COMMENTARY: trash talking: when it comes to garbage, American consumers could learn a few things from the Swiss.

Author:Hambley, Chris
Position:Waste management in Switzerland

The Swiss have a sensible solution to garbage collection and recycling that is so, well, Swiss. In most North American cities one hurls great numbers of black garbage bags into trash cans, where they're often ripped open by marauding animals. Of course, some of the bags are green, boasting of extra-strength-easy-grip twist-ties or whatever "new" labor-saving innovation is being peddled at the mega-shopping center.

Our system celebrates free enterprise, but the Swiss discard their garbage in official state-produced bags that come in three sizes: 15-, 30- and 60-liter and cost around $1.50 for the medium bag. In other words, you pay real money for the amount of trash you create. On the eve of garbage day, then, one can look down the road and see neat stacks of identical blue bags, and there's something soothing in this uniformity.


What might first strike the uniformed outsider (like me when I first moved here) as typical Swiss rigidity, soon appears as obvious simplicity. Here is direct taxation at work! The family next door that throws out 17 bags a week is responsible for paying its share just as I am responsible for paying for my share, every scrap of it. The key word is "responsible," for I am so much more aware of what I throw away. I never bring a bag to the curb until it is full.

Beyond the direct taxation and shifting of responsibility to the individual comes a more significant result for me: no choice. That is right, I do not want to choose. I am tired of choosing from an endless array of similar products. There is only one bag I can buy. And I don't care. Why should I? The bag works. It is sealed at the bottom, has a large opening at the top, twist ties to close its hungry aperture, and offers no chance of any garbage escaping. In other words, it is of good quality. If it were not, people would complain and presumably the local authority would replace the bags with a higher-quality alternative.

But back to this lack of choice. We are bombarded with too much choice, with too many products whenever we go shopping. And we have been told for decades that we need to choose, that choice is good. There is always an insinuation that choice is an essential tenet of freedom, democracy and the Western way. But do I really need to choose from dozens of different types of extra-virgin olive oil which all cost about the same? The same is true for garbage bags. Why would we care about a product that we use only to rid...

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