Originally published on the College Voice‘s Abroad Blog, Fall 2009.

Like many people with no one to answer to, I’ve been pushing the envelope on what I’ll let myself get away with. Laundry tossed unfolded into the dresser, empty but un-disposed-of food boxes, and a collection of beer bottles behind the door that’s beginning to impede its ability to open are symptoms of my decline. My aversion to the trash situation here in Room 207 is but one, loosely heaped piece of a larger puzzle.

At the root of this particular heap is a mix of fear and confusion on my part (confearsion). Germany’s commitment to recycling, much like many of its hairstyles, is both severe and modern. Paper, plastic, green, brown, and white glass, compost, and regular trash are separated and collected on an alternating weekly basis. I think the compost really gives the system that “wow” factor.

I understand compost and non-compost, and I think I have a fairly solid grasp of what sorts of things recycle. Beyond differentiating between brown and dark green glass, my issues stem from aligning the rest of my recyclables with the abstract purities of paper and plastic. This is largely a problem of mixed media. I’m fairly sure my flattened milk cartons are cardboard, which is like paper, but each one has a screw top, which is definitely plastic. Do I need to remove the plastic spout from the carton and recycle them separately? Exactly how paper is paper?

I’ve tried surreptitiously peeking into the various bins, looking for contentiously comprised items that I, too, would like to send away from my apartment and out of my life. Has anyone else thrown out a Nutella jar—glass body, plastic lid? I never find what I’m looking for, and short of being shooed away with a broom, it doesn’t get much worse than being caught picking through the communal trash, even if it is just the recycling. I still have my dignity.

Beyond the question of where to begin is the more troubling problem of where to stop. Does used plastic wrap get recycled? Should I wash out the plastic container my chicken breast came in? What about the half-peeled away pane of plastic on top of it? Worse than separating incorrectly would be failing to separate sufficiently. This concern leads me to repurposing trash, filling egg cartons and margarine tubs with orange rinds and broccoli stumps, to be taken out to the compost, paper, and plastic bins, respectively. I find myself sticking empty cans down into the middle of my trash bag, for fear of them pressing their telltale ridges against the outer wall of plastic as I tie a knot in the top, exposing me before God and the Chancellor as a poor recycler.

I don’t want to get a reputation as some sort of maladjusted hoarder. I never meant to collect such a mess, at this point a veritable Island of Misfit Trash. I’ve been forced into a life of inaction and lies by the task of abstracting concrete recyclables. My problems are metaphysical. I didn’t choose to live this way.


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