27 May 2009

The Magic Pfand

Viel Gruβes, loyal readers! I write to you from the far away land of Germany, where recycling is the norm and not the exception. Well. More or less.

Most German cities, and the majority of the small towns, have a unique waste management system when compared to our own American- well, let’s call them attempts at waste management. Germans recycle everything. In fact, not only do they recycle everything, but they get money back for it. Allow me to explain.

When you buy a bottle of soda in Germany, more likely than not it has a pfand attached to the price- meaning instead of 1,25 the soda costs 1,50. When you finish the soda, you take the bottle back to the store and you receive 25 cents in return. This doesn’t sound so awesome if you are lazy and never take your bottles back, but if you are an intrepid scavenger you not only can take your own bottles back but can find bottles with a pfand all over- in the trash, lying in the street, given away for free on street corners- and you can make five euros in only a few minutes. Because, of course, even though recycling is ridiculously easy here, still not everyone does it.

However, it’s certainly in your best interest. In major cities, you simply sort your trash into a variety of bins in your house- one for paper, one for food waste, one for packaging (plastic), and one for everything else (restmüll). This is of course after you’ve recycled all your bottles and cans. You are charged for how much restmüll you put out- everything else is taken for free. So in the interest of saving money, everyone automatically separates their garbage. It’s not a big deal. It’s not an amazing magical environment saving program. It’s just the way things are.

It’s fascinating, coming from America where I have to try really hard to recycle, to watch people unthinkingly sort their trash. When I found myself at the train station with a piece of cardboard and only an unmarked trash can in sight, I thought, aha! At last I have found a place in Germany where I can’t recycle, and prepared to stick the cardboard in my bag for later. But as I did so, my German friend took the cardboard from my hands and put it in the bin. “But it’s recyclable!” I cried. “I know,” she said, “they’ll sort it when they empty it.”

I thought she was kidding.

But no, it’s true, even public all-in-one waste bins are, by law, sorted into recyclables and other waste before anything is thrown away. And since almost everything can be recycled, almost nothing is thrown away.

In this vein, there is generally less stuff produced that would be thrown away in the first place. You don’t get a plastic bag unless you pay for it. It is perfectly common to see people walking down the street with reusable grocery bags (usually filled with pfand bottles)- and also note that I said “walking.” Everyone walks here. Or bikes. Or takes the bus. There are cars on the road, certainly. Small ones. But with petrol at a ridiculously high rate (and parking spots being nonexistent), there’s no sense in driving unless you’re going a long way and don’t feel like taking the train (I can’t imagine why, I love taking the train- all you have to do is sit down and go to sleep and someone else drives) or have a lot of stuff to haul. But I digress.

The one thing that boggles my mind is that, with all this emphasis on recycling and not wasting, things are wrapped that would never appear in plastic in the U.S. Vegetables, for example. Most people put their vegetables in plastic bags in the U.S. anyway, for ease of carrying, but here vegetables are almost always wrapped in shrink wrap on a little tray. And ridiculously small amounts of vegetables. Like a handful of arugula. Or, and I kid you not, seven slices of cheese. In one package. The concept of buying in bulk has not really occurred to Germans, who shop on a regular basis (sometimes every day!). So we’ve got that going for us, at least.

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