Where do trash cans actually hang?: the anarchy of the garbage can

Urban wastebaskets today look like pop stars and talk like them, too. But whenever you need one, there isn’t one – why?

Where tourists cavort, trash piles up. Image: dpa

It’s a paradox: trash cans are everywhere and yet invisible. A young woman, for example, leaves a fast-food restaurant on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, holding a paper cup with the rest of her drink. She takes another sip, then throws it into the orange trash can hanging from a lamppost in front of the restaurant. The movement seems unconscious, routine. She hardly notices the bucket. Nor does the pensioner who, a little later, sinks a handkerchief into it – he does it casually.

Trash cans are fixed points in the streets of the big city. The fact that they exist is obvious and not worth noticing. We only notice them when there are none to be seen far and wide. That is, when the trash in your hand meets the absence of a suitable container.

An app would be great to point the way to the nearest trash can at such times. At the very least, it would be helpful to know what criteria are used to hang trash cans. How to find one quickly. Why there are three of them at some crossroads and not a single one at others. Exactly: One would have to know what deeper logic the distribution of trash cans follows.

Rainer Kempe knows it. He is the head of the northwest regional center of the Berliner Stadtreinigung (BSR) and decides where trash cans – wastebaskets, as they are officially called – are to be placed in his area. To do this, he gets advice from BSR’s cleaning staff and scouts.

They are two of Germany’s best writers: Jochen Schmidt comes from East Germany, David Wagner from the old Federal Republic. In the new taz.am wochenende of 11/12. October 2014, they talk about childhood and youth in a divided Germany, 25 years after the fall of the Wall. Also: Boris Palmer is the Green mayor of Tubingen. Ambitious, not just popular – now he wants to be re-elected. What has he achieved? And: Starting Saturday, Ina Muller will be back on the air. Her studio is a pub in Hamburg’s harbor. "Drooling and boozing is on," she says. A conversation. At the kiosk, eKiosk or right away in the practical weekend subscription.

"When emptying the street paper garbage cans, our employees see where there is a need for more waste garbage cans based on the filling level," says Kempe, "We also follow up on corresponding citizen tips." He then assesses the location with his employees and decides whether an additional wastebasket is needed.

How many trash cans? Where?

"In pedestrian zones, tourist spots and other places that are very busy, there are particularly many street paper bins," Rainer Kempe continues. That’s clear, only: there you don’t get into trash garbage can trouble. Because there are enough or one avoids as inhabitants of the city the overcrowded centers anyway.

It’s the side streets and more secluded corners where you look. There, at least, you can find your way around cafes, bakeries and snack bars. "In areas where there are a lot of coffee-to-go cups and disposable packaging, we have a high number of wastebaskets."

Specific regulations, however, on how many trash cans to place where don’t exist. A minimum number per unit area? By population, perhaps? No. "The Street Cleaning Act gives us the task of keeping the city’s public streets and squares clean," says Rainer Kempe. How BSR does that is up to it. Where too much trash ends up next to the bins, new ones are put up – an evolved system regulated by supply and demand.

The same applies to Hamburg’s city sanitation department and Munich’s building department, both of which are responsible for the trash cans on the streets. They, too, work according to demand, not abstract numbers. Horst Schiller, head of the department for road maintenance and operation at the Munich building department, even says: "If we notice that a waste garbage can is not being used, we put it somewhere else. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense."

Islands of freedom from standards.

Flexibility in offices? Trash cans as a part of public space that is not yet regulated down to the last detail? That’s unusual. No, more than that: it’s anarchy! And reassuring on top of that: They still exist, the islands of freedom from norms.

This is also shown by the different trash can quotients in the three cities. There are about 21,500 trash cans on Berlin’s streets. That’s 6.28 bins per thousand inhabitants. Hamburg, with its 9,000 trash cans, has a ratio of 5.15. And in Munich, where the building department provides 7,000, a thousand inhabitants have to share 4.97 trash cans.

It is somewhat surprising that Munich, of all places, has the fewest trash cans – although the city is known for its cleanliness and is virtually infamous for its sterility. This may be due to Munich’s less pronounced street culture. Or perhaps the city enjoys particularly responsible cafe and pub owners who place trash cans in front of their stores of their own accord.

One thing is certain, however: Trash cans reveal a lot about the cities in which they are located. They let you know immediately where you are. In Munich, they are the most inconspicuous. Simple tin models, gray and silent, they hang on traffic signs or line the squares in the city center.

Berlin trash cans. Photo: dpa

In Berlin and Hamburg, on the other hand, there are the pop versions among the trash cans: Berlin’s examples, bright orange, are plastered with a play on words, depending on the district. "Steglitzern," "Reinlichendorf" or "Gute Sitte in Mitte." The deep red trash cans in Hamburg are even more quaint. "I’m up for any kind of dirt" or "Got a smoke?" are written on them, each enclosed in a speech bubble.

"For some time now, there has been a tendency in big cities for even garbage to be aestheticized," says Simone Egger. The Munich-based cultural scientist teaches at the University of Innsbruck and conducts research primarily in the field of urban development and urbanization. "The humorous and these sayings are a figurative enhancement of something actually ugly that is being put aside." So how can these differences be read?

In Berlin and Hamburg, Egger sees the design of the trash cans as reflecting the importance of leftist subcultures and scene groups that work with graffiti and tags. "That’s actually the moment that these slogans pick up on: short comments that you write somewhere with a sharpie, or stickers with political slogans that you see everywhere in the city," she says.

Conversely, in Munich it seems plausible that the trash cans blend in with the image of the beautiful city in a completely restrained way: "Here you often have the feeling that the city has a very homogenous, slick surface on which the different groupings, which of course also exist in Munich, don’t really come into play. The fact that now the garbage is not colorfully emphasized and commented on is perhaps also an expression of this."

What are these signs?

Here’s a scene from Munich’s Glockenbach district, which happened on a Saturday afternoon in September: A young mother is walking through Klenzestrabe with her two still very young children. The little ones stop abruptly in front of a gray wooden door sprayed all over with tags. They seem to be seeing such signs for the first time, asking what they mean.

"People who do this kind of thing think it’s funny. But actually it’s rather bad," the mother explains to them in a gentle tone. "It’s not something you should do," she trails off. That the plain trash cans in Munich have their reason, that their contents are probably deliberately not emphasized by saucy sayings – admittedly, the scene does not prove that. But it does give a hint.

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