Second Thoughts: Littering

Durga Vijayakumar
Special to the Herald Union

Imagine you are eating a candy bar. You tear open the packing and enjoy your candy fix. What do you do when you’re done? If you’d spent the first 11 years of your life in India as I did and you weren’t inside your home or a building, you would toss the wrapper on the ground — the street, sidewalks, beaches, ocean, the area just beyond your property — yep, the world is your trash can.

When my family went back to visit a few years ago, I definitely drew some curious looks when we went out to pick up after those members of my family who still live in India. To onlookers, I didn’t look like a street sweeper or a mendicant picking through garbage for recycling money. Why in the world was I picking up trash? After all, the ground is considered so dirty only someone with no sense of hygiene would touch anything on it. My young cousins were bewildered by this behavior.
Appalling, right?

This, I imagine, is the kind of reaction Germans have at seeing us toss plastic candy wrappers in the trash can or paper recycling. They know it should go in the yellow recycling bin for recycling packing waste of course. Germany has some of the highest rates of recycling in the world. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, 45 percent of municipal waste is recycled, 17 percent is composted and 38 percent is incinerated. New legislation is in the works to raise the standard even higher. German municipalities have achieved this by making the costs of waste disposal a highly visible item on the budget of each individual household rather than embedding it in the local tax system. Residents pay individually to have their garbage collected. The more recycled waste they separate out from their garbage that’s headed to the incinerators, the less they have to pay for that waste disposal service. This incentivized system is pretty brilliant: you don’t have to recycle, but the more you do, the less you pay. Living within the Army community, we are completely shielded from this system. The garrison takes care of all the waste we produce. According to Peter Zeisberger from the Directorate of Public Works’ Operations and Maintenance Division, the garrison spent €1.8 million last year for waste disposal — nearly €2 million.

While our recycling rates meet Installation Management Command-Europe standards, Zeisberger said, “There’s plenty of room for improvement, because customers are ignoring recycling.” He estimated there’s potential for saving €450,000 if everyone does proper recycling. You know what? I’d totally sort everyone’s recycling for a year. One, because it’s the ecologically right thing to do. And, two, because it’s valued at nearly half a million euros. Mr Zeisberger, consider this my job application. (Editor’s note: Click on the Recycling Guide button on the garrison’s home page,, for more information.)