Sunday, November 18, 2007

The German Trash System

We lived in Germany near Stuttgart from 1999 until 2002. I wrote this towards the beginning of our stay there.


Well I’ve only been in Germany for a few months, it’s too early to tell, but right now the hardest thing to do is: deal with the trash.

I had some foreshadowing of this when I looked through the kitchen drawers in our new house and found 4 separate, color-coded trash compartments. This suggested more than the "toss it in the bag under the sink" approach to trash management would be required.

Step one: Getting the trash can (or rather cans).

It turns out that there are only two officially approved trashcans in this Kreis (district) of Germany; the black "Mulleimer" and the green "Grune Tonne"’ can. The Mulleimer comes in two sizes, 35 and 50 liters, and the Grune Tonne comes in 120 and 240 liter size. As luck would have it, these can’t be bought at the same place. The Grune Tonne is only sold at the central recycling center, and the Mulleimer only at the local Target equivalent –the "Multi-Center". Sensing I’m in trouble, I decide to buy the biggest damn Mulleimer made.

Unfortunately, although the Multi-Center has plenty of 35-liter containers, there isn’t a 50-liter to be found. When I asked the relocation specialist what other stores carried Mulleimers she was stumped and said she would have get back to me. Ok—the Grune Tonne it is. It was easy enough to find the recycling center, which looked reassuringly like something you would see in the USA—a bunch of labeled dumpsters (e.g. Dosen) with people parking their cars nearby, unloading junk. There was even a section with brand new Grune Tonnes apparently for sale. After wandering among the cans for a few minutes looking bewildered (something I’ve been practicing the last few months), an attendant walked up to me, pulls out his wallet (to make change), and helped me buy my first German garbage can.

Step two: Putting trash in the cans

I asked the relocation specialist what sort of trash could be put in the Mulleimer. She paused and said this was a difficult question—uh oh. It turns out it easier to say what sorts of trash shouldn’t be put in this particular can. Specifically you shouldn’t put in:

  • Newspaper
  • Regular notebook sized paper, or correspondence
  • Batteries
  • Aluminum
  • Clear glass
  • Brown glass
  • Green glass
  • Cardboard
  • Biodegradable stuff
  • Or plastic

Realizing that it would be pretty silly if she couldn’t come up with some example of acceptable trash, she suggested that a piece of old cheese stuck to a paper wrapper could be tossed in. I started thinking that the 35-liter container might be big enough after all.

Acceptable contents for the Grune Tonne are easier to describe—biodegradable stuff. No plastic bags are allowed, my relocation specialist suggested the biodegradable stuff be wrapped up in newspapers. I now visualize German dump workers as professionals, dressed in spotless white overalls, stacking trash in neat piles. My USA dump experience is more along the lines of a bulldozer pushing an oozing refrigerator through piles of McDonalds wrappers with a kid’s bicycle caught in its tracks.

Step 3: Getting the trash picked up

This part was theoretical with the Grune Tonne for a long time—six weeks. My first concern was that the trash crew would find some reason to not empty my trash cans. My fear was that they will open the lid, immediately discover forbidden trash material, and walk off shaking their heads. However, before I actually put the trash out to be collected I had already avoided one trap. I had stickers. These stickers, when placed on your can, indicate that you have paid the appropriate fees to for having your trash collected. The part that gave me trouble was that trashcan types, green or black are collected on alternative weeks. If you happen to be gone on alternate weeks you can accumulate quite a trash problem.

Later I learned that the trash crew is far more sophisticated about rejecting trash than just taking a look. My neighbor’s Grune Tonne was rejected for pickup. When she complained they explained that their metal detector had found metal in her can. She had to dig out a piece of old metal that had gotten stuck in before they would take it.

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