That middle-class guilt at the recycling centre


I can’t seem to make it all the way to the recycling centre in Charlottenburg.

The first time I tried I was carrying a broken television. Like all people who ferry things in the belief they are personally curtailing the effects of global warming, I was feeling pretty smug.

But as I approached the centre, I was accosted by a teenage boy.

“Are you dumping that TV?” he asked.

“Yes!” “Can I have it?”

“Unfortunately it’s broken.” “That’s okay. I’d still like it!”

“Well, sure,” I said brightly, handing it over, pleased not to have to lug it the final few meters to the entrance.

Some weeks later, I found myself in the unfortunate position of having to question my smugness.

It was all because of a report produced by one of my colleagues about how German electronic waste (even that brought to recycling centres) often ends up in scrap heaps in Africa. The workers there endure hazardous conditions sifting through the rubble, all while breathing in dangerous fumes produced by burning metals.

The protagonist

The protagonist

(You can watch that report here: Dumped in Africa: The final journey of a TV )

My second attempt to make it to the recycle centre took place this morning. This time, I had a broken Hoover in tow.

I’d inherited it from the previous occupant of my flat but decided its time had come when it began emitting smoke. I pulled it by its nozzle all the way down Schlossstrasse, attracting the bemused interest of passers-by.

As I turned into the street where the recycling centre’s located, I was approached once again by a teenage boy, possibly the same one.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Are you dumping that vacuum cleaner?”

“Yes,” I said. “But it’s broken.”

“That’s no problem,” he said. “I’d still like it.”

“What do you want it for?” I asked.

“To send to my people in Bosnia. There is lots of poverty there.”

“What are they going to do with a broken Hoover?”

“The people there are very poor. They will find a use.”

“In principle, I don’t mind giving you my broken vacuum cleaner,” I said. “But what I don’t want is for it to end up being transported to a scrap heap in Africa.”

Um Himmels Willen, nein!” he said, not without irony. I think we both realised that I didn’t really know what I was talking about.

I thought about what a truly ethical person would do in this situation. Even I knew that the chances of the broken TV bringing a glimmer of hope to the impoverished in Bosnia was slim to none.

I could have refused to hand it over, gone into the centre to enquire about the kids hanging about outside and demanded to be informed  of the fate of a conventionally dumped Hoover.

But I didn’t want to be that person. I tried to justify my inertia by thinking about all the potentially criminal things other teenagers not at school could be up to.

Hanging around outside a recycling centre soliciting passers-by dumping their used electronics didn’t seem to be the worst way for teenagers to spend their time.

So I handed my vacuum cleaner over and toddled home, feeling that oh-so-familiar blend of middle class guilt and inertia.

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