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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Why you should keep your mouldy shower curtains

Last week Frau Bienkowski and I got talking about how best to dispose of Christmas trees.

I was telling her about how I’d been über-enthusiastic in undressing my tree only to find that the recycle people wouldn’t be coming to collect it until the following week. Since I live in an intimidatingly law-abiding neighbourhood, I figured I might face ostracisation  if I dumped it outside prematurely. As a result, I’d lugged it to the balcony where it was now in a sorry state of limbo, having left thousands of pine needles (perhaps out of spite, I thought) in its wake.

Nothing says "January blues" more than a pile of sorry-looking Christmas trees.

Nothing says “January blues” more than a pile of sorry-looking Christmas trees.

“I insisted on non-shed in my latter years,” said Frau B. “I just couldn’t deal with those needles.”

“So how did you get rid of your Christmas tree back in the day?” I asked.

“I just threw it out the window.”

“What?”

“Yes, would you not consider doing that?”

“No!”

“Why not? That way, you won’t have to clean up all the pine needles from the stairwell. After all, you don’t want to annoy the neighbours!”

I wonder if this individual removed all the needles of their tree one-by-one.

I wonder if this individual removed all the needles of their tree one-by-one.

“I can’t just throw my tree out the window! What if I hit someone? Like my crazy neighour? Or the 86 year-old Hausmeister?”

“I used to recruit children to keep watch,” said Frau B. “They’d stay below and give me a signal when the coast was clear. Then they’d carry it to the side of the road. I gave them chocolate in return. It was win-win.”

“I’m not doing that,” I said.

Fast forward a week and it’s Christmas tree removal day. A heap of sorry-looking Christmas trees has accumulated outside the apartment building. One individual, presumably with the admirable intention of not dropping a single needle in the stairwell, has even shorn their tree, leaving behind nothing but a creepy-looking skeleton of branches.

I enlist the urgent help of (resident savant) LSB.

LSB and his genius mouldy-shower curtain contraption. (MSCC)

LSB and his genius mouldy-shower curtain contraption. (MSCC)

He immediately makes his way to the bathroom, from where he emerges wielding the mouldy shower curtain we recently got around to replacing.

“Watch,” he says.

He lays the mouldy shower curtain on the floor of the hall and instructs me to lift the tree onto it. As if he were tucking a child into a hammock, he covers it gingerly, finally securing it with two firm knots.

Keen to get the credit for the ingenuity, I insist on carrying it down to the street myself.

I don’t shed a single needle on the way.

Later, when I relate the event to Frau B, she appears suitably impressed.

Some notes on housekeeping

Oh, the joys of going to the dump! Or, The Bring Centre, as some would have it. LSB and I made a morning of it on Saturday. It was hard not to feel smug as we traipsed into the yard bearing cloth bags of carefully separated rubbish (it was only later that we realised we had over-segregated). The place was buzzing. A little girl was perched on her father’s hip, hurling – delightedly – one empty bottle of olive oil after another into the expansive container. Whole families disembarked cars with boots full of garden waste. Leaves danced briefly in the breeze before a teasing plastic flap hid them from view. The quaint sign on the side of a building summed it all up nicely: A place for everything and everything in its place.

If my weekend had a caption, that would be it.

I would rate myself as reasonably hygienic and even obsessively compulsive in a few, select areas of personal repulsion (handling coins, public keyboards and door handles results in extreme self-flagellation with a scrubbing-brush). I have however never been tidy nor am I endowed with much pride in the domestic sphere. Following my visit to the dump however, I underwent a transformation.

This weekend, I took up recreational ironing, which I practised while listening to my Teach Yourself Arabic CD, in the hope that I will forever associate the joy of learning with the delight of housekeeping. I washed up while listening to The Smiths greatest hits, which gave me the idea to omit all the propositions from the text of Panic, and invite my Intermediate students to fill them in while listening to the track. Who said that grammar can’t be fun? I got a good 45 minutes out of Mr Morrissey and (former) friends this morning.

I also gave my teddy bear (Brom) and mouse (Mini) their first bath in decades. They had been waiting patiently for their turn under my desk ever since they came back from the Christmas markets in Nurnberg, where I remarked on their shabby condition. As I type they are crouched on my clothes horse, drying and sleepy.

Brom and Mini enjoy their first bath in decades


Last night I cooked a spinach lasagna, which is pleasing but somewhat lacking in ‘umph’, particularly when compared to last week’s pasties, which I would describe as a personal culinary best.I’m expecting LSB any minute now so it’s time to get peeling potatoes. Tonight: chunky, home-made wedges served with a side of leek, and well, re-heated spinach lasagna…