Easy Lesson: Trash This Way

Easy Lesson: Trash This Way

Before I get into the nitty gritty of trash disposal, recycling and pfand allow me to explain the photo and my stance on waste as a whole. As an American I have grown to realize Americans and the United States of America has issues with this topic (and so much more). This photo was taken at a gas station in the southeast this past summer. While this overflowing trash can is inexcusable, I also understand that this is a gas station, probably off of I-95 which is a very popular interstate along the east coast. So this is a can where anyone and everyone who stops there by car or foot will drop off all their unnecessary things. But the sheer amount and assortment in that bin caught my eye as the majority of it could have been condensed then possibly eliminated with proper sorting and recycling. I took the photo because of the absurdity of it all. The contents. It spilling over. How nobody seemed to notice it like I did - not any store patrons or the employees inside. I am also certain almost six months later this trashcan probably looks the same day in and and day out. But as someone recently said in a social media post about providing solutions for homelessness - one cannot cover the sun with one finger. I could talk to as many Americans as I wanted about my experiences abroad with trash and how to effectively conquer waste of all kinds. But nothing will change because of me. And frankly as disappointed as I am in this photo, I am equally frustrated with my "options" here in Germany as well. 

I think it is all a dirty subject. How people manage trash, food waste, recycling - all of it. Talking about this with people is very taxing. And while I don't want to debate about it or even think about it, here in Germany, I am constantly overthinking and obsessing over it. This isn't by choice. It is constantly drilled into you by strangers, neighbors ya know ze Germans and all of the assimilated. In America, I monitored my personal environmental footprint and I didn't have to explain my choices to anyone. If I lived in a place that did not recycle I took my things to a friend or family members that had access. I used to bring things to my work. I have gone to facilities to properly get rid of appliances. I am hyper aware of things that can be recycled like certain styrofoams or the blister packs that hold my daily eye contacts. These are things most people including Germans ignore. I have looked into things like zero waste and have yearned to go to Burning Man. I want to be as conscious as I can about my waste and do something about it. But I also don't want to be plagued by my choice to flush something or rid myself of a bottle when I am out in public. I am only half in. I understand the importance but I also want to live as I once did. When I was aware but could do as I personally wished. If I wanted to put 90 days worth of my personal trash in a mason jar or throw everything away in a Walmart bag so be it. What I cannot stand is just anyone dictating the how and when and why of something as basic as trash to me. With that being said...

The Easy Lesson series on this blog is to inform the uninformed but I am no expert

I also have wild, fickle opinions and this is not my first or last take on whatever subject. In the same way, exposure to new forms can create change. So my introspection today may will me to think differently. I may totally contradict myself in future posts. However, I personally have waited four years to say anything about this subject. We all consume and waste. It all has to go somewhere. While everyone can do their part to make it easier, better, safer etc. - it isn't my place or anyones to decide on that. So discussing how people take care of their personal waste is a moot point. I have not had any discussion about my sentiments with anyone --- here or back home. I have waited to say anything on this platform because I really needed more time. I needed to be properly exposed to all options related to it. And until recently, I wasn't abreast of everything trash here in Germany. 

We moved a few weeks ago and there was a delay in my "orientation" - see more here. I finally cracked into my welcoming packet which included a 30 something page manifesto on this stadt's particulars on trash. I read it from cover to cover and also reviewed all the online websites it referenced for additional information. Today I am bright eyed and bushy tailed with a new, broad understanding of all things Abfall. Now I want to walk you through that coming of age and enlighten you to why this is good for mankind but piss poor for the lowly individual. But here in Deutschland we take care of each other and that is why we think about this shit more than what I feel is more important like poverty, hunger etc. And to be perfectly honest, I would rather chew pressed wood than talk or in this case write about this ever the fuck again. 

The Key To It All Is Sorting

Germans and most Europeans sort their trash into some sort of environmentally sound system. There is a national way of doing it and then it gets narrowed down into whatever municipality or township preferred system. Then it is up to you - person, family, Wohnung or Housing, Buro or Business how you partake. It isn't rocket science and similar to most places in America. I'll do a hierarchy ...






