Switzerland – world champion in waste generation, recycling, or none?

On average, every person living in Switzerland throws away over 700 kg of waste per year – a lot more than most people in the world. However, we recycle more than half of it (Misicka, 2020). 700 kg is a lot, and over 50% recycling rates are also not bad. But how does clean Switzerland stand in comparison to other countries in the world?

Switzerland’s consumption rates are known to be way above the global average (eda.admin, 2021). In fact, we produce almost twice as much garbage as countries like Poland, Costa Rica, and Japan. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average OECD citizen threw away 525kg of trash in 2018. In that comparison, only New Zealanders (781kg), Danes (771kg), and Norwegians (736kg) filled more bins than the Swiss (705kg). Colombia, last in the comparison, recorded average per capita waste of 240kg.” (Misicka, 2020). 

Okay, so we are not the world champion in waste generation. That’s one (very) small relief. 

Knowing that we asked ourselves where all this waste could come from. The federal office for the environment (BAFU) in Switzerland, states that the three biggest waste categories are: 

  1. Construction waste (84%)
    1. This includes: excavated materials (65%) and deconstruction materials (19%)
  2. Municipal solid waste (7%)
  3. Biowaste (6%)

Together, they produce around 90 million tonnes of waste every year. 

Next, the recycling world champion: With the small size of the country, it is not a surprise that Switzerland has an extensive waste collection, separation, and recovery system in place. But is the self-proclaimed title of recycling world champion accurate? Over the years, this title has been used by the media, the recycling industry, and even government agencies promoting the country’s image abroad. And with our 51% recycling rate, we indeed recycle more than most countries. 

However, if we look at the latest OECD report, Switzerland is only ranked 6th. According to this data, Germany (65%) is at the top, followed by Korea (56%), and Austria (58%) (OECD Report, 2016). So, not a world champion in recycling either. A bit disappointing, isn’t it? 

But whether Germany or any other country should be named champion based on these rates is up for debate. Different countries also have different ways to measure the data. For example, in Germany, households can use plastic bags to collect all recyclable packaging waste. In the sorting centers, this waste is then separated for recycling. The 65% in Germany, are thus counted from the pre-sorted waste, whereas in Switzerland sorting is already done by the consumers, meaning that the 51% is already the pure waste material suitable for recycling (Wong Sak Hoi, 2019). 

Remember the three categories we mentioned earlier? We dug a bit deeper and compiled the recycling rates for each of these categories for you: 

  1. Construction waste
    1. Excavated materials (75% recycled) and deconstruction materials (70% recycled) because both are valuable secondary materials. However, there are still 5 million tonnes of construction waste incinerated each year – a number that has to be optimized (BAFU, 2020).
  2. Municipal solid waste (7%)
    1. In this category, recycling is focused on established materials such as glass (96%), PET (83%), Tin Cans (91%), paper (81%), and aluminum (94%) (BAFU, 2020). 
  3. Biowaste
    1. Even though 1.3 million tonnes are turned into recycled fertilizers, 4.2 million tonnes are incinerated each year. 
    2. The worst thing is: more than half of the food thrown away is still edible. In Switzerland, we generate about 2 million tonnes of food waste each year. Around 70% of this waste could be avoided (BAFU, 2020.).

So all in all, we can say that Switzerland is not the world champion in waste generation nor in recycling. Even though the waste management system is already one of the best globally, there is still more optimization potential. 

Stay tuned for more NOW Care editorials about recycling. For example, we’ll dive deeper into the question: Is recycling really a solution?


OECD Report. (2016). Environment at a Glance. OECD Indicators.

Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU). (2020). Waste and raw materials: In brief. Accessed on: 28 April 2021. 

Misicka, S. (2020, June 9). How much trash is tossed – and recycled – in Switzerland?. SwissInfo.

Wong Sak Hoi, G. (2019, September 12). Is Switzerland the world champion of recycling?. Swiss Info.

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