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Talking trash: Cleaning up the city with Team Orange

Gigantic dildos, discarded sex dolls, bloody sheets? It's all in a day's work for Berlin's orange-clad rubbish collectors at the BSR.

Photo: Amin Akhtar

Berlin may be cold and dark more than half the year, but its colour palette is undeniably warm: the trams, buses and Bahns are bright yellow, and the trash bins are outrageously orange. Orange is traditionally the colour of national waste collection, but no one has made this colour as recognizably their own as the Berliner Stadtreinigung (BSR), the agency responsible for making your Müll disappear. Also orange-clad are its rubbish collectors, who wear the signature shade as they grab garbage across the city – but despite the neon garb, the people behind the BSR’s massive mess management operation are often overlooked.

“The smell is hard to get used to, but I’ve done worse,” says BSR trash collector Nicholas*, who has been working for BSR for five years now, as he steps back up onto the trash truck and waves the driver on to the next street. Nicholas prefers working the early waste collection shifts, which start in Kreuzberg at 5:30am and end just before 2pm, giving him the rest of the day free.

We see a lot of sex toys, obviously, like gigantic dildos and all that

The BSR makes ongoing efforts to ensure that Berliners know how to properly dispose of waste – something that you’ll recognise as a national priority if you’ve lived in Germany for even a few months. They provide guides on how to dispose of everything you could possibly be tempted to toss – household waste, compost and food scraps, three kinds of non-Pfandable glass (green, brown and clear), paper, plastic and recyclable materials big and small.

Of course, these efforts still don’t stop Berliners from making common mistakes, like putting grease-laden pizza boxes in the paper recycling or throwing away corks, which need to be disposed of separately. It also doesn’t prevent people from simply dropping their unwanted furniture and other odd things in front of their buildings to be trampled over and rained on – but a half-rotten, rat’s-nest of a mattress dumped on the street under the guise of zu Verschenken is among the least disgusting things the trash collectors have seen.

“Once there were so many bloody sheets in a trash that I got concerned,” Nicholas recalls. “I ran into the building manager and asked him about it, and he told me there had been a spontaneous home birth in the building a few days earlier. I thought, I’m glad I didn’t have to clean that up.”

His colleague Max* has had a few similar jump scares in the course of rubbish-running. “We see a lot of sex toys, obviously, like gigantic dildos and all that. But for me, the weirdest was to find a sex doll. It was one of those rather realistic ones, so when I saw the hand and the hair, for a moment my heart stopped. I paused the emptying phase and took a closer look at it to see if it was a real person,” he says.

Fitness and endurance are essential for those who work the trucks. On that day, Max was pulling a 240-litre bin out from a backyard. Those containers can weigh up to 80 kilograms, and the smaller 120-litre ones up to 50. That’s probably one reason why, as of August last year, there were only 26 women working the trucks, compared to almost 1,300 men. However, as of late 2023 the BSR employed 341 women in street cleaning positions, and the company has been campaigning to find more women to jump on board. This year, they plan to hire hundreds of new employees – and in Germany, being a Müllmann or a Müllfrau is not a frowned-upon gig, especially considering that the gross starting salary, according to the union agreement, is at least €3,000 per month.

“I used to be a cleaning lady at one of the big Berlin spas. I had to go to work at 3am, and earned a lot worse than I do now. As a street cleaner, my hours start around 7am, which means I can be [home] when my daughter wakes up,” says BSR worker Sandra*, who moved to Berlin from Bavaria in 2017 and prefers to work the same Neukölln neighbourhoods regularly so the people on her route get to know her, giving her a sense of familiarity in a busy city.

“I love being outside all day, people are generally nice to me. I often get a coffee or candies, or a €5 tip – that’s what we are allowed to [accept] – because people, especially shop owners, are grateful to us for cleaning up in front of their businesses,” Sandra says. “I get comments sometimes, but I no longer care. Some guys told me once that having sex with me must be like ‘fucking a trash can’, because I must smell.” She’s careful to always wear gloves or touch waste with a tool, she says. “Others deliberately throw trash in front of me onto the sidewalk. I learned to feel sorry for them. Not for myself.”

ORANGE YOU GLAD WE’RE HERE

Berlin is Germany’s top trash producer, with about 1.3 million tonnes of waste a year – that’s more than 2,000 tonnes of household waste produced daily, plus at least 130 tonnes of dirt from the streets and squares and 55 tonnes of dog faeces, according to 2019 data. The BSR, which was founded in 1951 and became a municipal enterprise in 1967, has to manage it all. Their tasks aren’t limited to just waste disposal and street cleaning (it takes these orange heroes only about an hour to clear the streets of litter after the Pride parade); they’re also responsible for winter services like ploughing snow and collecting Christmas trees, and in 2016, as part of a pilot project, the BSR took over cleaning some Berlin parks. Since 2021, Team Orange – their chosen group moniker, sometimes spotted on shirts – has been responsible for cleaning 79 parks and green spaces, as well as parts of 17 state-owned forest districts surrounding the city.

They’ve put a similarly-huge amount of work – and capital – into their marketing. On his shift, Nicholas rides around in a BSR truck marked with the slogan “Tonnosaurus Rex sucht Frischfleisch” (a pun in German that translates to “Bin-osaurus Rex looking for fresh meat”).