Glas/Glass, Electronics, Biohazard, Batteries, Old Clothing/Textile and Large Items





So Abfall consists of all things trash but it is ultimately divided by end use - if it is biodegradable it is considered Bio but this can also be used as Compost. These things do not require a bag for disposal but if a bag is used only paper bags are suitable. This would include table scraps, kitchen garbage, yard work, leaves, paper towels etc. but not bones or packaging. Wastemüll or Müll would be your everyday trash like soiled diapers, melted candles, feminine items, dental floss and snotty tissues. 

Recycling would be anything that can have a second life but this is sorted again by end use. Paper in all forms. This would include junk mail, shredded paper, boxes, newspapers and magazines. The paper around your yogurt container or box of mushrooms would also go in paper. Anything packaging but not paper will go in the Gelbe Sacke or Yellow Bag - more on this later. The bag would hold any Kunstoff or various plastics/other materials that are recyclable. This would include hangers, lids from disposable cups, metal cans that your peas came out of, foil and old zip locks even the packaging from meat. Larger plastics like detergent bottles and nut milk cartons will also go in there. The weirdest exception is juice and real milk containers which is debatable. I believe it has something to do with acid not allowing for proper re-use. Occasionally, you will have a juice or milk product that is pfand. Pfand will include your returnable bottles and cans including some glass but not all. These will be labeled and you will pay upfront to ensure their return i.e. z.B. a Powerade is .99¢ but will pay 1,25€. Therefore upon its proper, empty return to a Pfand machine you will get a credit of .25¢. More on this later. 

Glas or Glass that isn't included in Pfand like pickle jars, olive oil flasks and champagne bottles will go into a receptacle for glass which is then sorted by color. The receptacles are typically in the middle of your neighborhood or in the vicinity of a grocery store. The glass you drop off there should be empty and clean - devoid of wine, jelly bits, mold etc. The corks, lids and tops should have been removed and placed in their proper receptacles before hand. You may notice all the forgotten tops and lids decorating the glass trash receptacles. Which means your cork in Bio and the cap in the Gelbe Sacke. This too is to be debated because some things have all sort of weird tops i.e. z.B. what the fuck can anyone do with a bottle of Ramune? 

Things like used styrofoam, smoothie bottles, interdentals, pizza boxes, latex gloves, that bloody thing in the bottom of meat containers - always get me because I grapple with putting them in the wrong category. Hence all of the anxiety around trash here because I want to participate but I don't want to do it then get yelled at. There is this general feeling that Americans or outsiders in general have no clue how to manage personal waste and in a shared home or office we really fuck it up for everyone. All these years later, I am still asking where to put what where or putting something to the side for someone to figure it out for me. What irritates me the most is ...

Americans Sort Too

We absolutely do! Some places simply divide paper from other recycling. Another city may require all plastic to be on its own. I have lived plenty of places that do a non-sort recycling which means everything is mixed up from paper to plastics to glass. There are also cities that take bottle and can returns too including places that have now adopted a similar automated Pfand system. But in general the returns are so low. Why? Because only certain states participate and the distance between sites for return are far and few. There is no incentive to go out of ones way to make a return for pennies on the dollar. Just know recycling isn't an entirely foreign concept. Other places just do it differently and many some places do it better than Germany!

