My college dorm floor in Germany had endless bins squeezed under one of the counters, and each one held something different– foil, plastic, paper, glass, food scraps, you name it. The smallest bin at the end was for actual trash, the kind that would end up in a landfill. Nineteen people lived on that floor and we filled that small bin once a week. I watched in awe the people who were charged with “Muelldienst” (trash duty) as they briskly checked, sorted, lifted, and disposed of the various recyclable items.
Not much has changed in ten years. Our apartment building has three large bins stashed out front: one for paper, one for food scraps and organic matter, and the last for trash. The glass sorting box is just down the street. And twice a month, we collect all of our plastic, foil, and other packaging materials and stuff them in a “Gelbe Sack” that gets whisked away by more recycling trucks.
I know recycling is big in the U.S. now too; glass, paper, and tin are no-brainers. However, there are two major improvements in the German system that ease my conscience: first, the organic matter bin (while food scraps and old leaves are compost-friendly, they fester in landfills); and second, the all-encompassing plastic recycling. All of those weird plastics– the number 4′s, the number 5′s, the number 7′s, and so on– get recycled. No more guilt over throwing yogurt containers away because I’ve already reused as many as I can. Just stick them in that Gelbe Sack!
Bottom line: recycling is easy here. You practically trip over those containers every day; its harder not to use them. Sorting in the kitchen is no trouble. Everyone else is doing it; it’s a community effort. A decade later, I’m glad I still have reason to stand in awe before recycling bins!
**UPDATE, September 13th: A friend in Northern Michigan tells me that Charlevoix County has just started accepting ALL plastics for recycling! And my mother says Michigan State University does the same. Way to go, Michigan, and keep up the good work!