Such quippy phrases are one of their calling cards; while they’re often a play on German words, the witty one-liners are easy to grasp: “Guten Morgen Tonnenschein” (a play on the German word for ‘sunshine’, Sonnenschein, and Tonne, ‘bin’) or “IrgendWATT läuft immer” (seen on their electric vehicles, a play on the unit of power and the Berlin pronunciation of irgendwas). The snappy remarks are not only on the trucks, but most of the 27,000 trash cans around town, too – featuring phrases such like “Bitte füttern” (“Please feed”) or “Für die Zigarette danach” (“For the cigarette after”).

Photo: Makar Artemev

“We want to show that it can be fun to keep your own city clean,” says Susanne Jagenburg, head of communications and marketing for BSR. “Together with agencies, we develop strategies and creative ideas to make people in our city more aware of waste separation and avoidance. We want to encourage people to treat ‘their’ Berlin responsibly, which also means leaving their own surroundings clean and not throwing waste on the street, but disposing of it in the bin. We focus primarily on humour.”

Their marketing team has also involved the public in slogan competitions on their Instagram channel as far back as 2015, and the best lines made it onto trucks and trash cans. “The positive response shows that our idea is popular – and urban cleanliness can be a lot of fun!” Jagenburg adds.

Of course, urban cleanliness isn’t just about garbage. In 2000, the BSR founded the subsidiary Berlin Recycling GmbH, now one of the largest recycling and waste disposal companies in Berlin. In 2011, they introduced their Orange Boxes throughout Berlin, large receptacles where anyone can bring their recyclable materials: electrical waste, untreated wood, metal parts and more. The company also offers BSR-Kieztage, or neighbourhood days, which are organised with the districts and bring a “small recycling centre” directly into the neighbourhood, so people don’t have to travel too far with their Sperrmüll or bulky refuse. They also set up a swap and giveaway station – and if your items are too big to transport, you can arrange a special pickup.

As of August last year, there were only 26 women working the trucks, compared to almost 1,300 men

“It makes it easier for citizens to dispose of their bulky waste and has a preventive effect against illegal waste dumping. We also invest in environmental education, as this is also part of our mission: as part of the Trenntstadt Berlin initiative, for example, we provide information about which waste belongs in which bin – and how waste avoidance, waste separation and recycling contribute to climate and resource protection,” Jagenburg says.

Still, there’s work to be done before Berlin is fully sustainable. “‘Zero waste’ of resources is our guiding principle – but this can only work if everyone does their bit,” she adds. “We not only promote this in our campaigns, but also develop specific reuse offers to encourage people in Berlin to get involved. Our secondhand department store NochMall in Reinickendorf is a great example. It’s worth a visit, because here one can not only find good secondhand items on 2,500 square metres, but also meet interesting people and experience great events all about a sustainable lifestyle.”

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

But what happens after the 1.3 million tonnes of garbage and recyclables have been picked up from the city’s streets, parks and Hinterhöfe? Household waste is collected by 1,700 vehicles from four different depots, while recycling heads to one of 14 different centres with integrated hazardous waste management. Household waste is pre-sorted, dried out and then either incinerated or put into landfill. The incineration produces byproducts that can harm the environment – which is exactly why the BSR puts so much emphasis on separating trash. Despite all the educational efforts, only 33% of household waste bins are filled with actual household waste, according to a 2023 study by the Umweltbundesamt (Federal Environment Agency). The rest doesn’t belong there; mostly Biogut or recyclables like plastic or paper.

Today about 41% of the waste is incinerated, generating steam while being treated, which is then converted into district heating and electricity at the waste-to-energy plant Müllheizkraftwerk (MHKW) and a waste transfer station at Gradestraße – enough to supply about 5% of Berlin’s households with sustainable energy. MHKW was planned in 1961, during the building of the Wall, and has been operational since 1967. The processing also produces scrap metal, which is sorted and sold, and slag, which is used to cover landfill sites.

Twenty-six percent of waste – mostly from street collection – is separated into recyclable components. Non-recyclable materials are processed into pellets as fuel in power plants. Berlin has its own biogas plant too, a centre in Ruhleben that opened in 2013, where 60,000 tons of biowaste are processed into biogas every year and used to power around 150 BSR waste collection vehicles. “We are working in many areas to make Berlin better, greener and cleaner. Step by step, we want to realise the vision of a liveable zero-waste capital Berlin,” says Jagenburg of their efforts to turn trash into environmental treasure.

In the refuse realm, Germany has come a long way in the past few decades. Dumping untreated waste in landfills wasn’t banned until 2005, and such trash mountains produced harmful gases like methane and a constant leachate of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. This leachate unavoidably gets into the soil and the groundwater and has a harmful effect on plants, animals and ultimately also on humans. The unprocessed waste eventually grew to a level that forced the law change.

Even with such regulations in place, the BSR has a stupendously large task trying to control and process the waste for the two million households they’re responsible for. They can’t get to it all, of course – garbage still litters the forgotten corners of Berlin. But the agency has lots of help from everyday junk junkies; the group Litter Pickers Berlin meets every weekend in a new spot, gloves and rubbish tongs in tow, to gradually tidy the city, and park lovers from specific green spaces across town often organise their own cleanup days – for example, the Görlitzer Park Council hosts their own volunteer trash pickup days for Görli.

While Berlin is still known as a lovably gritty city, it’s clear that the efforts of the BSR and its hundreds of trash collectors and street cleaners aren’t going to waste. For Sandra, the satisfaction of the work is almost immediate: “When I finish cleaning up the last cigarette butts and broken bottle pieces, I change and pick up my kid from school and we get to go to a playground together, and I walk the same streets with her as I cleaned. It’s a nice feeling.”

*Names changed or shortened to protect privacy