And Vice-Versa

My husband lived in a community in the US that didn't participate in a sorted system but he still did it! Also, Germany has places that do not subscribe to recycling either. We lived in a mixed use apartment that was primarily commercial so they only offered paper recycling. It made sense because 90% of the building was offices who only produced paper trash. We couldn't just order the city to block commercial dumpsters with receptacles for just our packaging or bio waste. So we threw everything away in the same dumpster as advised ... but only after my husband insisted we still sort it. * face palm *

HOW to Sort

It starts in the kitchen and a German kitchen is a beautiful thing! The Untersink/Under Sink is an invaluable resource especially in terms of trash sorting. Typically, the standard German kitchen will have an option to at least divide some trash. And it is totally up to you on how you organize and maintain that. You can have a standard trash can or bin or multiple ones throughout the house to store what you need and want. And you will amass a minimum of five different in house receptacles - Müll, Papier, Gelbe, Glass and Pfand. And thensome if you subscribe to Bio and or Compost. You will also have your mixed use things like cosmetic bins in the bathroom or bedroom. Multiple options for paper and or shredded paper in offices. In our case now that we are in house with our multiple pets and two bathrooms we have a good eleven receptacles. And this is streamlined, it could be a lot more. What I am used to doing is taking this stuff out to a dumpster and it being emptied weekly. Now we are subject to a set collection schedule and sharing outside standard receptacles which are extremely small. So we now have to live with the sorting so to say and it is imperative that we get it right. And getting it right means it doesn't stink, overflow or overwhelm. But is also cold and rural here so I can't just get rid of my pfand at the corner Rewe because we are having people over for dinner. I am literally living with our trash as well as the trash of others. This is the part I really do not like. 

Where To Put Sorted Trash

Mülltonne or Bins that are picked up on whatever schedule are typically all the same here in Germany. This too is similar to back home. The way to tell where to put what and where is by color.

MULL - Black 

BIO - Brown

PAPIER - Blue 

GELBE - Yellow

GLAS - Will be divided by popular colors like Klar/Clear, Grün/Green and Braun/Brown. 

Universally a recycling receptacle regardless of sort would be Green in most public places. In America, most receptacles for standard trash are Black or Brown and recycling can range from green, red, orange and or blue. Similar to Germany bigger housing complexes, buildings and commercial places will have large dumpsters. Individual homes or private apartments will have their own or shared bins. Typically, there is a collection or pickup schedule which can vary with holidays, seasons or in climate weather. The biggest difference is the size of the said bins and the frequency of their retrieval. And there are trash shoots and incinerators but I have never encountered that abroad which is perfectly fine with me.  

The good thing in Germany is with all of this sorting and recycling the plastic bagged trash is decreased and not as messy. In America, most trash collection days involve streets with overflowing bins where the lids cannot be closed and retrieval means trash everywhere. Here even with multiple families or businesses sharing a bin it is rare they will overflow or be hard to retrieve. The problem is you don't see what you get. The big bins in America are typically 95 gallons which equates to about 400 liters. Here the provided tonne range from 40 liters to 240 liters. Some will look like an American one on the outside but once you open the lid you will realize only half of the bin is able to be filled. A 95 gallon bin is issued per house per type of trash in the United States - most at no additional cost other than your taxes and whatever waste management costs - think Nebenkosten. My mother has one container for trash and another for non-sort recycling. She keeps both outside of her home but uses a double sided container in her kitchen to maintain her sort. For perspective our current home here, for three families we have less than 65 gallons per container. Some smaller households only have 10 gallon containers which would mean they would only have 40 gallons total for ALL of their trash! 

There Is No Alternative

In America there are options like valet trash, an incinerator in a building and a lot of people have a garbage disposal in their kitchen sink. It is a gigantic blade that chops up kitchen scraps and leftovers washing them down the drain. It isn't something in every home but it is widely used and many people use it daily. When I have spoke to missing a garbage disposal, I was reminded about how terrible an idea that was. And when you explain how it works, you hear yourself speaking and quickly realize how problematic it was and still is to the environment. Most Germans cringe at the fact that I was once happy by dumping waste down my sink with a finger cutting blade installed in it. Looking back now this explains very odd looking fish in lakes and worlds shittiest indoor plumbing. Then there's the energy waste of it all and that is another blog altogether. Without that option you simply have to embrace the system here in Germany no matter how weird it seems. To most Americans filling up a bag with table scraps and separating that waste from every little thing you used while making dinner is weird. As an avid cook, frankly I was annoyed having to stop what I was doing while cooking to properly dispose of whatever. It is now a way of life but I am still irritated by having to think about my trash in a different way. 

