During my summer holidays in Switzerland, one topic caught my attention: domestic waste management. And I just realized that it is not the first time I’m writing about waste. My first blog post was about electronic waste (If you are interested in this topic, also check Kevin’s blog post).

My Brazilian friend of almost 30 years arrived in Switzerland 10 years ago, and her behaviour and understanding changed since then. All waste generated on her home has a proper destination, and she just calls trash the organic part of it. In Brazil, trash and waste have the same meaning, and where I live, in Napoli, people also have different comprehension.

The modern families’ food consumption patterns based on industrialized products generate an incredible daily amount of waste. Industrialized products come with primary and, in most cases, secondary and tertiary packaging, which will become waste as soon as they arrive home. There are many reasons for that: follow the legislation, assure the quality of food throughout the supply chain, meet the families demand, marketing, among others.

Picture 1 – Eco Point board rules at La Chaux-de-Fonds / Switzerland (Photo: Mariana Oliveira)

Going back to my friend, in Switzerland, citizens must clean and separate and organize their domestic waste: glass, paper (newspaper & magazines and cards/packaging), PET, cans, batteries, lamps, cooking oil, coffee capsules, aerosol, long-life packing (tetrapak), Styrofoam, ink cartridges for printers, wood, CDs, wood ashes, clothes, furniture and broken ceramic and organic (a mixture of organic leftovers and primary plastic packaging). This last one is what she calls as trash. The trash generated must be storage on official bags, that cost 2 CHF (1,9 EUR) each, and there is a 50CHF fine if you don’t use them! The rules are clear (Picture 1), and if you don’t respect them, other penalties will arrive at your home – from 50 to 500 CHF. Don’t ask me how, but they can recognize the trash bag owner and the fine comes indeed!

Picture 2 – PET collectors in front of a supermarket in Le Noirmont – Switzerland (Photo: Mariana Oliveira)

All other materials should be disposed of at Eco Points present in each neighbourhood. Actually, PET bottles are easier to be destinated. Each supermarket has specific containers for them (see Picture 2). At my friend’s home, her 14 years old son is responsible for disposing the PET bottles at the supermarket across the street. At the same time, the other waste bags are stored inside home, waiting for the day to be delivered by car at the nearest Eco point. One morning, before 7 am, a place caught my attention: it was a beautiful Eco Point (see picture 3). During the time I was there, taking pictures and thinking about urban systems and my PhD project, two different cars parked to unload their waste.

Picture 3 – Beautiful Eco Point in La Chaux-de-Fonds – Switzerland. (photo: Mariana Oliveira)

Picture 4 – different views of the trash containers in my street in Napoli – Italy (photos: Eduardo Mendes)

When my trip is over, Picture 4 explicit what will welcome me back home in Napoli: mattresses, boxes, old furniture, no sidewalk and bad smell. The picture shows the containers in front of my street – a long pedestrian stair uphill without any other disposal place option. During the months I’m living there, I observed that none of my neighbours differentiates their waste. About 100 meters far, in both directions, there are containers to collect glass, plastic and paper. All the time, the scene is the same, trash all around the containers and along the sidewalk. Fortunately, the situation improved a bit since January/2020. The way I found Napoli one year ago was even worst spread all around the city.

Napoli is located in one of the most populated areas in Europe. Clearly, the collect service is neither efficient nor sufficient. But we should understand another thing: what my neighbours don’t need/want anymore, they put on the street for others that maybe want them. And it works! I’ve tried the local procedure with some Amazon empty boxes, and they really disappeared after a couple of hours.

My first day home, one year ago, my landlord asked me to bring down his baby daughter’s old toys and put them next to those containers. Since I moved in, it was the only information about the waste I received – I haven’t received any official details on the days/type of collection, rules or fines. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered ASIA (Integrated agency company in the territory of the Municipality of Napoli, which carries out environmental hygiene services). On ASIA website, I found out eco points, which are not located in a walk distance from my place, the rules, and the collecting schedule!!!

I should try the ASIA collection service for big furniture when I am back home. As I don’t want to abandon my old mattress and washing machine on the street, I’ve been studying the options I have. Guess what the ASIA procedure asks me to do? Correctly… if you thought about “put them at the sidewalk”.

Picture 5 -My parents’ house security camera at Campinas – Brazil (photo: Mariana Oliveira from MIBO App)

In Brazil, at my parents’ neighbourhood, they have containers each 50m for non-recycled waste (picture 5) at their street. The neighbours always argue because they want the containers as close as possible from their own houses. If you make an agreement with the truck driver, you can use these containers also for wood, gardening remains, anything, actually. This agreement is facilitated by the Christmas gratuities, that are commonly requested by the public services employees (trash, mail, water and energy consumption readers). Workers are gentler because they will ask a gift at the end of the year. If you had already given them a gratuity last year, they know if they do a good job, the gratuity will come again. This is the way waste is managed there.

There are also specific days for all recycled waste, all together. It is not clear which content is recyclable and how to separate and organize them. But, it doesn’t seem to be a problem because an informal industry was created. My parents just need to put the recycled waste bags in front of their home at the correct days. Before the collection truck arrives, a lady comes to catch and separate what is valuable for her. Nowadays, we realized that she is wearing gloves to protect herself and the private car she uses is a bit less old than the previous one. She sells the collected materials to increase her family income for an extremally low price. Dignity and well-being are concepts that the majority of Brazilians doesn’t know.

During the last days, I’ve been thinking: Is Switzerland a model to be followed? How to reach this level of organization in other places? Is this model applied to any other areas? Is it right to fine the citizens? Why just to use penalties to the final consumer while the industry and supermarkets are co-responsible for the trash generated? Are industries/agriculture residues and waste also controlled and monitored? Why do not good initiatives in Napoli and Campinas work well? How should public power act/react or be liable? Is culture a critical barrier to reduce the consume and increase the recycling rates? Is recycling the best option? Urban systems are complex, and the answers I’m looking for are not trivial.

I’m not ignoring other important environmental, economic and social aspects: what happens with the waste after it is collected (read the blog post written by Jayani, Felipe and Birman), the environmental impact of landfills, the biorefineries or the vulnerable people that informally work on landfills in Brazil.

In conclusion, what do all stories have in common?

People! My beloved ones (family and friends), and also conscient people, by information or fear of penalties, people thinking about others or just about themselves, people working and living by the trash and waste.

People are always the centre of any process. Thus, to improve processes, we need to improve people’s knowledge. Education is the key point – an opportunity to create an equal society with dignity and well-being to everybody, in which Christmas’ gratuities will not be needed anymore.