When I arrived in Germany, Spermüll was God’s gift. As a newly arrived ex-pat working for an NGO, I had little cash to spare furnishing a home. And so I looked forward to every third month, when people dip down into their basements to find that old Ikea cupboard missing a handle. Or that bookshelf that your second child colored on in a fit of jealous rage.
You take and drag all that bulky waste (translation of Spermüll) to the curb and the next morning trash trucks come and whisk it all away. For those of us living on a non-profit wage, it was an opportunity to clash with Eastern European van drivers to scavenge choice articles.
But at some point (namely when I found a 3-foot tall garden gnome), it got old. By that time I had furnished my home with about 40% trash – mostly Ikea detritus still in good condition, but for a few dents, scratches or smells. But each successive Spermüll seemed like a bigger and bigger waste.
There seems to be no middle ground here. There are no garage sales really – I’m uncertain if it is illegal or what the deal is. There are flea markets and people will try to unload old things there, but then they’ll look at that Ikea shelf missing a handle and charge roughly 90% of what they originally paid for it. So the motivation is not necessarily on cleaning out the basement, but rather making some cash. Then if it doesn’t sell, well, then just drag it out to the curb and it disappears in the morning.
This is a problem (as you can see from the short film above). Every week, nearly every day, some neighborhood in Germany is having Spermüll. It bothers me to think that every day, somewhere there are orange trucks loading up all of that perfectly good furniture to be taken to the dump…
Or so I thought. Then I realized that i never saw a dump in Germany. If they were really putting that all in the trash, where the hell was it going? Belarus maybe? Moldova?
Hmm… nope, turns out they’re burning it. According to this super duper interesting article, Germany incinerates 37% of its waste. And other countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway top 50%. And according to this old der Spiegel article, Germany is really good at burning things, even going so far as to import hazardous waste because they’re so good at burning it. And supposedly the technology is so good that the incinerators actually emit cleaner air than they take in.
Wowie kazowie, I thought. That sounds really great. So it kind of makes a strange sort of sense just tossing it out since it ends up generating electricity that you can then use to power your computer to look up facts about incineration!
But then there’s the downside.
Because it becomes so easy to dump stuff on the curb and pat yourself on the back for helping green up the energy supply, you maybe skip recycling that plastic thing-a-ma-bob and just toss it on the pile. And before you know it, your recycling rate drops. So then you do some social marketing schemes that get people to recycle and incinerate the rest (like Sweden did) and you get so good at it that you need to begin importing up to 800,000 tons of trash just to feed your gaping incinerator maw.
But then you still have a problem. You’re still using all kinds of energy to create stuff that will just be burned – and that energy loss will never be captured. Plus, you totally could have furnished some dude’s apartment with what you threw out in one year’s time.
So what’s the moral of this story? I’m not sure. Once I fulfilled my selfish need of furnishing my house, the sheen wore of this Spermüll deal. Once I figured out the incineration deal, the sheen came back a bit. After doing a few hours of research the sheen wore back off again.
And now I’m back where I started wondering why we can’t just have garage sales where we slap a 25¢ sticker on it and be done with it.