America Has Rules Too

But our rules aren't mandatory. They do however have big consequences. Rules here in Germany don't have real repercussions. A wagging finger or a loud suggestion isn't really going to stop the average outsider from throwing their shit out like back home. In America, if you participate in local recycling you do have to follow some rules. If you do not abide you can get fined or lose your privilege to recycle. And as inconvenienced as a lot of Americans feel about taking those proper steps to recycle they wouldn't mind elimination as punishment. My moms neighborhood is pretty lenient but if you put a plastic bag of any kind in the non sort recycling there is a hefty fine. Why? Plastic bags actually damage the cities sorting machines. Now if they just had residents sort properly it would be win win. But my own mother cannot stop throwing her left over grocery bags in her recycling. What is frustrating is she has reusable bags and can easily shop with those. But she prefers the feeling of coming home with a zillion plastic bags and then just packing them all into recycling. If not that she is reusing those bags for scraps she could have composted or junk mail shreds she could have put in a proper paper receptacle. My husband and I spent most of our summer vacation riffling through her bins removing and editing her choices in the trash. A ton of loose, plastic Solo cups that could be stacked. Boxes from Amazon never broken down or collapsed. While Germany doesn't require anyone to compile better or make better use of their space - people simply do it. They are more concerned by judgement of their neighbors so they step on milk cartons and put smaller cans inside of larger cans. Meanwhile, the average American can fill up their bin in an instant and never think about why or inspect how they can better manage it. Because they don't care. And to be honest, I don't care either. I have learned to pretend that I do but I really don't. The perception that we don't have rules back home and are constantly trying to break them makes me want to just chuck my trash out of the kitchen window. I don't face any consequences here and I couldn't care less about what my neighbors think of me or my trash. I find that so many expats feel they have something to prove meanwhile they make "mistakes" left and right and no one really helps them change. I have had to take steps to learn. And thankfully my husband is a stickler. 

My moms bag issue is a perfect example of how recycling when done right eliminates so much. If you don't have compositing or ahem a garbage disposal - trash can get really hectic. Larger trash bags in America are also insanely expensive and there is no uniform size, type or incentive to get them for free. The concept of BYOB - Bring Your Own Bag ins't widely adopted so people are hell bent on bringing tons of plastic bags home and a lot of people rely on them as trash bag replacements. If people recycled and composted there would be less hassle and cost. They would buy less bags. They would accept less plastic bags. They would decrease their environmental footprint especially so if they adopted composting. In Germany, the Gelbe Sacke is typically provided gratis. Whether someone drops them off at your door, you pick them up at your local Rathaus or City Hall and local shops participate and offer them at checkout again for free. If you fail to pick some up, you can just put the stuff in the proper yellow tonne without a bag. Germans don't even understand the luxury they have having access to these services. And Americans don't know how green it actually is on the other side. 

About Bio and or Composting

This is a slippery slope. Now that we have access to Bio trash collection I am not pleased. I would much rather compost. I personally am not afraid of hanging onto scraps. As a home cook I would say 75% of what I cook is unprocessed food from scratch. Everyday I have a huge mess bowl of suppenbund or potato peels which overwhelm trash bins no matter how it is sorted. The Bio trash allows me to purge that stuff on a regular basis without using up plastic bags AND from keeping it indoors smelling up my house. However, this shared Bio bin is disgusting. When multiple people are throwing their other biodegradable waste in there, it piles up and sadly it is only collected every two weeks. What is biodegradable to one may not be for another. And many people do not buy the paper bags suggested for bio disposal. Many are literally wiping their plates into this shared bin or slopping the contents of a kitchen bin in there on a regular basis. We moved in the Fall/Winter and I don't know how this will work in Summer. I have created a compost before in America. I like gardening and composting can supply a good, rich, soil. But I prefer soil free of rank things like citrus and alliums. I don't want just anything in there. I would like to start a new compost here but I do not know how to begin without infringing on my neighbors. The tenant that is here has already admitted to barely putting the bio out for pickup. They once had a compost but have abandoned it. So I would be the only weirdo with a bucket somewhere. If they do not appreciate the Bio container I do not know how this will go over as a neighbor. The other morning, I had to pick up icy tomatoes which hit the ground in the dark the other night. I was disposing of my soggy paper bags after making tomato soup. I need to find a better solution because this isn't it. Someone could have slipped on those and the whole thing is giving "Les Miserables" or "Moll Flanders". I personally thought it was beautiful thing until tomato gate. Now I am debating just throwing that stuff away but that too is only picked up every two weeks. 

