Sunday, 17 August 2008

Swiss Rebellion: Throwing it all away

A personal insight into Pay Per Throw

" you really think this is plastic, what is it doing in here?"

The voice from the kitchen sounded shocked, bemused and irate.

Seconds later my French brother-in-law appeared at the dining table, brandishing a cardboard tube insert that had once belonged to a roll of kitchen paper.

My sister shrugged, threw a glance that led into a triple somersault of eye-rolling worthy of a new Olympic sport, and with a sip of red wine returned a "Non" as the beginning of her defence.

This was followed by a "Sorry, I was in a hurry. Anyway recycling is your department".

"But you can tell it's not plastique. I've even labelled the box", came the retort.

My brother-in-law threw me a look of camaraderie. We smiled. We both knew that recycling made sense in our reciprocal roles as defenders of the bins, but were we really in agreement? I guess only time would tell.

I can now hardly believe that it was two weeks ago that we had just arrived in Switzerland. We were greeted by a tour of relatively new house, in the lakeside village of Concise, which lies in the Canton of Vaud. A modest yet lovely open-plan family home, with lots of space, including a cellar.

A dream!

After the tour of their home, came the tour of the recycling. I guess there aren't many house-guests who suggest such a thing but my brother-in-law was more than happy to oblige.

With a smooth pull of the under-sink cupboard, a nifty little bin was revealed with compartments for compostable waste and general rubbish. A step in the other direction, he opened the large larder cupboard which harboured a host of delights including boxes for paper, PET bottles, mixed plastics and "autre choses"for glass and aluminium cans. Soiled nappies, from their two very young children, are stored outside and are collected weekly for incineration.

The rest of their rubbish amounts to a small 17 litre bag per week, which is taken for collection to a communal spot about 200 metres from their house. It's a case of O marks the spot!

"C'est parfait" I said, pretty impressed at the efforts by my continental family.

Even more impressive was that they have no such luxury as a doorstep recycling collection and that every ten days or so, when the cupboard is full to capacity, my brother-in-law drops them at their local household waste recycling centre, which in that part of Switzerland is called a Déchetterie or Centre de Tri de la Collure.

That's what I call commitment! Storing every piece of recycling material for two whole weeks in the kitchen before DRIVING a few kilometres to the recycling centre.

But that's Switzerland for you! A green country full of waste-conscious people.

Except.... forward a few days, when our days in Concise were up and we were introduced to their holiday home in the beautiful Alpine village of Leysin, where they visit regularly in the Winter and every few weeks in the Summer.

A most beautiful and serene place...

Well mostly serene until a sudden shriek of "Quelle Horreur" stopped even the cows in their tracks.

The sight of my brother-in-law filling a bin bag with not just yoghurt pots, but aluminium cans, and kitchen waste was surely a case of the Body Snatchers. He was not just filling it, he was over-filling it, already using up one of their 17 litre bags in just one day. The only things that were saved from the bag were glass bottles, which were taken to a a local collection point and old paper which is collected once a month from the bottom of their garden.

Dear me, what was going on? They had a cellar for storage and the local déchetterie was just as close. And if you look closely at the recycling opportunities, you'll see that most things are accounted for.

My brother-in-law looked the same, sounded the same and even had the same mannerisms. But he was acting very oddly. He was just bunging everything in the bin...almost as happily as Almost Mr Average on holiday.

Oh no, what if they'd been conferring! That Mr A, he can be a bad influence you know.

Tut, tut... me of little faith! I should have guessed. It had nothing to do with coercion, or change of heart or some freak event involving alien forces.

It all came down to money. Just like many other things.

You see, there's one thing you should know about my sister and her lovely husband. They're a thrifty pair. Always have been and always will. Not tight, not mean, but they enjoy many a financial opportunity that comes their way and that includes the opportunity to save money too.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, let me present a positive case for PAY PER THROW and a tale of two villages.

In Concise, households pay the equivalent of about 50 pence for every 17 litre bag of rubbish that they throw out. Those with young families are supported in that nappies are collected separately in clear bags, without additional charge.

