Trash or Treasure? – cross continental sustainable waste practices

by John

Having been born and raised in the north of South Africa, coming to Germany has been a real adventure-filled journey of curiosity and discovery. I often find myself pondering away at some of the interesting systems used here. In this piece I share with you my observations and thoughts from a sustainability point of view regarding waste management practices on the opposite sides of the world.

During a class activity at Leuphana University, my project group and I explored Lüneburg and its surroundings during a 6 hour experienced based walk. Our task was to experience firsthand the food, waste and energy systems in and around Lüneburg, how they can be understood from a sustainability point of view, and to then build some conclusions based on our observations. It was during this walk that I noticed something that caught my attention.

There was a black bin in front of a house which immediately reminded me of home in South Africa. This was because the bin had a thick chain secured over the lid, so as to stop anyone from getting to the contents inside. I remember thinking to myself ‘why would anybody try and steal rubbish here in a developed country’. Back home in South Africa this was quite normal, I have on many occasions locked away the bin after putting out the trash. Unfortunately I have to do this to stop people from tipping over our bins at night. Bins that are left outside unlocked are vulnerable to being raided or taken altogether. This often results in all of the trash being strewn on the sidewalk and in the road. I am sure this will seem odd to some, but not as odd as it was for me to see evidence of the same phenomenon here in Germany.

Upon arriving in the country I had learned that due to a very well established social system that takes care of the poor, there are considerably less homeless people in Germany compared to South Africa. I could therefore not come up with any reason why any person would need to dig through somebody else’s rubbish. One of the big reasons for people tipping over bins in South Africa is to get to recyclable materials that they can exchange for money. There is an innovative system in place where people in need are able to make money by collecting recyclable waste and then taking it to recycling plants, or to specified pickup points, where they are paid per Kilogram or unit collected. This system can be seen in many of the cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, and the materials include copper, paper plastic and glass. The other unfortunate reason for bins being toppled over is that some people dig through trash as a last resort for food and clothes. South Africa does not have an effective enough social system like that of Germany that supports the poor and homeless.

To my surprise I learned that these chains and locks were in fact not to keep people from taking waste at all, but that they were instead there to keep people from dumping their own waste in other people’s bins. I was astonished at first, but a German friend of mine explained to me that people are required to take out licences for their bins from the waste removal company (GFA), and that this costs money. These licences then also regularly need to be renewed. As a result, some people opt to take their rubbish and dump it in other people’s bins in order to avoid the costs of the licences for rubbish collection. This has lead to some people having to lock their bins with chains or to even build metal cages with lockable doors in which to store their bins at night. I was completely taken aback by this information, and I found myself asking even more questions than before. Why would people not just leave their bins behind their houses? Were some people really willing to go to the effort of transporting their trash bags to other areas to dump their waste in somebody else’s bin when they could just leave it next to the road somewhere? I wondered whether leaving a rubbish bag next to the road would be more illegal than taking advantage of other people by making them pay for your own rubbish.

When I spoke to my German friend about some of my thoughts, he explained to me that there was in-fact many people who do also look for recyclable materials in Germany, especially plastic bottles, as these can be exchanged for a considerable amount of money. According to him, big cities like Berlin do have homeless people too, and during the summer months many of these people make a living off collecting plastic bottles. He explained that this system was quite well established and the plastic bottles were referred to as “Pfand”. It was very interesting for me to note that this system could be observed on opposite sides of the planet, and to see that these processes, although different, play an important role in terms of sustainable waste management for cities.

An important difference between the two countries is that the cultural aspect of recycling is not the same. In Germany the “pfand” system was not necessarily developed for homeless people to make money off, it was created to minimise carbon footprints and to ensure that raw materials are reused in order to foster a process of sustainable growth towards a positive future. In South Africa, on the other hand, less people practise recycling and the mentality in society is one much less concerned with individual environmental impacts and rather more concerned with personal wellbeing or even survival in some cases. This cultural difference highlights one of the stark contrasts between developed and developing countries

I still do not have definitive answers for why people would want to go to the effort of transporting their rubbish to other people’s bins other than the simple fact that it costs them less. The idea would probably seem humorous when explained to certain people in South Africa. Many people would simply opt to rather just dump their trash next to the road. The societal mentality about proper waste management in South Africa is generally light-years behind that of Germany. It has definitely been an eye opening experience seeing some of the well established systems in place here, and how people use them willingly.

Now that I have been living here for a few months I am proud to say that I am a member of the GFA. I even have three different bins in my kitchen, one for biological waste, one for paper and one for plastic. On the other hand, in true opportunistic South African style, I find myself collecting plastic bottles whenever I see them lying around in order to benefit from the “pfand” system.John_Blog post 1_picture 1

Locked down trash bins in Germany – photo taken by John

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Locked down trash bins in South Africa – photo taken by John

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Trash collector in South Africa – Photo taken by John

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