Viewpoint: Residential Waste Management—A Tale of Two Places

January 5, 2022

by Tamanna Mohapatra

In May 2021, after having lived for 10+ years in NYC, my husband and I  decided to move to Switzerland. It took us a while to find a place and settle in. Throughout this period, I kept my sustainability hat on.  I was from New York City, which at least in some people’s eyes (including mine) is making an earnest move towards better recycling practices. I was moving to a place that’s considered to have one of the highest rates of household recycling, per a 2019 Euroreporter article. Comparing my past and present domains would be a fun piece at the very least, and might be educational too.  How good (or bad) is NYC’s system, and what does the city stand to learn from Switzerland? 

Recycling Swiss Style 

We spent our first month in Switzerland in an apartment in a big city. I was very excited on day 1. I saw recycling bins, 4 different colored ones! And one of them was for compostable waste. Hallelujah! To me, this signaled that the Swiss believed in recycling, as there was no single-stream recycling and food waste didn’t go to the landfill. And what’s more, for the first time ever, I was able to buy a kitchen compost bin directly from the grocery store for less than 10 CHF (equivalent in US dollars is 12$). So far, great. 

But soon enough I realized something was missing. There was a recycling bin for glass, paper, aluminum cans, and food waste but none for plastic. And what about big cardboard boxes? Turns out you need a car to take your bigger items and recyclable plastic to the town’s central recycling facility called a déchetterie. Every town has one; it is an enclosed area accessible only to people of that municipality for recycling various items. The déchetterie is well maintained and cleaned but can be quite confusing because of its layers of classification and dos/don’ts. (See pictures to get a better idea.) There are also recycling collection points spread throughout the town (called eco-points) open at all hours for glass, plastic, aluminum, paper, textiles, and batteries.  In addition, a lot (such as PET bottles) can and must be recycled at local grocery chains/supermarkets. 

Trash is Expensive

To me, all this was putting the onus on the customers, which I would think is risky for maintaining efficient recycling standards. In fact, I did notice a few times people throwing recycling down the common trash chute. One would think this happened more often, but it didn’t. So why would customers take the trouble to haul their recycling to a non-immediate location? The reason I found out is that trash is expensive. In Switzerland, special garbage bags are required for garbage collection, and these bags are priced according to their size and are available only at grocery stores and supermarkets.

Making you pay for trash must be working because Switzerland is one of the best waste managers according to the Global Waste Index. Household waste is sent to incineration plants where it is converted into energy. If material recycling or incineration is not a technically or economically viable option, the waste is first treated before being deposited in a landfill. This is a solution one can live by, in my opinion. 

A 2020 statistic from the Swiss government is, “Each person living in Switzerland throws away on average over 700kg of waste per year, however, they recycle more than half of it.” The other two facts I found out about Switzerland that made me feel good are first, of the 2% of GDP earmarked for environmental efforts, a majority is spent on waste and wastewater management. Second, Switzerland understands the concept and need behind a circular economy. Since the mid-1980s, the circular economy has been an integrated approach that takes account of the entire life cycle of a material or product, right up to and including the recovery and recycling phase. Either way, recycling is mandatory, and failure to do so can result in stiff fines, upwards of CHF 300.

Composting in New York City

As someone who lived in one of Manhattan’s numerous high rises, I spent many years trying to convince my building to sign up with DSNY for the organic composting collection for our building. I was this close to getting it approved in March 2020 when COVID hit. Before we knew it, even the regular DSNY organics collection program was stalled, forget about signing up new customers. It finally came back to life in Fall 2021. Let’s hope it stays that way despite covid still being around. The good news is that because of covid pausing the DSNY program, quite a few private and non-profit residential composting programs started up in the city. Vokashi, LES Ecology Center, Common Ground Compost, Groundcycle, and Reclaimed Organics are just a few of the more popular options. 

But for composting to be a true success in NYC and outmatch the current collection costs involved, a lot higher participation is necessary. One way to get that to happen would be to make enrollment automatic instead of waiting for buildings to sign up, as I found out firsthand. The building I lived in still has to sign up—with  800 units, imagine the waste generated! As per this US Biopower newsletter, “food scraps and yard waste make up around one-third of New York City’s total waste output, making a sustainable and equitable composting solution essential.” Pre-pandemic, this service was being used by 3.5 million New Yorkers. It is, however, good to know that there are public-private partnerships available such as the one DSNY has with NY Botanical garden to teach locals from each borough how and why to compost. Additionally, DSNY does provide more than 100+ food-scrap drop-off programs and many New Yorker’s go-to-place (including mine) for dropping off their weekly compost. A great new addition, post-pandemic, is also a first-of-its-kind pilot of “smart bins,” in which New Yorkers use an app to access public food scrap drop-off bins, thus preventing cross-contamination and misuse.

What About Other NYC Recycling?

Composting seems to be making good progress in NYC. Can we say the same about other recycling materials? Mayor De Blasio did expand/restore several other sustainability programs. For example, the SAFE Disposal Events, which collect Solvents, Automotive, Flammables, and Electronics products, as well as other regulated waste, will expand from two per borough each year to nearly 60 per year, one for each community district. In addition, Special Waste Drop-off sites around the city will be available, where residents can drop off harmful materials that do not belong in household trash, which reopened this July 2021. DSNY also started  “Reuse Swap” events across the city to keep usable items out of landfills and help them find good homes. On the negative side, covid-19 led to the generation of a lot of plastic and packaging waste (including PPE), and also to an initial reduction in recycling, leading to some reusable material being junked or burned instead. Thankfully, abandoning recycling was in no one’s eye the right move so it is back in the city. One area I haven’t been hearing much traction on but I think would be necessary is getting Extended Producer Responsibility. There is a bill in NY (S1185B) that would require consumer packaging producers to develop and fund “end of life” plans for every item they sell or distribute in New York. Something to look forward to in 2022.

Combating Climate Change: It’s Up to All of Us Proper waste management is not only our civic duty but also a necessary action in combating climate change. In NYC, most of us were directly impacted by Sandy. This year in Switzerland, I saw firsthand devastating floods and plenty of crop damage in real-time. These are dramatic reminders that we all need to do our part to help create waste management successes in every neighborhood, city, state, and country. It’s our global responsibility to future generations. Let’s add managing our waste sustainably to our list of 2022 goals.