This means that even with a 70 litre load of dirty nappies, my sister and her family pay less than £30 per year to get rid of their rubbish.

Yes £30 quid! Now that's what I call a bargain.

The system is simple. Residents buy stickers denoting the size of their bin bags, 1 Swiss Franc for a 17 litre bag and 2 Swiss Francs for 35 litres. I suppose you could consider it a similar process to buying stamps, except you're paying to have your waste collected instead of posting a letter.

The sticker is placed on the bag, which is then taken to a central point for collection, a communal point on a main road. In theory any "unstickered" bags remain uncollected and what's amazing is that it appears to work.

No wonder my brother-in-law was as keen as a rat up a drainpipe. With a nose for saving money, there was every incentive to get that recycling system in order.

By comparison, at their holiday home in Leysin, their waste bill comes to £250 per year, a standard flat-fee bill, which is not influenced by how much a resident recycles. It was the same in another village that they once lived, although the annual bill was higher there, as much as £400. In both locations, their weekly waste amounts to about 70 litres, excluding nappies.

My brother-in-law was kind enough to give me his perspective.

"Most people don't want to move to the sticker system. When we first moved to Concise it puzzled me and I was not sure how it would work. But now it really frustrates me that I have to pay the amount that I do in Leysin and can’t do anything about it. So why should I sort the rubbish there for recycling. If we could pay per throw in Leysin, we would feel the benefits."

Behaviour is so motivated by such financial benefits. The only way you can make a change is for people to pay. The majority of people will benefit. Even those who don’t care won’t pay any more than they normally do anyway."

Blimey, what a dark horse eh. And that could be said about the country too, which at first glance appears to be top notch at Le Recyclage, with recycling rates reaching over the 50% mark.

But when you delve below the surface and talk to people like my brother-in-law, it becomes clear that what gives Switzerland its reputation as being one of Europe's (if not the world's) most effective countries when it comes to recycling, is the effort that's made in the East of the country, amongst the German speaking Cantons.

According to my brother-in-law, the French-speaking regions to the west are playing catch-up. Like the UK, Switzerland has a non-uniform system of collecting waste, with the country consisting of 26 Cantons, which in turn comprise any number of Communes. These are the authorities that hold local responsibility for waste management.

The pay-per-throw sticker system that is well established in East is now gradually being rolled out to the West.

The Canton of Vaud, which encompasses both the villages of Concise and Leysin, has been making significant efforts to improved the recycling rates through extra collection points and increasing the frequency of collections.

This is evident from the number of PET collection bins that are dotted around towns at regular intervals, as well as the mini recycling points for glass and cardboard that can be found in places like Leysin, which don't have pay-per-throw systems. With facilities like these within extremely convenient reach, it is hardly surprising that Switzerland's recycling rate for glass is as high as 95%.

The Canton published its plan in 2004, which set the recycling targets for the Vaud region at 60% by 2020. The latest figures from 2005 showed a rate of 41%, which represents a 1% increase on the previous year. It has been acknowledged that fixed targets in terms of recycling taxes have helped as well as the introduction of the pay-per-throw sticker system in a small number of villages.

I would never have thought I would be in support of pay-per-throw, especially given the controversy over tests in the UK. You've only got to read articles such as the one in The Telegraph and The Mail as examples of how unpopular the suggestion is, with people calling for a burn it not sort it solution.

But are things as simple as that? After all, Switzerland incinerates most of its rubbish, creating 3% of the country's energy. Yet the country still invests heavily in recycling facilities, to rescue most resources from the incinerators.

There is still a back up system of landfill but made up of the remains of combusted waste, some building materials and industrial waste.

But could such a system really work in the UK? Again the papers say that pay-per-throw would hurt the middle classes. Yet I would categorise my sister and her husband as Middle Class by UK standards. It works for them. So could it work for others?

The newspapers really make grim reading, painting the impression of the UK population as a wasteful bunch of layabouts with heaving, over-filled bins. Anyone who gets fined for too much recycling gets to make the headlines, as do those who may have not put their bin in the proper location for collection to find the binmen have left it behind.

No wonder pay-per-throw is represented as so unpopular. If this is the picture of what our country throws away, it looks as unsurmountable as some of the Alpine glaciers.