The Downside

No one is taking into account the amount of women, babies, pets etc that can be in each home sharing those tiny bins for long periods before collection. Another factor is some people simply produce more trash than others or require more room for their recyclables. Anyone who has ever been a caregiver can tell you the amount of gloves, syringe caps, wrappers and plastics you may go through on a daily basis that will overwhelm average containers. When my mother had home heath care years ago we had to buy another recycling receptacle. Just the packaging for deliveries was enough to fill one bin. While I know I can purchase as many receptacles as I would like. I am limited by the collection schedules and the constant need to purge things out of my home. I guess this is why I see people with hoards of glass trash or what seems like months of pfand at the grocery store. People are actively living with their trash in Germany because the system doesn't work in their favor. Some people are working or studying too much to deal with it. Others are just oblivious to the schedules. And many people I observe are just used to hanging onto things until they cannot take it anymore. I personally am too impatient to deal with this system. I would much rather get in my car and illegally dump my trash when convenient then to rely upon a system that is stressful and slow. The competition of who fills the bin first and how long it will take for that now filled bin to be picked up is medieval to me. Again, it is cold outside and I am dreading how this will be handled when German summer comes with all of its concrete heat and flies. And with all of the antics on pollution and climate I will not be allowed to saunter outside with a hose and bleach. There is bin outside filled with two weeks worth of meals. The bin beside that is teeming with old kitty litter, dog poop bags, soiled baby diapers and non flushable wipes. And if people deem greasy pizza boxes paper there may be a few of those in paper trash for a whole month. I am twitching just knowing that is out there just a few feet from my front door. And I am powerless so I cannot get rid of any of it earlier or clean it up in any way. We don't have those problems in America. So in no way, will I ever boast that Germany does it better. It is just different and sometimes different isn't good nor perfect. 

In Future and Forever

I hope to see Germany adopt better practices along with their good habits. It would be awesome to see local sites for drop off for excess trash as well as more frequent collections. I would like to see larger apartments or businesses provided with bigger receptacles. I would also like to see more education on the subject for everyone instead of the indoctrination that is happening. There are older people in Germany who do not know all of their options. There are also young people who are too busy to cope with the rules. And for those who have come here from other places there is no incentive or access to learn how to do it the right ahem German way. I once stayed at an Aparthotel in France and they informed me how to take care of my personal waste. It was a five minute discussion that put me at total ease that I not only had a solution but I was contributing. Since I have moved here I have always felt burdened by my perceived ignorance. Everyone remembers that first moment where you threw pfand away in your Deutschkurs bin and someone finally told you how much money you have wasted. Also the kissen Oma who just watches you and complains to your landlord instead of showing you how to manage your waste. Sometimes people are a product of their environment and due to that we take advantage on our presence, our space and privileges. We need guidance and to be redirected or educated without judgement or scolding. Like I prefaced, even with the introspection it takes to run this blog, I may be willed to think differently about this subject or others. But for many there is no time or headspace for that and with the rigamarole of life you just forget about the little things. So you have to remind people and help them. Germany can do that easily with better marketing or nudging so that we all do our part. So if you see someone struggling or oblivious just show them what to do. That approach is the right way.