Zen and the Art of General Recycling. Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 16

The delicate subject of recycling. The most efficient postal service in the world.

The concept of Lebensraum in a domestic context.

There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.

– Johnann Wolfgang von Goethe

What is the difference between a cow and a postal worker? – The cow can be milked, the postal worker does not need to be.

– German proverb


In the postcards I sent in those early few weeks I sang the praises of Germany and smugly patted myself on the back for having made the crossing. The message was one of hope, that I had fetched up in a land of opportunity where anything was possible; and I believed that everything was going to be good.

This effect would wear off with time. A surprisingly short period of time, actually, was required to scuff the shine off and smack that smirk off my face.

I also found out later that none of those happy, gloating postcards which I sent in the early days ever reached their destinations.

Bonn Post Office was a much happier place when the little elves did all the work while the employees slept.

Bonn’s main post office is a yellow and grey four-storey edifice on the Northern end of the Münsterplatz, hastily knocked up between 1751 and 1753, as a palace for the Deacon of the Order of Cassius and Florentius – better known as The Giant Stone Heads. I’ll explain them later. A larger than life-size bronze Beethoven stands guard over the approach to this building, and those occupying space behind the counters within have developed the notion that the palace was built in their honour.

I reached the front of the queue, placed a stack of postcards addressed to Australia, Argentina, Canada and Finland on the counter, and asked the woman in broken German how much it was to send a postcard.

Fünfundvierzig Cent”, was the expansive reply. Forty-five cents.

I handed over the cashish for two dozen stamps, stuck them on and dropped the cards in the box outside. It wasn’t until weeks later that the realisation finally dawned on me that nobody was receiving them.

Next time I went into the post office with a card I asked how much it was to send a postcard to Australia. The answer was, one euro. In my broken German I asked the woman (a different one this time) why her colleague had told me it was only 45 cents.

That is what it costs to send a card inside Germany.”

So, why, if I – obviously an outlander – arrived at the counter with a stack of cards addressed to Australia, Argentina, Canada and Finland, and then I am asking how much does it cost a postcard to send, does woman have told me it is 45 cents?”

Did you specify you wanted to send the cards into the Outlands?”

Well, specifically not, no. In front of me the cards were, see them she could, that they not for Deutschland were not. And should not she have asked where the postcards I would send and have told me them different prices for somebody different countries?”

It is not our job to research where you are sending your mail,” she said, clearly struggling with my syntax.

It is our job to sell stamps. You should have been more precise in your request.”

My flatmates thought this was hilarious.

Hah ha ha, Oh yes, welcome in Germany. One must be more precise here,” chortled Sebastian.

Ja, ja, Ordnung muss sein, ha ha ha” chuckled Armin the Goth.

Oh well, you have learnt your lesson for next time,” commiserated Mathias the gun-toting Christian.

My new flatmates were pleasant enough, but the whole situation meant I had to spend some time acclimatising. Although I had lived in half a dozen share-houses in Australia, it took a little while to get used to the way things were done in Germany.

The first major and obvious difference is that German share-houses usually don’t have a living room. That’s a “Wohnzimmer”, and is not to be confused with “Lebensraum”.

Ordnung muss nicht immer sein. The kitchen is usually the centre of WG life.

Most shared apartments have two, three, four or more bedrooms and a small kitchen. The kitchen is usually about two meters by three and is the only area to socialise or relax. That means that quite often someone will be cooking and another flatmate will have a group of three or four friends with a deck of cards drinking beer and smoking around the table, while in one corner someone is eating and another faces a scrap of broken mirror stuck to the wall, doing her hair with a can of hairspray or putting on her make-up – because the kitchen light is the only one strong enough to do these things by. All the other rooms have 12W energy saver bulbs in them. That’s compact, modern living, in modern Germany.

