A leisure trip to Zurich recently left me thinking about packaging and household waste disposal and oddly enough it was two incidents involving toddlers that triggered my thoughts on how the UK is lagging behind.
The first occurred when I was happily sitting by the lake and feeling very Swiss eating my bratwurst and sipping on my elderflower soft drink. Suddenly a parent with his baby boy, who was only just walking unaided, caught my attention; the dad not only directed his son to the correct bin to throw away his rubbish, but also talked him through the different bins and explained what types of waste belonged in each. I was truly fascinated – clearly it is never too early to begin inculcating a way of thinking – I am sure that little brain could only have understood 10% of the words his father must have thrown at him. Either way, I certainly could have benefited from such education, particularly when faced with the daunting task of deciding what bins were appropriate and inevitably being instructed by a local that what I was doing was simply wrong.
The second incident was at my niece’s second birthday. I gave her my gift – a beautiful wooden pretend breakfast set bought at a UK department store. But I couldn’t help but feel awkward as I helped her unwrap it and everyone present waited patiently for the process to be completed. I soon realized what the issue was – the sheer amount of packaging used in contrast to the toys bought locally. The token FSC logo was there but it was astonishing how many things I had to unwrap and pull apart before my growingly impatient niece was united with her gift – there was cardboard, plastic, bubble wrap, styrofoam sheets…you would think it was bone china! Can’t a wooden toy set be transported any other way that wouldn’t require such protective padding? Can’t people just take greater care of the things they purchase?
In Zurich, and in fact, all of Switzerland, they appear to take the waste issue very seriously – recycling is not about the feel good factor, it’s a way of life. Every town has its waste management plan in place. In Zurich residents must purchase special rubbish bags which are heavily taxed. The more general waste you produce, the more it costs you. Not to mention the fines which would ensue should one throw a forbidden material into the refuse bag (i.e. batteries, used glass, textiles), or consider using supermarket bags or ordinary black bin bags instead. And something tells me that they do dedicate resources to tracking culprits down.
Vegetable waste is put out for ‘Green Collection’ and recycling is free. The more recycling you separate out, the less you pay for your general waste. Recycling bins are accessible around the city and once you understand the classification system its simple enough and shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes out of your weekly routine.
No doubt the system is not flawless, and people will always find ways around rules in some way or another, but they are certainly a step or two ahead of us here in the UK. It’s not that recycling bins haven’t been made accessible where I live in London. They have. However, whether most people have taken notice of them is doubtful.
There is another issue – the wide availability of mixed recycling bins in my area. Evidently this makes life easier and is intended to foster at least some degree of conscientiousness. Indeed these bins are usually bursting at the seams – bags begin to be piled up around the bins and cause me to wonder how frequently the service runs. Moreover, after seeming weeks of piling and accumulating, those in charge place a warning sign and yellow and black tape across the bin – “WARNING this bin has been contaminated; do not use”. So one person didn’t rinse out their recycling or put some alien product in with the rest and now what happened to the effort made by others? Was it all a waste? Will all that simply end up in landfill?
I am not sure whether heavily taxed, specially labelled bin bags is the solution – but culture change and education is needed. According to European Environment Agency last year, only Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany achieved over 50% recycling.
There is something in it for businesses, too, because individuals take their habits to work – and organisations are increasingly subject to growing requirements under waste and packaging regulations. Just imagine, compliance could be made that little bit easier if every employee came complete with a basic level of awareness and regard for waste management.