Of course that is the reality in many parts, but is it not also the case that thousands if not millions of people in the UK are efficient recyclers? Actually I don't know, because these people are not headline material for our daily press... Mr X celebrates his 5th bin bag in as many years hardly makes front page news.

Perhaps it may be a case of taking small babysteps with this pay-per-throw lark, giving people the choice in the similar way to water metering. Those that sign up could have they council tax reduced and pay for the small amount that they throw out. Then let's see the results. The proof could definitely be in the lack of last night's pudding, along with the visual evidence and word of mouth.

And if participants are put off by the threat of unruly neighbours topping up their very empty wheelie bins, then ditch the bins. Are bins with detectors that measure and weigh the contents really necessary, especially when other systems have proved to be effective? Could a sticker and bin-bag system really work over here or would there be another opportunity for fraudsters to print off their own to cheat the system? Or would people sign up, pay for a few stickers and bung the rest of their rubbish elsewhere?

Listen to my suspicious mind in action. What am I like?

Perhaps it's now time for us to start having faith in our country and not be dismayed by the headlines that hit the press. Perhaps it's also time to stop treating government and local councils as public enemy number one and all start working together to help the country's targets.

As you know, I'm no expert on such matters of policy, politics or indeed sociology. I'm just a member of the electorate, who could be simply eying up an opportunity to save herself some money at a time when the Credit Crunch may be hitting home.

I don't know. Maybe it's just another case of my naivety. I can only highlight what I have seen with my own eyes, which could be just a biased view from only one week spent in one country.

One thing I do know, is that as a country we are already paying to throw our rubbish away. What my brother-in-law has shown me has certainly struck a chord. Maybe there are millions of people across the country who are looking for the same opportunity to save some money. We just don't know.

Of course neither Switzerland or I may be perfect in our thinking or indeed actions. With regard to contemporary forums on Zero Waste, environmental consequences of incineration is still very much under debate and it has been said that that despite Switzerland's excellent performance in recycling, much is left to be desired when it comes to reducing its use of raw materials.

As for me, well I was on holiday. Little Miss Perfect might have dragged her husband to the Déchetterie, for a good old sort, but not even I was up for that. After doing our best with the local facilities around the village, I just bunged everything else in our rubbish bin. I have a poor excuse, a lot of packaging gave me permission to do this, with cute little rubbish bag symbols.

We didn't do too badly though. Having recycled the paper, the PET, the glass, the milk bottles and bread we ended up just throwing away food waste, kitchen scraps and tetra paks along with plastic packaging. All this came to just one 35 litre bag, which was half of what I would have thrown away a year ago. In Concise that would have cost me just a pound.

But I have a real confession. That scruffy old purse, the one which was really just too grotty to offer to a charity shop or give away... well I did something quite naughty.

I couldn't bear the thought of it sitting in the UK's landfill for all those years, so guess what...

I donated it to the Swiss incinerator system.

By now, someone somewhere will have probably have made some toast thanks to the energy from my purse.

But hey, I'm not quite ready for the incineration debate yet and all the implications of energy through waste. I've used up all my own energy just discussing my brother-in-law's waste. So, I think I'll leave that for another day...

...and leave you with some of my happy memories.



Anonymous said...

blimey woman - my Sunday lunch will be late after reading that lot!

The pay and throw scheme sounds very interesting; I'm quite pro something like that (but then I would be because I only produce a little). I can see some problems with it though - it's a real job to know what's best isn't it?

I finally found out what happened to the purse - thank you! Better not tell mr Green though; he's just finished writing an article about incineration ;)

Almost Mrs Average said...

LOL Mrs G - hope you manage to get your lunch sorted in time. Sorry for the marathon posting, but you can see how I couldn't upload my thoughts whilst in Switzerland - time, crap wi-fi connection and all that.

It really is hard to know what could work in the UK isn't it. Sure glad that I'm not in charge of policy. It's interesting that Concise is a small community of around 700 people, so maybe it would be a case of starting small, in similar sized places in the UK.

