What we learned walking across Berlin with a garbologist.
For Eva Becker, trash is a research subject. Germany’s first garbologist researches refuse and what it says about the humans creating it. In late summer, we joined her on one of her trash walks: A stroll through Berlin’s Kreuzberg district to document the trash on the streets.
Trash has a tendency to blend into the human environment. Especially in a city as busy and sometimes gritty as Berlin, you may fail to notice it. Walking with Eva, asking questions and slowly turning over the trash we found on our way was an eye-opening experience: Not only is there much more trash than you might think, it’s also scattered in the most unexpected places. We’ll let Eva explain.
Garbology is the study of modern trash. William Rathje of the University of Arizona started using modern archaeological methods to analyse trash in the 1970s. He realized, that the way we litter tells a lot about the way we live. I stumbled upon his research some years ago and was fascinated by it. I did some research and found out that garbology is virtually non-existent in Germany which motivated me to do it.
Trash is nothing new. As a species, we have always left something behind. In the Olduvai Gorge, one of the most important paleoanthropological sites in the world, archeologists have found trash in the form of bones or stone splitt-offs.
The interesting thing about garbage is that it serves as a common denominator. We all litter. Every part of the city is dirty. It’s just the amount and type of garbage that varies. A neighbourhood like Kreuzberg or Neukölln is a real treasure trove for somebody like me: Most people don’t really see the garbage that surrounds them because it is so ubiquitous. We filter it out. It’s only when the amount or type of garbage is unusual that we are reminded of it.
There are two ways people in cities deal with garbage when they are on the go: either they hide it or they present it. Sometimes, you come across a piece of garbage that was not just thrown away but carefully arranged or positioned by somebody. You would assume that people would dispose of their waste in the most discreet manner but some expose their garbage so that the trash collectors can more easily spot and collect it. And then there’s human laziness. That’s probably the prime reason for all the trash we find here. Even if there are enough garbage bins around: the incentive is not strong enough to overcome laziness and actually use them. Hiding waste, on the other hand, is mostly driven by shame or disgust. None of us likes garbage, not even our own.
I have a very high tolerance by now. Of course there are things that disgust me like used syringes or human waste. When I go and talk to school classes here in Berlin, I am always amazed at how the kids react to the garbage I bring with me. They will gladly take up a plastic cup or something that was laying on the street but they jump up and scream if there is an ant or spider crawling around. They have lost all connection to nature. Nature has become something unfamiliar and hence disgusting.
I have seen and documented so much garbage, there is relatively little that still amazes or shocks me. The most surprising thing is probably when you see something valuable being thrown out. I once found this very old and beautiful Indian antique. An acquaintance of mine – an Indologist – later told me that it was quite precious and rare.
It’s very hard to tell where garbage begins and where it ends. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. Are dead bodies garbage? When we die, our bodies no longer fulfill any functions, they become more or less worthless and that’s how many people would define waste: a useless object. But our bodies continue to have a function after we die, they become compost and re-enter the biological cycle. I would define garbage as something that is of no use but stays in the environment in some way or another. A plastic bag in the ocean will disintegrate but its parts will stay in the water for a substantial amount of time. Marine biologists call these little shreds of plastic mermaid tears.
William Rathje analysed the garbage at the Fresh Kills Landfill in NYC and what they found out was astounding. One example: they found large quantities of beef. They were able to trace it back to a specific moment in time because in the layer that had all the beef in it, they also found telephone books. They realized that the beef was thrown out during a time of economic recess. Why would people throw out expensive meat during a time of crisis? They bought it in such large quantities because they assumed it would only become more expensive or cease to be available completely. So people started buying beef in bulk but often had no means of storing it appropriately. They were forced to throw out the beef that had turned bad.
Garbage is often a better indicator of human behavior than human communication. In New York, an ad agency was commissioned to find out about the eating habits of the residents of a certain area. The residents were asked to complete a questionnaire about their diet and eating habits and it was established from the answers, that people in that neighborhood were eating extremely healthy. Yet, when a supermarket in the area started offering healthier food options, nobody bought it. It was only by analyzing the garbage of the area that they found out people were not really all that dedicated to a healthy lifestyle. Waste doesn’t lie, humans do.