Did You Know That East German Trash Cans Were Tiny?

Where I grew up, we had the smallest trash cans in our homes. So little was considered trash in my country of East Germany on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Resources were scarce, there was so little on the shelves and demand towered over supply in grotesque proportions. Imagine you wanted a car. Assume you had the money. Well, you couldn’t just go and buy a car. You had to be on a waitlist for over 10 years before your number was up and you could buy a car. Let me repeat that: Even though you had the desire and the money, you had to wait for over 10 years to then be assigned a car from a choice of four: Trabant, Wartburg, Skoda, Lada.

If you saw a line in front of a store you got yourself into that line with a sense of urgency and asked what was being sold later. The odds that it was something you wanted were forever in your favor. Maybe they had bananas! (Bananas were an exciting and extremely elusive fruit in East Germany. Imagine my disappointment when the wall fell and I realized that while I now could have all the bananas I wanted I really didn’t like them at all.)

Once you owned something—anything, really, but let’s assume a tv—you knew that it was going to be with you for a long time. The lifespan of products was epically long. It had to be. You knew that if it broke you might not be able to get another one. And even if you got lucky and got yourself a new tv because you jumped into that line at the right time, you always kept the old tv set in your basement “for parts.”

We all collected bottles, paper, copper wire, metal caps. We didn’t think of those things as trash and we didn’t call it trash (“Müll”). We had a separate word for it: “Altstoffe,” old materials. Language matters. Every neighborhood had a station devoted to collecting and redistributing these old materials.

School afternoons were regularly devoted to collecting these resources around the neighborhood. Kids were paired up and we would ring all the doorbells of an apartment block at once and then yell “Altstoffe? Old materials?” into the hallway or into the intercom. Everyone knew to put out the paper recycling neatly bundled and tied up with string.

The trash cans got a little bigger after the wall came down and East Germany was integrated with West Germany, the shelves were now filled with all these tempting choices, and if you wanted a car and had the money you could buy whichever car you wanted. And if you didn’t have the money, a bank was only too happy to lend some to you. You kept the old tv set in the basement for a couple more years until you fully trusted that the new world order wasn’t going to be undone again. The stations that had been collecting the old materials were quickly turned into video stores.

When I moved to New York, trash cans were suddenly enormous. Easily double the size of anything I’d seen in any home in Germany. I remember thinking: Is this what Americans think a normal amount of personal trash looks like? — But you better believe that I got into the habit of filling my monster trash cans pretty quickly.

What drove East Germany’s zealous resource preserving habits was not a kind consideration for the environment. Absolutely not. It was scarcity, plain and simple, and a mandate from the top. Scarcity fueled this resource preserving, reusing, and recycling behavior. Pressing needs always help to set things in motion. If you don’t have resources you have to be resourceful!

Right now, the scarcity of materials or the limited production capabilities are not as much as the ever increasing scarcity of space to safely dispose of our ever increasing trash.

There must be better ways to do this.

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