When we first came to Zürich, we experienced some major sticker shock. Dining out is very expensive – a hamburger will cost 35 francs, a burrito will cost 35 francs, and a steak will cost upwards of 50 francs. Dining in is also very expensive – on a good day, 60 francs’ worth of groceries will feed the two of us for about two days. Shopping is also expensive – clothing and household goods seem about 2-3 times as expensive as in the U.S.
New to Zürich, we were also surprised by the many rules about personal waste disposal. If a person puts something in the trash that should have been recycled, or recycles something that should have been put in the trash, he or she is slapped with a hefty fine. All garbage must be thrown away in small, city-approved trash bags, which are later opened and examined by people who enforce the disposal rules. Recycling isn’t simple either – glass and metal must be brought to a recycling center, plastic must be brought back to the grocery store, and cardboard must be bundled for collection once monthly. Basically, whenever we are done with something, we have to think about how we are going to get rid of it.
The high cost of new things and the strict rules about discarding old things were a jolt to the buy-use-discard-replace mentality we had developed in the U.S. Although we considered ourselves pretty environmentally-conscious (we recycled everything we possibly could), we consumed and discarded without very much thought. I realize this now because that lifestyle is somewhat in conflict with the requirements and customs of Swiss metropolitan society. We can no longer see buying a replacement as the primary, universal solution to the problem of things being dirty, old, broken, imperfect, or otherwise undesirable. We can no longer fill huge garbage cans and recycling bins and expect that someone will come to our neighborhood and empty them regularly. Instead, we have to be intentional about what we acquire and what we throw away.
As we have adjusted to life in Switzerland, we have made many little changes to our lifestyle. We eat all of our groceries. We bring our own bags to the grocery store. We avoid purchasing things with unnecessary packaging. We bring home (and actually eat) restaurant leftovers. We use cloth napkins and dish towels instead of paper ones. We use reusable food storage containers instead of Ziploc bags. None of these things are difficult.
The result of these small changes is that we produce about 1/3 to 1/4 of the amount of trash we used to, and we also recycle far less than we used to – we simply generate substantially less waste all around. The rules and prices that initially felt strange and burdensome have helped us to develop new, more environmentally-friendly habits, and overall, I think that’s a really good thing.