For reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with this article, I was reading a book by the photographer Don McCullin, when I was struck by a passage that seemed to sum up what I would like to express in this article. Namely, a vague suspicion that our lives are ordered by forces that, further down the line and in almost abstract ways, result in a lot of waste, and that in turn these forces are to account for so much of the anxiety that seasons the air these days. I also want to explore if, despite the ineluctable liberal, capitalist system we are part of, it is possible to contribute to the reduction of this waste.
Three months earlier and I’m meeting one sunny morning with one Herr Rauhut, a warm and personable man in his 50s who smiles easily and has an air of having seen it all. Which, as a press spokesman for BSR, Berlin’s municipal waste collection agency, perhaps he has, or at least has to pretend he has. He was meeting me, along with the photographer of this article, to give us a tour of the drop off depot near Berlin Südkreuz. I think the point of making the visit is in some way to fight this unease of being complicit in a world of wasted food – of waste in general.
I think I wanted to dispel some myths, comments I have always come across, usually from well-intentioned people who deal with the world and all its difficulties (including the most insidious difficulty: laziness) by applying large amounts of skepticism to it. The myth that sorting rubbish so that it can be recycled is a waste of time has always annoyed the hell out of me because it’s akin to applying personal experience to a political problem and not immediately refutable and, in a sense, takes away this little, largely delusional idea that I can somehow offset the degradation of our planet. All the glass just gets dumped together into the same truck regardless of colour. Plastics get thrown into landfill sites, not recycled. The bio waste is incinerated. I’ve lived with people who’ve all used these arguments. And then there was also my own questioning: what plastics are recyclable and which aren’t? Is it ok to collect my food waste in a plastic bag and then put the plastic bag into the bio bin? This last mystery I was set on getting answered.
But also, Germany. My choice to live here: did it have to do with recycling? In 2001, just before leaving secondary school, a mate gifted me a present: a spiral bound notebook with plastic covers. They were from recycled material, brought back from an industry fair in Germany (my mate’s dad was in waste management). This was amazing to me. Ireland, like many EU countries, has no return system for plastic bottles: plastic is quit literally everywhere, in the fields and hedgerows, thrown out of innumerable windows. And it depressed the hell out of me as a teenager. Four years after I received this notebook, on June 1, 2005 Germany passed a law that banned waste landfills and brought into practice one of the world’s most advanced waste management systems. A zero to landfill policy that is based on recycling and retrieving every last ounce of energy stored in the waste is impressive, daunting and wholly necessary.
‘There is energy in waste’ Herr Rahout beams, ‘and we intend to get as much of it as possible.’ He goes on to explain how 60% of all waste is unsorted ‘general’ waste, which in Berlin goes in the black bins – this is burned, or rather, incinerated. From this incineration that occurs in Spandau 161 giga watts of electricity is generated. I never do get Herr Rauhut’s first name, but he continues on happily: the process must start with the consumer he maintains, they must question packaging in shops, when buying products. He seems to be a reservoir of facts: one-time use plastic bottles – nine of these and you have a pullover. Recyclable plastic bottles built to be reused can be reused 25 times. Glass bottles can be reused 50 times. These he confides, are the most ecologically friendly. 90% of each German bottle is made of recycled glass, eight out of 10 pages in every book and newspaper are from recycled paper, as well as 90% of most packaging. 100% of car batteries and oils are recycled. I try and interrupt this litany of information and ask eagerly about the bio waste. Berlin collects 67000 tonnes of it and from this methane gas is produced, which in turn is used to power anywhere from 150 up to 400 garbage trucks. No mean feat. The remainder is collected and bagged and sold as high quality compost, available from the BSR drop off points. And to my query if whether or not plastic bags are a problem, I’m told they’re not: the plastic is simply sorted and removed.
We start a little tour of the large containers that are individually marked for different items, and immediately we see what is clearly not rubbish at all, but functioning sport and electrical goods and the old adage of one man’s piece of rubbish is another’s treasure rings true. There’s an area designated for almost every type of thing one could wish to throw out.
These drop off centers become a delicate indicator of the wider society: in good times, when the economy is doing well, there’s more trash, especially with electrical goods. This is, after all, how capitalism works and redundancy is part and parcel of products we all too simply wish to replace. It’s strictly forbidden for people to dumpster dive here, which seems completely regrettable, although we’re told that on the website one can buy and exchange goods. Which I thought would turn out to be something of a sad and ignored Ebay, but actually it’s quite a lively site with a lot of good quality items being offered to give away.
Moves such as France’s law banning supermarkets from throwing out food that has not yet perished has to be welcomed, and while the ability to implement such laws, and what they mean for businesses, remains to be seen, the ability to make food waste a thing of the past is possible. Many countries would balk at the idea of outlawing the use of landfill, and yet Germany has managed to do so successfully, indeed the policy of seeing waste as energy has led the country to gain economically from such a policy. Such a redistributive view of food waste is welcome. Stephan Harmening, the former president of the Federation of the German Waste Management Industry, put it in perspective when he said “For me it’s a matter of time till we open up the old landfills and use the raw materials in them. I believe that in 50 years time, the way we manage our trash today will be seen as a waste.” Reading the numbers associated with contemporary German waste management, it’s hard not to agree: they have made rubbish profitable in Germany, it seems like a no-brainer somehow.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this feeds into the decision to live in Germany: I like how easy it is to recycle. I’ve lived in flatshares when the politics of separating waste became problematic, because it does take an effort after all, but in general the ease of dealing with my personal rubbish in a way that I can tell myself is somewhat responsible is reassuring. Sure, there will always be problems: my current apartment building has no paper recycling, and I don’t know why. Should I call my landlady and ask? Why do some buildings have glass recycling and others don’t? Where and what are these places that all my trash goes to? But why would I not make an effort, when ultimately these small efforts benefit all of society, and those to come, in the future.