Patrik, a former colleague from Sweden, once approached me at work. I could see from his face that he had something important to say.
“Brenda, can I ask you a question?” he asked quietly.
“Sure,” I said. Alarm bells went off as I assumed the worst.
Did I send an offensive e-mail?
Worse still, was there a mistake in the newsletter that I just sent to 8,000 employees? Receiving e-mails or phone calls right after pressing “send” always made my heart pound.
“How does recycling work in Germany? What are all the different bins for?”
Oh, THAT. I took a deep breath, swiveled my chair, and folded my hands across my stomach, as a tired wise master might do when asked how to defeat the enemy.
“Roll up your sleeves, grab a pen, and take a seat,” I said.
Because in Germany, recycling is a science.
There are separate bins for recycling compost, paper, plastic, and metal and a tiny one for residual waste. Each household has its own elaborate system for separating these different kinds of garbage. If you want to throw something away at another person’s house, you’ll find yourself standing helplessly in the kitchen, garbage in hand, searching for not just any garbage can, but the right garbage can.
But it’s hopeless. Only the house owner knows their locations.
Once a week, you take it all to the Wertstoffhof, which sounds like a type of Prussian palace but actually just means recycling center. In the time-honored German tradition of public scolding, strangers will reprimand you if they observe you putting something in the wrong bin.
It was years before I felt I had completely penetrated the system. It is my opinion that in addition to residence permits, the German authorities should hand out belts for recycling abilities, like in martial arts. Because after decades in Germany, it would be nice to have a tangible object to go with the accomplishment I feel at being a recycling black belt.
Against this background, it is no wonder that observing the way Americans recycle when I return to my country of origin gives me something along the lines of a mild heart attack. I have to sit down, close my eyes, and take a few deep breaths.
Because mostly, they don’t.
Any fast-food or takeout order is elaborately wrapped and includes plastic eating utensils and paper cups, all cheerfully proffered in a giant paper bag. To their credit, most fast-food restaurants have switched from using plastic bags to paper ones to be more eco-friendly – except they rarely recycle the paper.
After dining in one of the countless Mexican fast-food joints where I consumed a tortilla and a bottle of water, I place the whole lot – tortilla wrapper, cardboard drink tray, water cup, and napkins, into the paper bag it was served in.
And throw it all away.
While Munich and many other German cities have successfully campaigned to eliminate paper coffee cups by selling reusable ones, in the U.S., drinks are always served in a paper cup. Always. The first time this happened, I thought it was a mistake.
“No, this is for here, not to go,” I blithely informed the cashier. Drinking out of a paper cup always makes me feel like a dog chewing the Sunday newspaper.
My protest met with blank stares.
They serve everything in paper containers, inspired by the idea that paper is more eco-friendly than plastic. Paper, after all, is a renewable resource and can be recycled.
But once again, recyclable or not, it all lands in the garbage.
Americans produce more garbage per capita than any other country (except Denmark – really, Denmark?! We thought better of you.). According to the World Bank, garbage correlates closely with income and urban populations, which explains why these two countries are at the top of the list. For some reason, Nevada, a sparsely-populated desert state, produces twice as much garbage as the national average. I’m tempted to think that this is somehow related to the casinos, which seems to be true: the touristy areas are responsible for the bulk of the waste.
Let’s face it, the U.S. is so BIG it matters what they do. Not only because the sheer impact itself is significant, but also because they often set the tone for other countries, if only through the worldwide domination of Hollywood movies.
To get an idea of the scale, America’s toilet paper budget alone is $182 annually. This is just $125 shy of the entire GDP of the African country of Burundi, which is estimated to have a per capita income of $307 in 2023.
This kind of spending power is not to be underestimated.
After throwing away entire collections of meal-related garbage, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it anymore. I began folding up these sturdy paper bags and taking them with me. They are now stuffed into my official bag drawer at home in Munich, waiting for reuse.
But while saving these bags made me feel virtuous, it somehow just doesn’t seem like a workable solution for reducing garbage.