When it comes to flushing valuables down the toilet, the Swiss are hardly "Austrians", and appear to be equity-opportunity dumpers, whether it is fiat or hard money.
Last month we reported that Switzerland was gripped in a mystery, after it was discovered that someone tried to flush $120,000 in €500 bills down the toilet in a bathroom close to a UBS bank vault as well as three nearby restaurants, which in turn clogged the local toilets requiring thousands of francs in plumbing repairs to unclog the pipes.
However, it's not just paper currency that gets flushed down the toilet in the world's wealthiest nation, and as it turns out Switzerland's waste water is far more precious than it smells.
According to Reuters, last year researchers from the National Eawag Water Research Institute detected 3 tonnes of silver and 43 kg of gold in sludge extracted from the country's waste water treatment plants, totalling roughly 3 million Swiss francs, or just over $3.1 million. However, unlike the cash flushing mystery, the source of the golden effluent is far less exciting: the government study said the tiny particles were likely to be mostly from the watchmaking, pharmaceuticals and chemical industries, which use the metals in their products and processes.
Which makes sense: Switzerland is one of Europe's biggest commodity trading hubs, as well as one of the world’s biggest gold-processing countries. Government statistics show gold accounted for more than a quarter of all exports in 2016, when Switzerland sold 298 billion francs worth of goods abroad.
“You hear stories about an angry man or woman throwing jewelry down the toilet, but we didn’t find any rings, unfortunately,” report author Bas Vriens said on Thursday. “The levels of gold or silver were very small, in the micrograms, or even nanograms, but when you add them up it’s pretty substantial.”
Higher levels of gold were found in the western Swiss region of Jura, believed to be linked to watchmakers that use the precious metal to decorate their expensive timepieces.
There was also a higher concentration in the southern canton of Ticino due to the gold refineries in the area. This was the only region where it might make sense to recover the metals, Vriens said.
Other trace elements including rare metals such as gadolinium - used in medical imaging - were also found by the scientists from the government’s institute of aquatic science and technology
So should the government go prospecting for the millions in discarded gold and silver particles floating around among the feces? While researchers have been studying whether it is worthwhile to extract the metals that end up in the sludge before usually being burnt, so far it has not found to be cost effective.
Well, there may be an exception: “In some places in the Ticino region, the gold concentration in the sludge is so high that it might be worth recycling it," the Eawag institute said in a statement. We just hope whoever is tasked with this delightful job gets paid enough.
As for the rest of the population, which suddenly has the urge to filter the tap water in pursuit of untold riches, the report author had some bad news: the Swiss metal concentrations complied with regulations and were removed before humans drank the water again. “It wouldn’t make sense for people to boil their tap water to recover gold or silver because it has already been filtered out before it re-enters the drinking water supply,” Vriens said.
As for the original cash flushing mystery, while preliminary clues from an investigation suggest that the cash "dump" once belonged to unnamed “Spanish women who had placed the loot in a Geneva vault several years ago.”