Every fortnight or so Matthias would load his much-abused Golf with the beer bottles which had accumulated in the kitchen and take them down to the Getränkemarkt, a big bottle shop nearby, to collect the deposit. Then they were sent back to the breweries to be washed and refilled. The deposit would then go into the beer kitty and be put towards the next crate. Or crates. An eminently sensible and far less energy intensive way of doing things than in Australia, where beer bottles are crushed up, remelted and then injection moulded to form new containers. Once upon a time we had deposits on glass bottles, but the packaging corporations managed to put an end to that.

Non-recyclable glass was supposed to be taken to the large glass bins at the end of the street where there was one for green glass, one for brown and one for clear. If a citizen spotted you putting the wrong colour in the wrong bin, they’d have the “German no-finger” out quick as a flash, and you would be subjected to any one of a hundred well-rehearsed lectures.

This was just part of the complex rubbish collection system which was pretty much standard for any German WG.

There were two large plastic sacks, the kind that you use to dispose of garden refuse, or bodies. One was full to bursting with recyclable stuff and the other strained under its load of mixed garbage. Because it took about a month to fill these sacks, it meant that the rubbish only had to be taken out once a month, and that month-old rubbish added its own special ichweissnichtwas (the German equivalent of “Je ne sais quoi”) to the atmosphere in the kitchen.

This was enough to warrant a letter to the landlord, who who would then send a nasty note threatening eviction.

The block of flats had four large, colour-coded bins downstairs, one each for plastic, paper, green waste and general household waste. The neighbours kept a keen eye out to see that you were putting the right rubbish in the right bins and woe betide you if anyone spotted you mixing garbage! This was enough to warrant a letter to the landlord, who would then send a nasty note threatening eviction. Although we adhered strictly to the system, we got several notes following malicious complaints from another tenant. I think they just wanted to get rid of the scruffy WG-inhabitants on the second floor.

Nein, nein, nein! In der gelbe Bier, in der braune Wein, in der blaue Perlen, in der schwarze Schwein!

The Germans are enthusiastic recyclers, yet few people seemed to understand what it was actually all about. For example, you’d have two plastic containers, identical but for the fact that one had a little recycle logo stamped into the bottom of it, while the other one didn’t. My way of thinking was if they’re the same and made from the same kind of plastic, then they both go in the recycling. The German way of thinking was that it only goes in the recycling if it has the little logo on it, because the logo means it is officially recyclable.

This was the subject of endless arguments and angry outbursts of secondary rubbish sorting. My flatmates (not just in that first WG, but in the more than half a dozen share houses I lived in before leaving Germany) would inform me that I didn’t understand recycling, and had no idea about environmental sustainability – because in a country like Australia we were ecological retards who’d never heard of such concepts.

I pointed out that, actually, most large Australian cities have had recycling programs in place since the early 1980s. These days most Australians are pretty keen on the idea, because from preschool onwards they are taught to love and respect the environment. In the German case it was really just the fact that from an early age they are taught to love and respect orders – not some deeply held conviction about conserving the planet’s resources. This was quite clear from the way they made ice: they bought disposable plastic sheets of individually wrapped ice cubes which, having not been marked with the little recycle symbol, was thrown into the mixed kitchen waste bag once the ice was used. Somehow this was regarded as better than the rather time consuming and inefficient method of refilling and reusing the same plastic ice tray hundreds of times over.

This wastefulness was somehow not seen as being at odds with the recycling and environemntal protection indoctrination.

The strange thing was, that all the tons of intricately sorted rubbish went to a gigantic “recycling centre” about half way between Bonn and Cologne, where it was all tipped into the same gigantic hopper and sent to China for sorting – because it could be done more cheaply (and thus more efficiently) there. The Chinese collected the Germans’ money and sent the sorted rubbish back, and the Germans then kept the metals to make cars and sold the rest of it to Finland, who burned it to create electricity.

Fortunately the rubbish arguments only surfaced fairly rarely and the rest of the time we got on reasonably well.Which was a good thing, because I couldn’t help wondering if Matthias limited himself to gunplay in the virtual world. I laughed obediently at his mathematics jokes and computer programming puns, just in case.

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