rate in 2016: 81%) and steel (collection rate in 2016: 95%). Increasingly, more complex products made up of various different materials, such as electronic scrap, hazardous waste, slag or filter dust, are being collected separately.

In 2016, approximately 2.3 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 2025. Around one quarter 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 materials from electronic scrap and residues from waste incineration can be recovered in the foreseeable future.

4. Increasing scarcity of raw materials 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.

Even though the amount of plastic waste released into the environment in Switzerland is relatively low, astonishing amounts enter the environment (air, soil and water) in the form of microplastics for example from tyre abrasion, weathering of paints and textile wear and tear. The effects of these microplastics in the environment are still largely unknown.

The disposal of all waste costs Switzerland a good CHF 3 billion a year. The “polluter pays” principle is widely applied in Switzerland: Whoever creates the waste must also pay for its disposal. Well over 90% of the municipalities successfully apply this principle, producing on average a good 80 kg less waste per capita to be incinerated each year than in municipalities without a refuse bag fee.

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

In Switzerland, more than 2 million tonnes of food waste are generated every year along the entire value chain, from the field to the plate. Around 70% of this waste can be avoided. Such waste is not only unethical but also a serious ecological problem given the considerable environmental impact of food production.


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

There is still great potential for preserving natural resources. The new Federal Ordinance on Waste Avoidance and Disposal (VVEA) deals precisely with this issue.

In the report to the federal council on the green economy, the federal authorities seek to ensure, in collaboration with industry, that waste is avoided as much as possible and that open material cycles are closed (e.g. the phosphorus cycle):

  • Targeted recycling should make it possible to obtain as many important secondary raw materials as possible from waste and reintroduce them into the economic cycle;
  • The federal government intends to develop a waste avoidance strategy with the cantons and the business community in order to reduce waste generation in the future;
  • The federal authorities support research projects in an effort to promote innovation in the recovery of raw materials;
  • In a broadly supported dialogue process, known as the Resource Trialogue, political, government, economic and social actors have developed eleven pioneering guidelines for further development of Switzerland’s waste and resource sector.

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.
  • 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 policies aimed at avoiding plastic waste.

Further information

Last modification 30.11.2018

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