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Recycling and the Essence of Trash

Are Americans oblivious to environmental concerns or are they just lazy about recycling?

December 20, 2003

Are Americans oblivious to environmental concerns or are they just lazy about recycling?

Learning the German recycling system is an I.Q. test in itself. Universities should observe how quickly it takes applicants to understand how to sort trash according to German standards.

If they did so, I — of course — would not be able to get into any respectable university.

After having lived in Germany for 14 months, I have not yet been able to comprehend the complex trash bin system.

I live in an apartment building in Prenzlauer Berg, a district in former East Berlin. In our courtyard, we have about eight dumpsters.

When I first moved here, I thought all dumpsters had the same use and that their number corresponded to the amount of trash produced by the inhabitants of my building.

I put all my trash into one bag and chucked it into a bin. Suddenly, a 40-something German woman started hollering that I had just done the unthinkable.

I had thrown a plastic bottle into the waste bin. It’s a good thing she didn’t see the papers and cartons I had also put in the bag.

After about a month, I understood that Germans — unlike Americans — actually care what waste bin they throw their trash into.

On top of that, they care what other people do with their trash. I have heard that fines can be levied on apartment buildings for unacceptable trash sorting.

Once I found out all this, I began paying attention to the four categories of trash I was familiar with: glass, paper, plastic and other trash. I went about sorting according to these.

One evening a German friend of mine was having dinner at my apartment. Actually, it was just a pizza. I put the soda bottle in my recycling bin (which I bought to get into the German mindset) and threw the rest of the garbage into my trashcan.

A distressed expression crossed my friend’s face. She told me I absolutely could not treat my garbage this way. I had to sort it more thoroughly. After all, not all garbage is the same.

First, there is the bio-degradable garbage.

This category includes vegetable peels, apple cores — and other things. In short, anything that will rot and turn into dirt. I was to put all of that into one bag, go to the nearest compost pile, and deposit it there.

Then there are the cartons. I was supposed to break them down so that they took up the least amount of space — and they have their own special bin.

Then there is glass. There are three types of glass in Germany: brown, white and green. All these types of glass must be sorted into their own special bins.

I think she also mentioned special ways to dispose of different plastics, but in my lazy American attitude, I never bothered to find out. Well, I have since discovered the compost pile, because I will never forget the foul smell.

All the other dumpsters are equally foul. The only problem is that in America, I would hold my breath, chuck the trash bag and leave.

In Germany, I actually have to spend time near all the dumpsters and ponder the essence of my trash.

On top of that, I sometimes have to search really hard for the correct dumpster. The glass dumpsters, for example, are down the street. In short, I have to walk five minutes or so to even be able to throw out my glass.

The Germans have put recycling bins in parks, office buildings, train stations and other places. This means that one never has an excuse not to recycle.

This is all well and good — until you have a Coke can you want to throw out and you cannot, for the life of you, find the correct trash can. Then you have two choices.

Chuck it in the garbage bin — or walk around until you find the appropriate trash can to put it in. Any way you look at it, it is not as simple as it used to be.

In the early 1990s, I remember we went through what was called "The New American Revolution." Billboards with Uncle Sam holding a recycling bin went up all over the United States.

Books were published about how average citizens could take steps to save the environment.

All this environmentalism, however, never really penetrated the hearts and minds of the majority of the American population.

The Germans, however, take it very seriously. They really seem to believe that it is every citizen’s responsibility — if not obligation — to leave behind as little waste as possible.

Whenever I visit a new German household, one of the first things I am instructed in is how the garbage system works.

In America, taking out the trash was an annoying task. I never liked it and was quite lazy about doing it. Now, I know how easy I had it on the other side of the Atlantic.

You actually have to think about your trash here. Even though I often regard German trash-sorting habits as an annoyance, I must give the Germans credit for their efforts and concede they are right.

Earnest German attempts to change their lifestyle in the hopes of ensuring a better world for their children are commendable. With my American lethargy, I just sometimes feel too lazy to be on the frontlines of this war against pollution.

Used with permission of Aufbau: The Transatlantic Jewish Paper.