Ochsner bin in the city of Basel, 1930s.
Ochsner bin in the city of Basel, 1930s. Basel Historical Museum

Putting the bins out – the Ochsner way

For generations, the clanking sound of bins being emptied was an everyday morning sound in Switzerland. The noise came from the hot-dip galvanised steel rubbish bins designed by resourceful Zurich entrepreneur Jakob Ochsner.

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel is a journalist and Professor of Media Engineering at the Fachhochschule Graubünden and the Hochschule der Künste in Berne.

Businessman’s son Jakob Ochsner (1858–1926) was a well-travelled man. He learned to build and repair carriages from his father, a wainwright from Oberhallau in Schaffhausen, but soon decided to move overseas. In Chicago, Jakob Ochsner came to realise that the US offered as many problems as opportunities: the streets were full of piles of rubbish that stank to the heavens. Having spent seven years working as a wainwright in Chicago, Jakob Ochsner returned home to find that rubbish was also starting to pile up in Switzerland’s rapidly-growing cities. Ochsner relocated the family business to Zurich – initially to modest premises in Oberstrass, then to Kasernenstrasse before settling at Müllerstrasse 54/56 with a wainwright, blacksmith and saddlery workshop all under the same roof.
Full of people, opportunities, and rubbish: lithograph of Chicago, mid-19th century.
Full of people, opportunities, and rubbish: lithograph of Chicago, mid-19th century. Wikimedia
At the turn of the century, Zurich was relatively sophisticated with regard to waste disposal. Following a cholera epidemic in the summer of 1867 that claimed several hundred lives, the city’s electorate voted to modernise the sewage system through the ‘Kloakenreform’. Solids and liquids were then separated – wastewater flowed into a closed sewer system based on the Paris model; faecal matter was disposed of via drainpipes attached to the house facades into buckets, emptied into horse-drawn containers and taken away to be composted for farmers. When Switzerland’s first incineration plant became operational on Josefstrasse in 1904, Zurich had Europe’s most modern waste disposal system.
Incineration plant at Josefstrasse, Zurich, circa 1909.
Incineration plant at Josefstrasse, Zurich, circa 1909. Baugeschichtliches Archiv Zurich
But all that glitters is not gold. Industrialisation turned Zurich’s Aussersihl suburb into Switzerland’s most densely populated area. Every household had its own rubbish bin and a permanent stench lingered over the city. There were growing fears of new diseases breaking out. Jakob Ochsner had the idea of employing methods that had impressed him during his time in the US. He built dustcarts with metal containers equipped with sliding openings designed to exactly match the distinctive flip-top lids of the rubbish bins; he also placed containers in the incineration plant with fire dampers designed to match the receptacles transporting the rubbish – an enclosed transport chain from household to furnace. Once the rubbish was, as per regulations, wrapped in newspaper and in the (initially square-shaped, later round) bin, it remained concealed instead of being out in the open. The transfer of the garbage to the dustcart and then to the incinerator thus proceeded with barely a speck of dust out of place or any unpleasant smell. In 1908, the System Ochsner became operational on the streets of Zurich. As the years passed, the old horse and cart was replaced by motorised transport and the clanking sound of the Ochsner bins being emptied became part of the city’s soundscape. Moreover, as Ochsner was not just a talented inventor but also a natural marketing man, he proudly displayed the Swiss cross on the lid of his galvanised rubbish container; later models even bore the coat of arms of whichever canton they were in. By 1926, the year of Ochsner’s death, the ‘Ochsnerkübel’ (as the bin was known) had become mandatory for every household in the city of Zurich.
Bernese Ochsner bin.
Patent Ochsner Bern and... Wikimedia
Ochsner bin from Basel.
... Basel models. e-pics
The system was introduced to Basel in 1931 and Basel’s first Ochsner refuse vehicle started doing the rounds in 1934. The ‘Mistkübel’ as the bin was known in Basel had to be purchased by every household for 9.05 Swiss francs, equivalent to about 150 francs today. As some people were unable to afford it, the Grand Council approved the sum of 33,000 francs in 1933 “to enable one-off state contributions to needy families to mitigate the cost of purchasing the System Ochsner standard rubbish bin”. The receptacles bore prominent numbering to prevent theft and mix-ups. In 1930, the legendary Ochsner bin was patented as a “container with a flip-top lid and tiltable support bracket, for example for waste and the like” by Jacques Ochsner & Cie. AG and the System Ochsner became the Patent Ochsner. Still, as the Swiss German saying goes, “young turns to old, hot turns to cold, and it happens much quicker than one might think”: in the 1970s and 1980s, the Ochsner bin was replaced by the plastic rubbish bag. Patent Ochsner is now no more than a childhood memory – and the name of a rock band from Bern that sings catchy songs about transience in Swiss German.
Waste disposal using Ochsner bins, Zurich 1971.
Waste disposal using Ochsner bins, Zurich 1971. Dukas

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