Monday, March 04, 2024

Trash tourism: A popular new activity for Berlin visitors: picking up garbage with friends

By Peter Zehner

Germans used to be undisputed leaders in the global export of goods, and they’ve been world champions several times in soccer. In each case, whenever they noticed that their own skills weren’t going to be enough, they simply procured foreign muscle to get the job done. In the 20th century, they brought in “guest workers” from Italy, Greece and Turkey to accomplish their “economic miracle,” and in the 21st century, they invited talented foreign-born soccer players like Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski to help win a World Cup.

These days, Germans are eager to set standards in a new realm: environmental protection. And it would appear they’ve already started – with garbage in Berlin. Apparently, even the capital’s highly capable sanitary workers alone are not able to handle the full extent of the litter left behind by sloppy locals and visitors, which is why a Berlin company, East Berlin Park Cleanup, has come up with a clever idea to help. Sandemans New Europe is a tour company that invites tourists on a tour where participants collect detritus in parks. The district offices of Mitte and Pankow are more than delighted to support the “event,” as the company calls it.

In the shining sun of a hot Monday afternoon in late August, 80 people from around the world have come together to clean up Mauerpark, a popular Berlin location for young people looking to party, enjoy open-air karaoke, play some soccer and basketball, or just take their babies and dogs for a walk.

Matt and Caroline Sullivan are among those who have gathered at the meeting point today, in their case with slightly sweaty and sunburned faces. What prompted them to show up? Why did they come here to pick up other people’s trash? “’Cause we’re mad,” they say, laughing, before explaining that they do the same thing at home on the beach in Perth, Australia. “You can’t just leave garbage lying around like that,” noting that plastic gets flushed into the sea and then eaten by animals. As Matt points out, lobsters eat everything: “These days, people at the Barrier Reef call them sea cockroaches.”

Today’s event starts with a short, guided tour along the Wall Memorial, an open stretch of terrain with lines marking where the Berlin Wall, the signal fence and the no-man’s-land once stood. Participants are told stories and shown where daring East Germans dug tunnels under the Wall and where some people were killed trying to escape.

Then it’s on to Mauerpark, where the real fun starts. At the entrance, the organizers hand out vests, plastic bags, gloves and outsized wooden pincers. Participants then set out, usually in small groups of two or three people. “One person to scout, one to pick up the trash and one to hold the bag,” recommends Sandemans CEO David O’Kelly. The groups of young men and women disperse quickly, like ladybirds in search of a place to spend the winter.

Basia and Thomas from Krakow have already participated in a Sandemans tour that morning and immediately accepted the invitation to take part in the current one. Why? “It’s free and you get to do something good in the process” – a win-win, they say.

Jialong Kang is from China but lives in Switzerland. “I love Berlin, and I want to see it clean,” he says. One of the other members of his trash-collecting group is 20-year-old Sorvina Carr from Boston. She’s been traveling alone through Europe for the past four weeks. “This is a good opportunity to get to know people,” she says, picking up a discarded bottle cap.

Amanda and Ben Hopewell are spending part of their last night in Berlin in the park. They laugh a lot. “We’re having fun!” they say, noting that the tour only lasts an hour, which means one less hour in the pub. More laughter. Amanda is a teacher, and she’s always telling her pupils to “pick up your garbage!” She simply can’t ignore it. The two of them shoot a short video of themselves working in their red vests and send it to their friends, who are obviously already at the pub back in Manchester. Seconds later, they receive a two-word response: “What the…?”

These do-gooders are indeed a jovial and multicultural pack. And lo and behold, there are even some born-and-bred Berliners among them. Elisabeth Okunrobo and her two friends came all the way from the southeast district of Neukölln. The 20-year-old poli-sci student intends to pursue a career in climate and environmental protection when she’s older. At the moment, however, she’s busy despairing about all the packaging and shards of glass left by people who – it would appear – love to watch empty beer bottles get smashed on the ground. Elisabeth can’t stand all the carelessly discarded cigarette butts either, it’s those small pieces of glass and all the other litter that Berlin’s motorized garbage sweepers obviously have a hard time collecting that are, she says, “extremely damaging to the global system.” Cigarette butts eventually get swept away, she points out, just like the plastic, with all their pollutants being released. It takes 40 liters of water to dispose of a cigarette butt, Elisabeth argues, which is why no one with a conscience can just stand by and let this happen: “We all have to do something to keep Berlin clean.”

Sheiku Kabba crouches down and glides his gloved hand over the dry grass and sand. He’s originally from Sierra Leone but has been living in Berlin with his German family for almost 20 years. Like on most other nights, he’s just been playing soccer, and sometimes he plays basketball here, too. He’s seen the red-vested people earlier and decided “to leave my soccer ball with the others and come over to help out. I couldn’t just stand around watching foreigners pick up garbage on my field.”

Peter Zehner
is a freelance journalist based in Berlin