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Hazardous waste

Like other countries, Switzerland has made mistakes in the past regarding waste management. As a result, it is not only paying for its mistakes, it has also implemented some of the most effective waste management practices anywhere.

For many years, the issue was not as prominent on the political agenda here as in other European countries, mainly because Switzerland has no mining or heavy industry, few extensive industrial complexes, and no wartime sites. However, in the past, hazardous waste was often disposed of in ways which today are no longer acceptable, although they were legal at the time.

According to the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), contaminated land presents a serious problem for Switzerland, with about 50,000 sites including numerous bodies of water, giving cause for concern. To help identify which of these sites need the most urgent treatment, a contaminated land register has been set up. So far, it has been determined that up to 4,000 sites will have to be cleaned up. the target date for completion of this work is 2025.

Kölliken and Bonfol

Two of Switzerland's most contaminated sites are in Kölliken, Canton Aargau, and Bonfol, Canton Jura.

350,000 tonnes of hazardous waste were deposited in a disused clay-pit near the town of Kölliken between 1978 and 1985 - in line with regulations on hazardous waste of the time. Now, this waste - including sludge containing heavy metals; residues from the chemicals industry; and slag from aluminium recycling - is seen as a ticking time-bomb, and must be removed. It was placed in a pit without any artificial lining, and presents a danger to the nearby source of ground water. The clean up is due to be completed by 2015 and is expected to cost around 400 million francs.

At Bonfol some 114,000 tonnes of waste generated by the chemicals industry in the production of paints, pharmaceutical products, detergents and pesticides were disposed of between 1961 and 1975. The clean-up should be completed by 2013 at a cost of up to 300 million francs.

Who pays?

Ideally the "polluter pays" principle should operate in cleaning up contaminated sites but it is not always possible to find the polluter, and the polluter is not always in a position to pay.

In 1995, the revised Environmental Protection Law gave the federal government the authority to set up a fund for the remediation of "orphan" sites - sites where no polluter can be found or held responsible. In these cases, the federal government will pay 40% of the clean-up costs and the cantons to pay the remaining 60%.

Hazardous waste today

Switzerland's aim under its revised Environmental Protection Law is self-sufficiency in its waste management. New, state-of-the-art hazardous waste incinerators were put into operation in 1994 (in Dottikon, Canton Aargau) and 1995 (in Basel). These facilities make it possible for Switzerland to dispose of all non-recyclable hazardous waste generated here within its borders. Hazardous waste may only be exported for recycling - the export of waste for final disposal can only be approved if it cannot be safely disposed of in Switzerland.

The Basel Convention

Switzerland is not only home to a number of international humanitarian agencies, but also to the secretariat of the Basel Convention on hazardous waste.

The Convention was adopted at a conference held in Basel in 1989 in response to reports of an increasing amount of hazardous waste shipments from industrialised to third-world and eastern European countries. It came into force in 1992 with the main aim of minimizing the generation of hazardous wastes and disposing of them as close to the source of generation as possible.

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