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Littering and.... Littering and....
My uncle Paul once told me, “Tom, the more you try to logically explain an issue to a skeptic the less they will believe in you.” For example, climatologists can talk until they are blue in the face that logically shows that humans are damaging the Earth to our own detriment, but this only pushes skeptics further into denial. Just like believing in the existence of God, knowing that human activities are adversely affecting our environment eventually requires a “leap of faith.”
Well, I believe in God, and I also believe that we humans are wrecking the Earth and that governments, businesses and individuals of all developed societies much radically change. The finger is pointed at China, the US, and EU first because we are the worst carbon offenders and have the largest economic power. Our countries need more trains, buses, bike lanes and less cars and urban sprawl. We need to walk more and quite simply reduce our overall consumption.
Thus far these constant natural disasters and climate speeches are not getting the wider public to believe that drastically changing our daily habits is necessary. But maybe there is an alternative route to saving the planet. My suggestion would be for Greta Thunberg to pick up the mic and put a little humor to her crusade. No more lecturing society on what she feels is its reckless behavior but rather start making a joke of its incredulity. Here’s a couple quick ones I’ve jotted down for her first act:
A report from outside Red Bluff, California said that a lady jumped out of her GMC Yukon to see her house burning down from the wildfires. In total anguish she screamed, “If only there were six cars and not a dozen in the drive-thru lane at Starbucks I could have made it home in time to turn on the sprinklers!”
Mother Nature is so hot, she replaced Sarah Palin as Miss February in the RNC’s annual pinup calendar.
The German village of Kordel, along the river Kyll, flooded so fast that its local citizens could not save their secret stash of guns needed to start World War Three.
Litter is so awful, that last Saturday morning I grabbed a plastic bag, gloves and started picking up trash along the street.
Ok, this last one isn’t funny because it’s true. It was utterly embarrassing but let me explain.
One evening during the recent floods across Germany I wanted to see if the Isar River was still roaring through Munich’s city center. While sitting on a park bench by the Maximilianbrücke where the river cascades down a series of small waterfalls, a middle-aged man and woman passed in front of me. Both were dressed in nondescript walking attire, but the man was carrying a backpack and had a ball cap on showing the logo of a Kentucky distillery. He also had in one hand a small plastic trash bag and a litter-picker-upper-thingy in the other.
As the woman followed along, the man diligently worked the area between me and the river grabbing trash and cigarette butts with his extended tool. I sat there bewildered and wondered if it was possible this man also disdained litter so much that it compelled him to voluntarily pick up trash. As they walked away, I caught the man saying something in clear American English. If it had been German, I probably would not have boldly leapt to inquire about this curious act of environmental stewardship.
“Entschuldigung,” I say to him but then dispense with the German by asking, “I see you are picking up trash, why are you doing that?”
“Because it drives me fucking crazy to see it all around,” he said. The woman did not say anything but appeared German and looked as if she has endured this scene many times.
“Yes!” I exalt and tell him I have wanted to purposefully walk along streets and trails to pick up trash but never acted on this burning desire.
“Every night we go for a walk, we chat about our day, and I pick up trash. But don’t get me going on fucking cigarette butts,” he said. I missed that salty American talk but could tell this easily was heading toward an hour-long discussion about the ails of society, so I changed subjects to ask if we were bitter rivals since I had on a Jayhawk t-shirt against his Kentucky branded hat.
I learned that Jack is from California, has been living in Munich for fifteen years, and leads a social biking group. He admitted to picking up litter for selfish reasons to assuage his own irritations but also sees the benefit of keeping the outdoors tidy. Just like fixing broken windows or painting over graffiti, keeping the streets clean hopefully slows or halts the spread of litter. We parted ways but not without a fist bump and me getting the details on his biking group.
The next day I could not stop thinking about my interaction with Jack and the littered stretch of road that I travel by foot and bike multiple times per day. Generally speaking, Munich has a robust road and sidewalk sweeping force, but my street Balanstraße seems to be neglected by the city and the area owners. Jack proved I was not alone in these feeling so now it was just a matter of overcoming my fear of getting odd looks from people while picking up trash. In my continued journey of trying not to care what other people think of me, I threw on some grubby clothes and marched out of my building with the simple goal of filling up one kitchen trash bag.
