Sparking sustainable living in Switzerland by building a circular economy

Switzerland is a trendsetter when it comes to environmental action: it has decarbonised its electricity sector and is among the world’s best recyclers of municipal solid waste. It also boasts ambitious climate targets, while the canton of Zurich has enshrined the circular economy in its constitution.

However, the country’s consumption is too high—surpassing what our planet can sustain. By transitioning to a circular economy, Switzerland can cut its material use by 33% and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 43%, shaping a truly sustainable system. The Circularity Gap Report Switzerland lights the way.
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Switzerland’s population consumes 19 tonnes of virgin materials per person, per year—more than double the sustainable level.
This tops the European average (17.8 tonnes per capita) and the world average (11.9 tonnes per capita).

Over 93% of the materials Switzerland uses come from virgin sources.

Only 6.9% of the materials are cycled back into the economy after use. This is slightly below the Circularity Metric for the global economy, measured at 7.2%. Domestic material extraction is low, sitting at around 7 tonnes per capita per year, compared to the global average of 12.2 tonnes.

However, the country relies heavily on imports: only one-tenth of its material demand is fulfilled through domestic extraction, with high-impact materials like fossil fuels and metal ores are entirely imported. Although Switzerland is endeavouring to lower environmental impacts at home, its consumption is exhausting the planet's vital ecosystems elsewhere.
Circularity metric
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Manufacturing: the material-hungry engine of the Swiss economy
The top three sectors contributing to both the material and carbon footprints in Switzerland are Manufacturing, Construction and Agrifood.

The Swiss manufacturing sector is one of the largest and most innovative in Europe. As a consequence, it contributes over 40% of the country’s material footprint and 36% of its carbon footprint. This sets Switzerland apart from other developed—and to a larger extent deindustrialised—nations in Europe.

Switzerland can nearly double its circularity, bringing it to 12.1%.

By tackling its consumption patterns, Switzerland can address the root causes of climate change and environmental degradation—both at home and abroad. Circular strategies across five scenarios can boost circularity, cut material and carbon footprints and provide a wealth of co-benefits.

The road to circularity

Five visions of a circular future to Switzerland.
Embrace a circular lifestyle
  • Material footprint reduced by 15.4%.
  • Carbon footprint reduced by 15.8%.
Switzerland has a high consumption rate, but consumers have the power to turn the tide. There’s a growing desire to ‘live lighter’ and declutter, with trends like minimalism and essentialism on the rise.

We recommend Swiss residents embrace a ‘material sufficiency’ lifestyle: having enough, but not too much. The Government can support this shift in mindset through measures like regulation, taxation and the development of infrastructure. Businesses also have a critical role to play. They can help by, for example, making sustainable products more affordable and accessible.
Advance circular manufacturing
  • Material footprint reduced by 15.4%.
  • Carbon footprint reduced by 15.8%.
Switzerland is a European manufacturing powerhouse. Chemicals and pharmaceuticals, watchmaking, and mechanical, electrical & metal (MEM) are all crucial industries, which substantially contribute to GDP and exports. However, the sector as a whole accounts for 40% of the material footprint.

To make the sector more circular, we propose that Switzerland implements resource-efficient, symbiotic manufacturing, cutting yield losses and reducing scrap. For manufactured goods, R-strategies (remanufacture, repair and reuse) are recommended to extend product lifetimes. In addition, the country can incentivise Product-as-a-service business models.
Rethink transport and mobility
  • Material footprint reduced by 5.3%.
  • Carbon footprint reduced by 12.2%.
Road and air traffic in the country relies almost entirely on fossil fuels. As a result, domestic mobility makes up one-third of the country’s carbon footprint. It is also one of the biggest sources of air pollution.

We suggest Swiss residents rely less on private cars, mainstream hybrid working, electrify and lightweight vehicles and cut down on air travel. In general, circular mobility should focus on reducing mobility demand and making the remaining share clean—with electricity and carbon-free fuels like hydrogen.
Build a circular built environment
  • Material footprint reduced by 4.8%.
  • Carbon footprint reduced by 12.1%.
Swiss buildings are responsible for one-quarter of the nation’s total GHG emissions, as fossil fuels are still used to heat two-thirds of the stock. Housing alone represents 17% of the total material footprint.

Switzerland may seize the opportunity to optimise its housing stock expansion by cycling construction and demolition waste, repurposing commercial buildings and increasing occupancy rates, for example. It is also advised to shape an energy-efficient building stock through better insulation and scale resource-efficient building practices, such as using more lightweight materials.
Nurture a circular food system
  • Material footprint reduced by 3.1%.
  • Carbon footprint reduced by 2.4%.
Swiss agriculture occupies a third of the country’s land. It is putting increasing pressure on the natural landscapes, and biodiversity is declining, with around 36% of wild species endangered and more than 60% of habitats classified as threatened or near threatened. However, organic food production is on the rise.

We suggest that Switzerland shifts to more sustainable food production—favouring seasonal, local and organic production—while cutting food waste. Any unavoidable food waste should be recycled. On top of that, Swiss residents should limit their daily calorie intake to a sufficient level—enough but not too much.


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The time for a Swiss circular economy is now

If approached holistically and designed well, the circular economy can provide far-reaching environmental, social and economic benefits. This report envisions a new economic system, with well-being and high quality of life for all Swiss residents at its core. To achieve this, a strong circular economy vision backed by comprehensive metrics and targets, increased stakeholder collaboration and new business models and investment strategies will be crucial.


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