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Dumpster Diving Detectives: Inspecting Swiss Town's Trash To Nab Eco-Cheats

Determined to make their new pay-as-you-go garbage system work, municipal authorities in Yverdon are hot on the trail of trash cheaters. But before they can issue fines, the Swiss town must identify the violators – which means rifling through the refuse

Welcome to Yverdon...What's in that dumpster? (GoogleStreetView)
Welcome to Yverdon...What's in that dumpster? (GoogleStreetView)
Mathieu Signorell

YVERDON - "There, a black bag. Quick!" Pascal Breux hurriedly presses the big red button next to him. Behind the wheel of his garbage truck, this municipal worker for the village of Yverdon in western Switzerland scans the back of his vehicle with a small camera. "We must only collect white bags, the ones that are taxed by the city," he says.

Two truck "servants' -- they don't like to be called "garbage men" -- then hop on the vehicle, and start fishing for bags that shouldn't be there. Their next mission will be to sort through the bags and hopefully discover the identity of the cheating polluters in this quaint spa town of 27,000.

Vaud, the canton where Yverdon is located, is hardly an environmental hotbed. But over the past year, the town has made an effort to be less wasteful when it comes to garbage, enforcing a pay-as-you-go system to encourage recycling and a reduction in overall waste. Residents are now only allowed to leave their trash in special white bags sold by the city. Anyone who dares dump their garbage in another kind of bag risks a hefty fine – up to several hundred euros. To show they mean business, Yverdon town authorities have already tracked down some 250 trash cheaters.

This morning's catch was a good one: Out of only three containers, the municipal workers have collected a dozen illicit bags. The bags are then put in a tiny rickety truck headed for the Road Maintenance headquarters, where Olivier de Blaireville, head of municipal waste disposal authority, proceeds to disembowel them with a knife. The garbage is spread, ready for inspection.

Searching for clues

Before he sends the bags to the incinerator, De Blaireville and his team sort their contents out, looking for the slightest clue as to who the lawbreaker might be: addresses on envelopes, bank statements or photocopies of official document usually do the trick.

Each garbage bag tells bits and pieces about its former owner. The first suspect likes milk, drinks coke and beer cans by the dozen, and had to throw away one strawberry yogurt that had spent too long in the fridge. The bag also contains a letter and bank statement – but they've been torn to bits. Unfortunately in this case, the investigation won't lead anywhere.

The next bag belongs to a student from Yverdon's High School of Engineering and Management (HEIG) who has a passion for the school's music festival. At any rate, that's what a printed out e-mail featuring multiple e-mail address suggests. "But it's not hard evidence," says Olivier de Blaireville.

Then comes the bag of a man – or at least of someone who uses men's deodorant - who does not like tap water, judging by the countless glass and plastic bottles he threw away. The newspaper he reads won't be any help, considering it's distributed everywhere.

The next crook likes vodka and left his trash can for too long on his balcony: Everything is moldy apart from the alcohol bottle. His neighbor is a smoker and loves oranges and zucchini. Although he does not sort his waste, he's very meticulous. He took the trouble to pack his peelings in a small plastic bag before cheating by putting it in the black bag. Another wild goose chase: there was no address on the only envelope he threw away.

As for this morning's other smugglers, there is a wine drinker, an aficionado of coffee capsules, a gardener who needed to get rid of potting soil and someone with a sweet tooth. "It disgusts me," says De Blaireville. "Not the smell, but the fact that people don't give a damn about waste sorting."

But hang on, what's that in the middle of all the trash? A magazine! Jackpot: the address is clearly visible. "Our goal is not to make money out of the fines. We just want things to be fair for those who play by the rules," De Blaireville says.

"But there will always be fraudsters," says Marc-André Burkhard, a local politician from the radical-liberal party. Burkhard, who heads Yverdon's Environmental Development department, just happened to walk by a garbage truck. "Some of them are adamantly opposed to bag taxation. They will cheat just to be provocative. "

Back to the office of road maintenance, where the database shows no trace of a prior violation by the magazine-reading desperado. This time, he will be let off with a warning.

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo - GoogleStreetView

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