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‘Laggard to Leader’ – Lessons From a Review of Swiss Plastic Policy

Think Switzerland and many will recall the Von Trapps gambolling across alpine hills to freedom and Broadway history.

But movie buffs might instead remember Steve McQueen stuck on a barbed wire fence like a plastic bag caught in an updraft at the end of the Great Escape when considering the country’s environmental record.

For while the landlocked state has reputation for landscapes as clean and beguiling as a Roger Federer drop shot, the latest findings from Ocean Care suggest it is a view worthy of a Hollywood soundstage.

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Its latest report – Plastic Matters: A state of affairs, facts, legislation & recommended actions in Switzerland – shows that far from its 'pristine' perception, the home of Toblerone has a plastics problem almost as bad as the UK’s.

Although precise numbers are hard to come by, figures suggest the average Swiss produces 95kg of plastic waste every year – more than their direct neighbours in Germany, Austria, France and Italy, although less than the 98.66kg clocked up per Briton.

The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment boasts plastic has been kept out of landfill for more than 20 years, but the fact remains most is simply burned, rather than recycled.

Leaving aside the (slightly dubious) arguments made regarding the benefits of energy from waste incineration, technical limitations mean recycling cannot offer a total solution either.

As in the UK, a postcode lottery also means approaches to plastic in Switzerland vary across the country. The British government has (at times) been prepared to grasp some nettles, such as the single-use carrier bag levy.

But similar initiatives in the Alps have been coordinated by retailers themselves, with Swiss leaders 'reluctant to take more decisive action' – even where existing laws would allow them to do so.

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A comprehensive plastics policy would, of course, be desirable, and is being attempted by the EU’s Strategy for Plastic in a Circular Economy.

But there is no reason the Swiss and other non-EU states, such as the UK, cannot go from 'being a laggard, to being a leader' by addressing some of the bloc’s shortcomings on plastic use generally.

Noting the rise in per capita plastic consumption over recent decades, the report’s authors invite us to ask whether this has produced tangible quality of life improvements before embarking on radical changes.

'Plastics are a recent problem, but we knew early on that it was, and increasingly would be if we didn’t act,' the paper states.

'We need a cultural shift away from systematic overconsumption.'

'Doing so should make us accept that we will have to live with less plastic, and take actions accordingly.'


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