From a laggard to a leader: Switzerland needs to become a plastics champion

OceanCare is internationally committed to protecting the world’s ocean. When it comes to plastics, this already begins at the organisation’s headquarters: in Switzerland. The country is one of the world’s leaders in plastic consumption. Microplastics also flows from inland waters into the sea via lakes and rivers. The Swiss government is therefore challenged to boldly tackle the plastics problem in its own country and to advocate for a legally binding plastics treaty at global level.

Approximately 80 per cent of the nine million tonnes of plastic that end up in the ocean each year originate from the mainland. Also from land-locked countries such as Switzerland. The River Rhone alone transports around ten kilograms of microplastics per day from Lake Geneva into the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Annually, around 20 tonnes of plastic particles end up in the ocean from Switzerland. Rivers form the roots of the ocean. Marine protection therefore begins on our own doorstep.

Pioneering the way for a global plastics treaty

OceanCare, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and the Fondation Gallifrey reached out to the Swiss government in 2020, to take a leadership role in stemming the tide of plastic. Within the framework of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) the government was called upon to resolutely advocate the creation of a plastics treaty. Its expertise in multinational cooperation makes it the ideal body for precisely this task.  The issue was acknowledged: National Councillor Niklaus-Samuel Gugger submitted a corresponding interpellation to the Swiss Parliament in autumn 2020.

A clear signal has also already come from the highest echelons: in 2019, then Federal Council President Simonetta Sommaruga endorsed the importance of globally coordinated measures to mitigate the plastics crisis. In the same year, the Swiss delegation within the UNEA expert group working to achieve a legally binding plastics treaty, reiterated the need for decisive action in view of the urgency of the problem. In 2022, Switzerland became a member of the «High Ambition Coalition to end plastic pollution» and thus advocates an ambitious global plastics treaty at the UN level. OceanCare is now calling on the Federal Council to fulfil its responsibilities at the national level as well.

A major policy change is needed within the Swiss Confederation

A fundamental re-orientation is needed within Switzerland. The right to live in a healthy environment should be given a higher priority than the plastic industry’s interest to make a profit. The awareness of the problem is high: According to a representative survey, almost three quarters of the population are of the opinion that Switzerland has a plastics problem and the majority would welcome legally binding measures.

Analogous to the EU, OceanCare is calling on the Swiss government to enforce guidelines for the reduction of single-use plastic. Unnecessary single-use plastic such as disposable packaging for take-away food or plastic bags soon becomes waste and pollutes nature for decades or even centuries. Likewise, microplastics should have no place in cosmetics or cleaning products.

Since the plastics industry is not complying voluntarily and even wants to massively increase its production, government regulation is therefore absolutely essential. The plastics system in Switzerland is basically linear. 85-90% of the plastics in Switzerland is incinerated after only a short period of use and is not recycled, let alone reused. This clearly undermines the federal government’s official goal of a circular economy and increased recycling. It is insane that a durable material like plastic becomes waste after only a short period of use. Waste that produces climate-damaging filter ash and toxic slag when burned; that is shipped abroad as a recycled commodity, when it is often unclear what happens to it, or that it ultimately ends up in the sea.

Up to now, the Federal Council has been dragging its feet when it comes to implementing legally binding measures – Switzerland is Europe’s laggard and worst offender when it comes to reducing single-use plastic. OceanCare therefore calls on the Federal Council to systematically leverage existing Swiss laws and apply them to regulate plastics and, among other things, to ban unnecessary single-use plastic items such as disposable packaging for take-away food, plastic bags and micro plastics in cosmetics and cleaning products.

In more than 70 submitted interventions, parliamentarians show a clear desire to take steps to combat the plastic problem. So far, The Federal Council has consistently thwarted this. However, the politicians continue to be active. In December 2022, parliamentarians from different political camps submitted interpellations to the Federal Council in order to clarify open questions relating to plastics in Switzerland (LEFT). OceanCare welcomes these initiatives, is working in the background to provide expert support and facts from our Report Plastic Matters and has launched a public petition which allows the population to also call on the Federal Council to act.

The myth «Clean Switzerland»

  • In Switzerland, 1 million tonnes of plastic are consumed annually. That amounts to 127 kilogrammes per person, which is the highest per capita consumption of plastics in Europe.
  • In Switzerland alone, 780,000 tonnes of plastic become waste annually. According to projected estimates by the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), 14,000 tonnes of this end up in Swiss soil and waters.
  • Measures against littering cost Switzerland 200 million francs annually.
  • A study shows that microplastics can also be found in large quantities in the snow in the Swiss mountains.
  • Every year, 120 to 150 tonnes of plastic waste end up on the shores and in the waters of Swiss lakes and rivers.
  • 85 to 90 per cent of all plastics are incinerated after a very short period of us – i.e. neither recycled nor reused.
  • 80 per cent of all waste in Switzerland is incinerated and 170 kilos of highly toxic slag are produced per tonne of waste.
  • 65 per cent of littering waste consists of plastic – cigarette butts make up the largest part of this.
  • Swiss nature reserves are polluted with an estimated 53 tonnes of microplastics.
  • The River Rhine washes about 10 tonnes of microplastics into the North Sea every year.
  • Lake Zurich contains around 141 kilos of microplastics.
  • Plastics remain in the environment for a very long time and continuously release toxins. As a result, the toxic level increases from year to year and with it the danger for humans, animals and plants.
  • More facts on plastic pollution in Switzerland.

OceanCare is doing everything in its power to ensure that the plastics problem is tackled at its roots based on legal guidelines worldwide and also in Switzerland. However, until single-use plastic is banned completely, it is up to all of us to avoid single-use plastics as much as possible and to say: I Care!