Confessions of a Hoarder

In Germany, trash disposal is a serious, and frequently bewildering, business

By / December 2014

In 12 years living in Germany, a country known for its fierce dedication to recycling, I never learned how to dispose of the trash. It’s not that I never threw anything away. To the contrary, I routinely crammed 200 liters of refuse into a 120-liter bin. Days before the designated pick-up rounds, their lids burst open and garbage spilled out, a rabid animal frothing at the mouth.

And what was I to do with the refuse that accumulated as we waited for the cans to be emptied? A time or two, I admit, I put bags of trash in the trunk of our VW Passat, drove to an out-of-town friend’s house and dropped them in their can. Once, I even drove to the grocery store and nonchalantly tossed a bag of my trash from home into the store’s trashcan before passing through the doors. Though that got the job done, I was left feeling guilt-ridden and slightly criminal. I would not, however, dare toss it in the neighbor’s trash, because it wouldn’t be neighborly and well, they would know. They always know.

I tried. I really did. I studied the trash calendar and knew that cardboard went in the blue bin, plastics and aluminum in the yellow one and glass jars and bottles were to be taken to the bin down the street. After all of the recycling was done, everything else was tossed in the black bin marked Restmüll, which literally means “the rest of the trash.” I felt very fortunate, given that some friends had to put leftover food, coffee grounds, and eggshells in a brown container. The brown containers are great, if you don’t mind the maggots or the extra monthly cost for the bin-pickup. I didn’t have a brown container so I dumped it all in the Restmüll. Yellow and Blue were picked up once a month, on the date indicated on the calendar, and Black – the rest of the trash – was picked up every two weeks. Simple, right?

But to be honest, I wasn’t always meticulous. When the yellow bin filled with uncrushed milk cartons, I made the unfortunate decision to toss plastic in the tiny Restmüll bin that was only picked up twice a month. If I was not careful to thoroughly wash the plastic meat containers, the putrid stench of rotten meat juice, like perpetual road-kill in our carport, would be unbearable as it awaited its once-a-month pick up. Often, I would just throw the yucky packages in the Restmüll.

Problem is, the Restmüll container is just not big enough for all of those packages. So month after month, I stressed over the trash. The bins filled up too fast – every time.

It’s not that I am incapable of learning new things. I changed many things when I moved to Germany. I learned to speak a new language and to use Euros. I learned how to calculate the exchange rate. I learned about millimeters and centimeters. I learned that a Ladies’ size 16 is about the same as a German 46, and that 177 Celsius on the oven equates to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. But for some reason, my stubborn brain seemed incapable of making one more adjustment.

I missed the dump back home. My mom and dad went to the dump all of the time. My mom joked about it being where they went on dates. Back then, I could never understand the fascination with going to the stinky mountain of rotting garbage. But the longer I lived in Germany, the more trash we accrued, the more appealing the thought of a date to the dump became. In desperate times, I considered boxing up trash and mailing it to America.

It is not only foreigners like me who have trouble with garbage disposal. One unseasonably warm September morning, I was complimenting our new neighbor on her beautiful garden. She thanked me but said that it had not always been so beautiful. The previous owner, she said, drank a lot. In order to hide his drinking from his wife, or maybe simply because he didn’t know what to do with the paraphernalia, he had buried beer and Schnapps bottles across the yard. Before she planted the garden, my neighbor had had to disinter several layers of smelly glass.

Obviously, I didn’t always do so well with the daily trash, and I did even worse with the stuff that did not fit into a trash can, such as that shoddy bathroom cabinet, wobbly office chairs, thread-bare rugs, a broken vacuum cleaner. One day a month was designated for large trash items. One or two days before this pick up time, you could pile up bulky trash to be collected by the city – everything except electronics.

On these days, Polish pickers in white vans drove through the neighborhood, their jingly music announcing their presence as they sorted through the rubbish piles for treasure. The city maintenance department picked up the leftovers, but often we would get busy and miss our monthly appointment. As a result, broken furniture and old rugs and such piled up in our attic.

Our home began to bulge with junk. When friends moved away, our little duplex on Kaiser-Konrad Street became the drop-off place for their unwanted things. Not knowing what to do with their obsolete cassette tape duplicators, car maintenance products, paint buckets, and frayed lawn chairs, we stuck them in corners or tucked them away in the basement. Perhaps we thought we might use the things at some point. But we never did, and after 12 years of this, the opportunity came for us to move. We tried to get rid of stuff as we could, but in the end, much of it was boxed up by movers and stored for us while we were away for a year.

What a relief it was to be rid of the trash. And we were rid of it – for a while.

But when we returned to Germany, our new home in Moers quickly brimmed with the same old familiar junk. I opened the boxes that the moving company had delivered to our new home only to discover that many of them were filled with garbage. Out of the boxes I unwrapped busted laundry baskets, instruction manuals, partially used bars of soap, worn out sheets, broken mop handles, an empty butane bottle for the gas grill that we never had, smelly sponges, VHS and cassette tapes, and kids clothes that no longer fit.

As I opened each of the undesirable boxes, one thing became clear to me: we were hoarders. It was a wake up call. I could not live like this any longer. So I began to frantically study the new trash calendar. I learned when the paper and plastics were picked up. When I discovered that in our new home, the Restmüll bin could only hold 60 liters, it made me that much more determined to learn the program. Eventually, I came to understand that there is a rhythm to it. As with a Beethoven symphony, every beat is necessary for it to work.

One day, studying the calendar yet again, I spotted a word that I had never seen before: Kreislaufwirtschaftshof. Even with years of German language under my belt, this was a first for me. I Googled it and found something that was music to my ears. A beautiful symphony written just for me. It was a dump. An honest to goodness dump, though unlike any I had ever seen.

The place was a garbage-filled maze, with designated areas to drop off over 20 different trash materials. I began gathering up all of the broken junk, the busted junk, the outgrown junk and the I-don’t-know-why-we-ever-had-it junk. I crammed it all in the trunk and said, “Honey, we are going on a date!”


Tara Thomas is a writer living in Moers, Germany.