Bin it, bag it or (glass) bank it? The mind boggles (FT Weekend March 1999)

Financial Times Weekend supplement, 6th March 1999

Frosty glances from my new neighbours alerted me to the fact of my misdemeanour, though not alas to the substance of it. That, apparently, is the Bavarian way.

Shortly after our relocation there, I was very much an Auslander in all matters social and, it seemed environmental, since it was here that I had transgressed.  I realised this when for the third consecutive week our domestic waste lingered on the pavement while everyone else’s was transported away by the refuse collector.  Creeping out in the dusk to retrieve it, I knew I had to solve the problem.

Hence my visit to the Abfallberatung or Waste Advisory Centre, where it became disconcertingly clear that I was guilty of serious ecological shortcomings.

At the Abfallberatung, under the enthusiastic guidance of two young employees, Karl and Hildegarde, I was to learn about domestic refuse separation.  Each administrative region, they explained, managed environmental waste recycling in its own way.  My initial tripartite efforts (biological, recyclable and ‘not entirely sure’) might be acceptable elsewhere in Germany, but not in Bavaria, where higher standards applied.

Not only should you know how to sort your waste, they added, you must know when and how to put it outside for collection.  They set about my induction.

It seemed I had almost conformed to the “bio” rules, with the exception that such waste should be wrapped only in uncoloured, non-coated paper, before consignment to a large brown wheelie bin, for collection weekly on my designated day.

Synthetic waste, it seemed, was much more complicated.  Strictly speaking, synthetic mouldings (yoghourt pots, chocolate box trays, detergent bottles, etc) should be separated from simple plastic waste such as carrier bags, onion nets and sweet wrappers, and also from composite synthetics (foil and plastic vacuum wrappers, milk and juice cartons, etc).

I listened in amazement as my mentors added sadly that, quite unreasonably in their view, the townsfolk had proved either unable or unwilling to co-operate.  In future, all three categories of synethetic waste should be bundled together in yellow polythene sacks on the fourth collection day of each month.

My new friends brightened considerably, however, over paper waste.  Clean newspaper, magazines, stationery and cardboard boxes were all recyclable, and, they urged, I must be sure to remove plastic see-through windows from envelopes before consigning them to an enormous blue wheelie bin on the third collection day of each month.  “Oh absolutely,” I enthused.

I thanked them, turning to go.  “Now,” said Hildegarde, tossing her honey-coloured braid confidently, “to glass we come.”

As in England, bottle banks for brown, green and clear glass were situated at strategic points.  But I must put the plastic screw tops with my synthetics waste, and metal bottle caps with my metal waste.

“Which metal waste?” I asked weakly.  I should, it seemed, wash all tin cans and then take them to the metal skips placed next to the bottle banks.  “But,” said Karl waving an admonishing finger at me “never on Sundays, public holidays or before 7am and after 7pm weekdays.”

I muttered my thanks, and backed towards the door.

“Moment, bitte,” said Hildegarde disapprovingly, clearly sensing a lack of commitment on my part, “yet must we the restmulle discuss.”

Restmulle items (light bulbs, nursing waste, vacuum cleaner dust, cigarette stubs, leather, rags and small electrical appliances, etc) had, unbelievably, not been covered by the earlier categories.  Large black wheelie bins designated for restmulle are collected every other week. I could feel a hot flush coming on.

“Now,” said Karl, nudging a chair behind my buckling knees, “need you the disposal of remaining waste to understand.”

And so I digested the fact that I must personally take such items as weedkiller, nail varnish, corrosives, solvents, gasoline, halogen bulbs, insecticides, medicines, etc to the waste disposal plant on the first Saturday morning of every month.

Then, clutching a colourful supply of polythene sacks, an illustrated calendar and an explanatory leaflet to summon total recall for this electrifying subject, I was permitted to leave.

After a few false starts, duly rewarded by having an appropriately ticked, pre-printed infringement list slapped on to my wheelie bins, I eventually got the hang of it.  Guests from overseas, however, seemed to share my initial puzzlement.

I compiled an alphabetic reference chart and pinned it above the six refuse containers in our utility room.  Visitors grumbled, but usually the prospect of watching me sort through the contents of their bedroom/bathroom waste baskets proved sufficient incentive to conform.  By the end of their stay, our friends could be seen, bin in hand, in the utility rom, swiftly dealing out their rubbish like expert card-sharps.

Unfortunately no such advice centre deals with the “social” issues.  After further hands on hip, head-shaking neighbourly demonstrations of disapproval, we finally latched on to these.  You may not, it seems, use noisy gardening or DIY implements between noon and two o’clock Monday to Saturday, and on pain of a visit from the police (so said an Irish friend who learned the hard way), throughout the whole of Sunday.  On Sundays, you should not even consider hanging out washing, airing your bedding or washing your car.

Perhaps that’s why most shops in Germany close at 2pm on Saturday – so you can tackle your DIY, gardening and laundry activities during the remainder of the afternoon.  That leaves you free all day Sunday to contemplate God or the Green party, whose fault it probably was in the first place.

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About Sandra

I cruise the French waterways with my husband four or five months a year, and write fiction and poetry. I love animals, F1 motor racing, French bread and my husband, though not necessarily in that order.
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