Balanstraße is a busy pedestrian street so with my eyes low to avoid the shame I began my cleanup. I wasn’t going for every cigarette butt for my goal was to cover the largest area and pick up as much of the big stuff. I made it to the Italian restaurant where I always give a nod to the fellows waiting tables on the terrace. There was at least a dozen pieces of trash scattered in front of it with some dried into the sidewalk. I started scraping at one piece and then suddenly my eyes met one of the waiters. I was so embarrassed and hurriedly finished up this area by skipping a candy wrapper deeply set under a bush.
My embarrassment was not rooted in the act of picking up trash but in feeling like the only person who cares. I’m embarrassed for the city, the owners of the buildings and the thousands of people who traverse these sidewalks each week. Why am I, an expat from Prairie Village, Kansas, the only one willing to pick up the trash along this street in Munich, Germany? Am I that weird?
Please take that last one as a rhetorical question but what emboldened me that day was an effort to not be lazy about the environment. Rarely do I see someone blatantly throw trash on the ground so that means our littered communities must be out of carelessness and laziness.
Who knows how many times I have carelessly pulled out my cellphone and oops, there goes the grocery receipt fluttering away. Or that time I sat on a terrace by the lake sipping a cappuccino and forgot to secure the little napkin under the cup before a gust of wind blew it into the water. I feinted toward the floating napkin, but the stretch was too much and I quit. Then there was that ice cream cup I balanced on top a public trashcan like it was the final piece to a long game of Jenga. Instead of walking it a hundred yards to a less full trash can, I gambled that no bird or wind would topple this pile of trash.
How can I make up for these lapses of carelessness or laziness? Well, if you believe in having a nice city and protecting nature, then picking up litter is a duty to that belief. The key here is making sure all this trash doesn’t get into the waterways. It needs to be minimized and confined to its proper place. I probably will not be buying a litter-picker-upper-thingy but I can regularly bend over to grab that empty bottle with the absolute minimum amount of contact and be slightly inconvenienced by carrying it to the next trashcan.
These are little acts I can do while walking and hiking around, but in Munich I also need to separate my trash at home. The culture here is very proud of their three-bin system, which initially gave me a weird vibe like the “three seashell” method from Demolition Man. Furthermore, Munich has had since the 1980s the key principle of, “waste prevention before recycling, recycling before incineration, incineration before disposal.”
At first, I didn’t get any of this and ignorantly threw everything but paper, plastic, aluminum and glass into one bin. But after several months I became a good German and began putting all my food waste in the brown bin (sink disposals are not as common here), paper and cardboard in the blue bin and everything else except plastic, aluminum and glass into the residual gray bin.
So where does the plastic, aluminum and glass go? Well, each neighborhood has a row of large beige bins that look like the pod R2D2 and C3PO used to escape from the Imperial Star Destroyer. Each week I march across the park to place my plastic and aluminum in one bin and then glass according to their color in other bins.
To add to the confusion, the glass beer bottle has its own recycle system. After witnessing a guy leave his beer bottle on the ground in the subway station, I stomped over, grumbled at his laziness, and threw it into the nearby trashcan. But once I started drinking Alkoholfrei Biers and saw the Pfand (deposit) charge for each bottle, I realized the gentleman in the subway station was simply leaving his empty bottle behind for a needy citizen to come along and pick it up for the Pfand. Each grocery store has a receptor to zip all your empties away and pumps out a receipt to use against your next purchase. Most people lug their bottles to the store for the money, but on a Sunday morning in the park, rows of empty beer bottles circle the trashcans from the previous night’s revelers.
Why do all this separating? Well here in Munich there are no growing landfills but rather all the residual trash from the grey bins is sent to an incinerator that produces energy. This trash though needs to be clear of plastic and other toxic materials so not to strain the filters of the exhaust system. Separately, the biowaste from the brown bins also produce energy from its process but additionally it is converted into compost or made into potting soil that is sold at retail stores.
By separating all the paper, plastic, aluminum and glass (non-beer bottles) makes the recycling process of these materials much easier. I could go on about the battery bins, used clothes bins, heavy equipment bins and much more but I think you get it. Taking care of waste requires a little bit of effort and not being lazy. Of course, this all hinges on the belief that when we recycle it’s being properly handled. I’m sure there have been mistakes and bad efforts by municipalities but I took that leap of faith toward recycling long time ago. I am now on board with reducing all waste and separating it down further to help out the process. If you are not convinced though, let tell you about the time a priest, a rabbi and horse walked into a bar…