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Illegal Waste Disposal Harms the Environment - And Empties the Wallet

Tamara Kornfeind

Zürich has taken its own approach to combat illegal waste disposal, namely by employing so-called “waste detectives”, also colloquially known as “Güselpolizisten”. But first things first: let’s explain why this is necessary.


Learn more about the most common myths surrounding garbage separation in this blog post.

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In order to permanently close the material cycle clean material flows are required. Therefore, all waste and materials must be collected by type. This can be achieved best by means of correct waste separation in the corresponding waste bins. Oftentimes, consumers are not quite sure how to do this properly. They don’t know which waste belongs in which bin or simply don’t want to separate their waste. Incorrect waste separation is expensive for the waste management industry and it takes a lot of effort to deal with it. In addition, it’s also harmful to the environment. 

It is therefore necessary to raise people’s awareness of these issues, which is why there are countless campaigns, events and initiatives to share knowledge regarding proper waste disposal with the general public.

Despite this work and countless appeals for waste separation, waste is still not separated properly in some cases. Mostly, it’s not just about ignorance. Quite often, it’s also for the sake of convenience that people do not properly dispose of waste. How can this “weariness” regarding waste separation be dealt with?

In this respect, Zürich has taken special measures to track down persons who illegally dispose of waste. The ERZ (“Entsorgung und Recycling Zürich”, Waste Disposal and Recycling Zürich) has taken charge of this issue. It is responsible for keeping Zürich’s streets clean and combating illegal waste disposal.

Illegal waste disposal is not the same as littering

“In case of illegal waste disposal, there is a specific intent to avoid having to pay waste disposal fees. In addition, in case of illegal waste disposal, it’s often larger amounts of waste or larger pieces of garbage that are disposed of.” Littering, however, refers to waste such as packs of chewing gum or cigarette buts being thoughtlessly dropped or left behind in public places without using the waste bins provided for that purpose.

Waste which doesn’t end up in a so-called “Züri-Sack” is checked by an inspection service for indications as to the person responsible. Using these Züri-Sacks, waste disposal fees are charged according to the “polluter pays” principle, as each of these sacks costs money. Those who produce more waste thus must pay more. In addition, the inspectors tear open between 30,000 and 35,000 unofficial bags annually to search for evidence as to who is responsible. The so-called waste detectives are quite successful: each year, about 2100 charges are filed. If they manage to follow a trace back to an individual, charges are filed against that individual in cooperation with the police. In case of a first or a “minor” offense, there’s usually just a warning. For further offenses, fines of up to 1000 francs can be imposed. According to the EZB, there are very few repeat offenders. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that residents learn from their mistakes and pay more attention to proper waste disposal.

Regarding the question whether this is illegal and constitutes a violation of privacy, the EZB clearly says “no”. As soon as waste has been disposed of, it’s no longer the person’s property. It has been “handed over” to the EZB and is therefore the EZB’s property.

Industry Solution

Read more about how helpful digitization can be in waste collection in this blog post.

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There has already been enormous progress thanks to the digitalization of the waste management and recycling industry. Using the various technologies and processes, materials can be separated, recycled and reused. However, if waste doesn’t end up in the bin but is illegally disposed of, this progress comes to nothing.  That’s why Zürich has taken an interesting approach with its waste detectives to draw consumers’ attention to correct waste disposal and avoid wasting recyclable raw materials.

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Tamara Kornfeind
Junior Consultant, ERP AX