Technology and innovation

The postman always rings twice

Putting old or broken electrical appliances in a specially designed bag, placing it next to your letterbox, and having it collected by the postman – this is nothing out of the ordinary in Switzerland. Well, at least in the canton of Geneva and in the cities of Zurich and Bern, where non-profit organisation SENS eRecycling is testing the concept in a large-scale pilot project.

The Swiss throw nothing away, explains Nando Erne from SENS eRecycling, Recupel’s Swiss counterpart. “This applies in particular to small electrical and electronic appliances such as clock radios, toasters, hairdryers, and similar. Even if the devices are broken, people continue to keep them in the attic or in a storage room, in spite of Switzerland having a good system for collecting discarded devices. Our fellow citizens clearly need a push to let go of their electrical waste.”

Big success

That push came for the first time in 2019. That was when SENS eRecycling began a small-scale test in which 10,000 households in two demographically different parts of Zurich were given a special bag, the ‘Electro Bag’, in which they could discard their broken electrical appliances. “At first, they were supposed to put the bag in a locker meant for small parcels, close to the letterbox. A yellow strip alerted the postman that there was an Electro Bag in the locker. But starting this year, the Electro Bags should be placed next to the letterbox.”

“That first pilot test was a great success,” says Erne. “It was a low-threshold initiative, so the vast majority of households participated. And that motivated us, a year later, to scale up the project to include 100,000 households in Zurich and Bern. They all received our Electro Bag in their letterboxes, free of charge. As a result, we collected 10 tonnes of material in about a year.”

During both the first and the second pilot projects, SENS eRecycling only recycled the electrical and electronic devices collected. “But we noticed that many of the devices we received were actually still perfectly usable. Therefore, for the large-scale pilot project underway today – in fact, the next scale-up – we decided to also focus on reuse.”

1 million households

The last pilot project started at the beginning of 2022. The cities of Zurich and Bern were involved once again, but this time the collection region has been expanded to include the canton of Geneva. “In total, the Electro Bag project now reaches about 1 million households,” says Erne. “What is different this time is that participants now have to order the special bag from our website. The bag is still free, although now, for the first time, we are working with a more expensive, reusable version.”

“When they put their electronic and electrical devices in the Electro Bag, they can indicate with a sticker which devices are still usable. The postman collects the bags – the same as before – and takes them to a central collection point. There, a specialised partner sorts all the materials. Broken devices are sent for recycling. The reusable electrical and electronic devices are returned to the market at affordable prices, intended for people with low incomes.”

Positive reactions

"We are receiving very positive reactions", says Erne. "There is also very little other waste in amongst the electro material. Some 66 percent of the items collected so far had to be recycled. Only a limited portion will therefore get a second life. We have noticed that some of the appliances labelled for reuse are nevertheless too old or defective.”

Lessons learned

SENS eRecycling has been working with the Electro Bags for several years now. So what lessons has the organisation learned so far? Erne: “First of all, you have to make it very easy for the user. We see that having to order the bag online has created a barrier, causing some people to drop out. In addition, we are still debating the cost that we will later charge for this service. The amount that people are willing to pay varies greatly.”

“Finally, we have not yet decided whether we will use a reusable bag or not for the full roll-out of the Electro Bags. Reusable is better for the environment, but we notice that the bag is kept for a long time and used for other things. And, of course, that is not the intention. But regardless of all this, there is a lot of potential in collecting electrical waste in this way. I hope other organisations will be inspired by our project!”

More info about the project you can fine on