Wednesday, July 20, 2011

“It’s trash day: A cultural comparison”

A big thanks to Rebecca Weber for contributing this fun tidbit on Trash Day here in Germany!  We recently enjoyed Rebecca's knowledge at our latest HENhaus quarterly meeting (click HERE to see pictures,) and she continues to impress me with her knowledge of German culture, and her compelling ability to comically compare it with our own!  Thanks Rebecca!

“It’s trash day: A cultural comparison”

 “It’s trash day”.  The meaning behind these three words (4 if you’re a stickler) sum up the ocean of difference between American and German culture.

In America, “trash day” usually refers to the one day a week that the trash is picked up.  One simply has to roll the trash can, with its bags of trash (i.e. “anything you don’t want to keep”), down to the end of the driveway.  Of course, nowadays one has the choice of recycling newspapers, so there might be an extra bin for those.  Over and done with – it requires almost no thought really.

 Ordnung (“order”) is a hallmark of German culture, and is even apparent  in the way trash is handled.  It reminds me of an old Saturday Night Live skit… In Germany, the word Mull (“trash”) is kind of like the Eskimo word for snow – there are, like, 250 words for snow in the Eskimo language, right?  Well, the same applies in Germany to the word for trash. There are about 5 different categories of trash, divided into subcategories, adding up to at least 9 total categories.   There is Papiermull (“paper trash”), Biomull (“organic waste”), and Restmüll (everything not covered by the first two, but not including glass, metal, or dangerous trash like batteries - oh – and it doesn’t include things like old broken down electronics). 

I have been living in Germany for 9 years now and am finally getting the hang of it.  I am proud.  Evidently instruction in the proper disposal of trash starts early in Germany - my daughter just told me that a teacher recently spent an entire classroom hour expounding on just this subject.  In religion…

Case in point:
“Trash day” in our household in Germany goes something like this.  My German husband says, “I think they pick up the trash on Wednesday.”  I, not exactly drawn in to the conversation, continue washing the dishes or doing facebook or whatever, mumbling “Mmmm”. Big deal, right? Observe:

Cultural difference #1: Germans are significantly more environmentally aware than Americans. 

Cultural difference #2: There is an attention to and desire for intricate systems in German culture, whereas in America, “the simpler the better” is the motto.

Cultural difference #3: Planning, planning, planning is the key in Germany. 

My husband consults “the book” (not to be confused with the Bible, but more often consulted).  “The book” tells us when and which trash will be picked up.  In America the trash (all trash) is picked up, well, let’s say..on “WEDNESDAYS”.  In Germany there are different dates (different each month) scheduled  for the major 4 kinds of trash.  On a good week, my husband only has to remember to put out the trash on the night before the appointed day.  On a so-so week, the trash might be getting dangerously full days before the pick up.  In which case my husband makes daily comments about if all our trash will fit, or if we will have to sneak some of our trash into the neighbors can.  One of the benefits of friendship in Germany is being close enough friends to share trash cans.   If, despite all efforts, we have more trash than cans, we either have to find alternative storage ideas, or, in the case of organic trash – simply not do any gardening. 

At the end of November I decided to throw out my Fall pumpkin doorstep decorations in order to make room for Christmas arrangements.  The pumpkins and leaves were definitely past their time.  As I carried them out to the trash can, my husband looked and said, “nope”.  I said, “whadaya mean, “nope”?” He said again, “No.  No space. You can’t throw them out”.  I was shocked and asked why.  He explained to me for the 100th time (it just doesn’t register with me!) that the organic trash was full.  I said, “Yeah, so?” And he said, “You have to wait two weeks now” (organic trash is picked up every week in summer, every 2 weeks at other times of the year).  Well, there was no way in trashdom that I was going to keep those nasty gourds on my step for a minute longer, much less 2 weeks!  I had to find a bucket out back to throw them in, which we had to empty into the trash can after it was picked up.  Which of course made it fill up sooner and the cycle of torment just continued.
The opposite could happen – our trash can could be half empty , in which case my husband starts to look for things to throw away – on the premise that we may not be so lucky next time, so we have to think ahead.  At these times, the kids and I keep locks on our doors.  Many a time has a favorite toy ended up in the bin.  (He has enough conscience to deny this when confronted however…)

Cultural difference #3 continued: If proper planning is followed, mistakes and “forgetting” are avoided. It is as simple as that.

Case in point:
On a very bad week – and this has thankfully only happened a handful of times – we could forget to put out the trash altogether.  THIS IS VERY BAD. Not only could the forgotten trash turn out to be the one with the diapers in it, it has far-reaching cultural ramifications. Oh the guilt!
It’s funny, but in America one can find trash cans every 50 feet, no matter where one is.  But there are still mounds of trash lying around on the ground.   In Germany, trash cans are few and far between, but, it’s amazing - Germany is pristine.  If there is no trash can, people will simply HOLD ON TO THEIR TRASH and take it with them!  When a can is found, there is a rush to rid one’s pockets, car, etc. of any trash so that one does not have to dispose of it in one’s own trash can.  My husband will take the extra time after purchasing something to unwrap it and throw away the box and plastic wrapping at the store.  Disposing of the trash takes pre-eminence over saving receipts and original packing, so that in the case we need to return something, WE CAN’T – no receipt, no box.  Of course not. It’s been promptly and properly disposed of.