Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Der Müll

In German, nouns are capitalized (the Bread, the Milk, the Juice), and nowhere is this more deserved than in the case of Der Müll - The Garbage.

Garbage is a big deal here. Or rather, producing as little of it as possible is a big deal here. Look, I'm from Portland. I am fluent in recycling, and this has still been an adjustment for me. In the US (and in the UAE, to a lesser extent, where we do have some recycling capabilities but also access to an essentially bottomless dumpster), recycling was more a post-consumption issue. When you're finished with something, you either recycle it or throw it away.

Here in Germany, more and more I find myself thinking about this issue pre-consumption. For example, there is one brand of milk here whose carton is not easily collapsible. I don't want to buy that kind anymore, because it hogs all the room in the recycling bin.

This is also one of those countries where plastic bags are not provided at check-out. You bring your own reusable bags (or those fancy pop-up baskets - love those!). If you're willing to endure the shame, you can buy some sturdy plastic bags from the store for around 70 (Euro) cents each.

But back to The Garbage. We are living in the upstairs of a house. Our landlady and her husband live on the ground floor. Her daughter and grandson live in the basement. Altogether, there are six adults and three children living on this property. Here is how big our common Garbage can is:

And you guys, I'm not even sure that it's collected once a week. I think it might be once every two weeks. So yeah, we think long and hard before throwing something away in our house these days. It's actually easier to recycle something than to throw it away mindlessly. Isn't that the way it should be?

There's just one problem: diapers. Those pile up fast and there are too many of them to fit in the bin along with the other trash. What to do? Well, our first Sunday here at church, an American woman who had just moved here mentioned driving around town with bags of trash in the trunk of her car, looking for a random dumpster she could throw it in because her bin at home was already full. We kind of laughed with her...and then thought, "brilliant!!!" We went home and did the very same thing because it's the only way those diapers are getting thrown away.

But guess what? There aren't even random dumpsters here! Sometimes you can find a medium-sized can at a gas station, but that's about it. When you do find one, surreptitiously throwing a bag of trash in there feels like disposing of a body - you're worried someone might see you and trace it back to you.

So now we are hyper-aware of all the Garbage we produce, and meticulous about throwing it away elsewhere, if possible. In the UAE, we'd get home from a road trip and clean out the car by bringing in all the refuse to the kitchen Garbage bin. Here, I try to clean out the car anywhere else but at home.

While we have Garbage on the mind, check out these photos of Americans swimming in a week's worth of their own Garbage. We really do produce quite a bit of waste!


Sarah Familia said...

I can so relate to this! In our town in Italy they took extreme care about trash disposal. You had to separate your trash into several different recyclable categories, and each one had a separate type of bag you had to use (they all were impossibly tiny bags), and each type of garbage was picked up on a different day. They did have a special bag just for diapers, but woe unto you if you missed the day for diapers to be picked up.

When we moved in, they had run out of the special garbage bags at City Hall, so for a month we did surreptitiously drive around with our trunk full of garbage, looking for a convenient dumpster and praying that nobody would see us. I've never felt so much like an "ugly American."

Hannah said...

Apologies in advance if you get some version of this twice…I think the internet ate the first comment I tried to leave.

Very interesting post. In general, I wish the US could be more like this. The last place I lived in Maryland instituted a bag fee at stores, but it was only 5 cents per bag, so it probably wasn't enough of a penalty for people who were dead set against bringing their own bags.

You raise an interesting point about the diapers, though. I wonder what German families do about that. Is cloth-diapering more popular there than in the US?

I'm always amazed by the amount of trash I produce even though I'm careful to recycle what I can.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Be careful when depositing trash in a random dumpster--think "Alice's Restaurant."

I'm proud of our recycling tradition here in Oregon but have often considered that wouldn't it be better to not have so much to recycle? But what to do? Food and supplies and items of all sorts come in containers. You can't get oatmeal, milk or batteries or computers or underwear without it coming in a container of some sort. We reuse containers where possible, even to using the same grocery bags until they die.

Tell me just how the Germans manage it.

Bridget said...

What is Alice's Restaurant?

Sarah, now that you mention it, I remember reading about your garbage issues in Italy, maybe a little. It really takes a lot of energy to deal with!

Hannah, I know you can arrange to buy a larger trash bin that holds more waste. If we lived here long-term, that's what we'd have to do!

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Alice's Restaurant refers to several things, but pertaining to trash: Arlo Guthrie and his friend were charged w/ taking Alice's trash to the dump, but the dump was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday. They did their duty and dumped it over an embankment. It was discovered and the police went through it and found an envelope w/ Alice's name & address, traced it back to her and implicated Guthrie. And arrested him.

Susanne said...

My Syrian friend had a German roommate for a couple of years, and S told me how Richard would scold him for throwing certain things into the regular garbage. Richard would fish those things out for the recyclables.

Jen said...

In my parents' town in Maine, you can use your own garbage cans---however large they may be. BUT. The town will only collect garbage that is inside town-issued garbage bags.......which cost $2.50 apiece. (I think there's talk of going to $3, if I'm not mistaken.)

It's free, however, to recycle.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

He's an Oregonian at heart. . . . fishing recyclables out of people's trash. It's entirely possible that I have personally hauled home recyclables from places that amazingly don't offer that service.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

What an effective way to encourage recycling!

Aimee said...

In Vienna in our apartment building (16 units I think) we separated trash into plain trash, glass, aluminum/cans, paper, cardboard, bio-muell or compostable food and there was a special little box for the juice and milk boxes (tetra paks in the US).

Cloth diapering mums were given an initial extra bit of money for the purchase of everything and then given more money in their kindergeld each month, and more still if they breastfed for 6 mo+. I tried to do cloth, but with the house laundry rooms I could never get the chemicals and enzymes off the diapers and my boys had sensitive behinds! I never had trouble throwing out diapers because we did have a dumpster though.


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