Berlin 24/7: Why Berlin is so dirty | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 17.03.2018

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Berlin 24/7: Why Berlin is so dirty

Rotting food, cigarette butts, old furniture: these items litter the streets of Berlin — and reflect the mentality of the inhabitants of the German capital, thinks Gero Schliess. City cleaning efforts are laughable.

Each time when American friends of mine visit me in Berlin, they actually praise the city for its cleanliness. That's when I start to pity my pals. If they seriously think that Berlin is clean and neat, what on earth do the streets look like in their hometowns in the US? 

Berlin's streets and bridges reek of urine, mountains of trash can be found in our parks. "Accidentally" forgotten debris, food remains in front of fast food restaurants, empty bottles and cigarette stubs in subway and train stations — my dear American friends, that's how clean the German capital really is. And it's only the start.

A trash dumpster piled high with trash bags

Berlin's dumpsters overflow onto its streets

But let's elaborate: "Now official news: Berlin drowning in bulky waste," the sensationalist newspaper Berliner Zeitung cried a few months ago, lamenting about dirty swine dropping old pieces of furniture and stinking mattresses just about anywhere. Well, yeah, you have to pay for trash removal in Berlin. And Berliners prefer to spend their money on Moscow Mules and other cocktails. Besides, aren't stained couches and mattresses an expression of Berlin's notorious nonchalance and sexiness? That much naïveté really gets on my nerves. Hey, Berliners, wake up, and grow up! Live out your pubescent side in the clubs, but please, not on the streets!

Read more: Berlin 24/7: World religions gather in Berlin's House of One

No tolerance for trash sinners

Berlin's bureacrats have zero-tolerance stance towards the perpetrators — at least, they act like they do. Their response to the trash problem is an oh-so very martial catalogue of fines. Whoever is caught for having left behind "mud-like substances," like excrement, gets away with a paltry €10-35 ($12-43) fine. So-called "insignificant products," like paper cups, tissues, cigarette packs, ashtray contents, or banana peels only cost you a mere €35. Burying household garbage is even cheaper by €5; you only have to shell out €30 for that. 

The Berlin Senate, currently a left-wing constellation of Social Democrats, Greens and the Left, has come up with a rather notable idea to make the penalties better at detering people through fear. From now on, an army of 100 trash sheriffs is to restore law and order in the city when it comes to dirt and illegal waste. The Senate has decided to fund the project with €8.4 million per year over the next two years.

A trash can with litter around it in a park

City efforts to punish those who litter have been ineffective

I think that's a lot of money for trash. Even more so when I consider the pathetic results of a similar, smaller-scale project that took place in the city district of Neukölln, which had much-feared trash sheriffs on patrol last year. They arrested all of 28 trash sinners  and dolled out fines totaling a laughable €6,800.

Read more: What to do about Germany's mounting packaging waste?

Inceidentally, Neukölln's former district mayor is Social Democrat Franziska Giffey, who has taken up a ministerial position in Germany's new grand coalition government amid much positive anticipation. Nevertheless, it comforts me that as family minister she won't be responsible for waste and its disposal.

A self-cleansing city

Even Berlin's interior senator, Andreas Geisel, seems to have grasped how dramatic the consequences of not cleaning up Berlin's trash could turn out to be. Only recently, he spoke out sharply on what he calls "the dilapidation of Berlin's public space." In his view, this has become a serious security threat: Mountains of trash can distract attention from punched-in window panes. Should the interior senator therefore provide his forces with brooms and pans instead of with handguns? 

Read more: Berlin Wall: dozens of pieces discovered in trash heap

What a crazy idea! But in Berlin, one that can's be ruled out — though it would be no more than just another cosmetic measure.

For now, let's confront the naked truth head-on. I believe the trash disaster reflects the mentality of the Berliners. Let's put it clearly: Chances are that the inside of Berliners' heads resembles the state of the city's squalid streets.  

The Berlin mentality — laidback with delusional dreams of grandeur — may amuse us now and then. But it's not acceptable for those of us who expect functioning schools, a completed airport and halfway clean streets. If Berlin were a person, I would send it to a therapist. As this is not the case, the only thing I can do is to pin my hopes on Berlin's self-cleansing abilities, in the most literal sense of the words. So that Berliners' heads begin to get cleaned up. And so that I won't feel forced anymore to look the other way whenever American visitors praise the cleanliness of Germany's capital.

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