However, we are talking different cultures here. Many areas in the UK have a wheelie bin culture, hence the threat of people popping their rubbish in other people's bins. I am not sure if there are any such things in areas of Switzerland.

There is also the issue that is it not explicit regarding how much of the council tax bill covers waste collection.

If we got a separate waste bill, showing the exact figure, then we'd know the financial cost for both collection and disposal of our rubbish. Perhaps this would have an impact. Yes, I could go scouring my council's website, but would the average person do so?

Am looking forward to Mr G's article on incineration. Hope he won't tell me off about my purse.

Blimey, better stop there or your dinner will be late too.

Have a lovely Sunday, I'm off somewhere special to meet a very special person. Will spill the beans tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mrs A,

The Swiss experience is a sign of what can be done. In Britain, change will be harder but I feel strongly that food waste / recyclable material collections should be available in every council area. It is a long road but change will come.

Almost Mrs Average said...

Hi John - I agree. Recycling facilities that make it easy for householders are one huge step forward. I am very fortunate in that we can have most things collected from our doorstep. It becomes difficult if you don't But things are moving forward in the right direction and harnessing the positive attitudes like yours help things along the way.

esther said...

wow, that's a great article, I've been reading with lots of interest! We dont have that system here in France either, but we do recycle many things (not enough for the likes of me) but I would love the pay per throw system here!!!

Almost Mrs Average said...

Hi Esther - thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. It's always appreciated. Pay per Throw is such a difficult topic, but what many people don't realise is that we already pay to throw our rubbish away in the form of Council Tax. What's recycling like in your part of France. It'd be great to have some feedback, so do feel free to drop in and let us know ;-D

esther said...

In the part of France where I live, 55 km from Paris, we have a bin for old paper/cans/plastick bottles/ tetrapacks/used shampoo and cleaning-bottles. Picked up every two weeks.
One for glass (bottles, jars etc, and the tops, made out of plastick or metal are thrown in the first bin.
Pickes up every other week

And one for all the rest.

If we have compost stuff, wa can take it to the déchetterie, we can also collect oil and take it overthere, as well as used batteries etc.

Overhere, we cannot recycle plastic bags, but in Paris, thay take them, so I keep them until I go visit some of my Paris friends....

All small electrical items, can be recycled there too, in the bins.

Over here, the shops take it baxk (but many people don't do it, they just throw stuff in the big bin)

Personnaly, I have à 'dry' toilet in the house (
and so I compost even some number one and twos (the kids think thats lots of fun!) and do'nt spoil any drinking water or pollute the rivers.

But I do get p...ed about the yogurt thingies, we can't recycle them and I just can't believe why not!


Almost Mrs Average said...

Hi Esther - sorry it's taken me a while to comment. Have been away from the blog this week.

Thanks for leaving your fantastic summary. It's interesting to hear how diverse the recycling facilities are over in France as well as here in the UK. Folk often complain that services aren't standardised, so it looks like we're not alone in that fact. It's great that you can use the facilities that are further afield when you visit Paris.

Thanks for sharing the details of your loo. Now that looks like an interesting project. I've popped over to your blog to have a look. What do your friends make of it? :-D

esther said...

actually my friends really like the idea and some of them are startinf to make plans of buiding one themselves.

I made a mail to the restrohuisewife about how it works, 'cause it actually smells less than the regular toilets and comes in very handy, if you got some space, want a toilet, but don(t have the drainage, nore the money to do so...if you like, I can send you the mail, but I don't have your address; here is mine:

Anonymous said...

Reading this blog I think that some sort of voluntary "pay as you throw" system could be a way forward and encourage those that want to reduce waste to do so.
The "anti" lot won't have to do it if they don't want, but may see a financial benefit and then deceide to go ahead.

Almost Mrs Average said...

Hi Anon - Thanks for visiting and for taking time to leave a comment. It would be fantastic if there was a voluntary "pay as you throw system" that could be effectively managed. I for one would be happy to sign up to it. Just think all the money I could save. :-D

Hi Esther - just in case you're looking in, it's been ages since we've talked about your facilities. Just wanted to htank you for all the details that you sent over. Hope all's well with you. :-D

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