An unusual scene becoming more normal: Tourists are cleaning the parks they visit in Berlin thanks to trash collection schemes.
In some parts of Europe, like Venice, tourists are blamed for destroying cities. But, in Berlin, they are joining locals cleaning up.
It is part of an initiative between local authorities and a tourism company that sees visitors get a free tour in exchange for getting their hands dirty.
Equipped with brightly-coloured vests, gloves and garbage bags, more than 70 tourists joined locals to spruce up Berlin's historic Mauerpark.
Collect garbage, get a free guided tour
Cigarette butts, corks and broken glass have long been part of Berlin's cityscape. The city's districts of Pankow and Mitte are now taking action against the massive littering in the city centre. As part of the "Clean City" political campaign, they are cooperating with the international provider of city tours, Sandemans New Europe. The idea: instead of spending a lot of money on a city tour, visitors can collect garbage in Berlin's parks for an hour and in return, they take part in a free guided tour, receive gifts and a picnic.
Former death strip
The parks in the central districts are particularly affected by littering. Not only numerous tourists but also locals enjoy their free time here. Mauerpark is one of the most popular parks in the capital, which is due on the one hand to its central location and on the other hand to its past. As a former so-called death strip that divided Berlin into East and West, it is reminiscent of the division of Germany that ended 30 years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The park is now a tourist hotspot for numerous events.
The Berlin Wall is also the subject of the free guided tour offered before the cleaning session starts. For one hour, participants receive background information on the history of the Berlin Wall and an insight into life in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Cheap beer bottles mean more trash
Although the Mauerpark is not necessarily a spectacular sight, but rather interesting because of its past, it's become a popular after-work and weekend spot. After work, Berliners like to drink their evening beer here with barbecues popping up in the area as well as a flea market.
One of the tour's participants said the majority of the corks he found in the park belonged to the cheap German beer brand "Sternburg".
The park's grass is covered with pieces of plastic after these festive moments. Participants then go through the entire area, meticulously lifting the pieces with tongs. It's no surprise the city's cleaning service can't keep up with the amount of trash left behind, even though they clean almost every day.
Some participants are amazed at how much rubbish they find in Berlin. "Berlin is much dirtier than other European cities but still much cleaner than India," said a young Indian woman who has already taken part in similar activities. A Brazilian woman said: "I can't understand why people leave their garbage lying around. It is quite normal for us to take garbage with us when we see it on the beach, for example.“
The organisers seem to be aware that a one-off clean-up operation cannot solve the basic problem. "It's nice if there's a little less rubbish lying around at the end, but it's not about saying it's supposed to replace something now. It's all about attracting attention and appealing for such garbage to be avoided," said Pankow district councillor Rona Tietje. The organisers want to raise awareness that we are all responsible for the garbage problem.
Another reason why the campaign was started is to avoid conflicts. Tietje said that there are more and more problems between tourists and locals with the main areas of tension being noise and litter. More sustainable tourism could perhaps help solve the problem said the councillor. "As a rule, tourists don't come here to disturb local residents or get on their nerves, but because they like the city. And so you can also give something back in the sense of a small, green footprint," said Tietje.
Giving back to the city
David O'Kelly, managing director of Sandemans, agrees more sustainable tourism should be promoted.
"This event is about people being able to say: I am a responsible visitor, I love this city and want to give something back," he said.
O'Kelly has already encountered similar actions in other European cities. In Amsterdam, the action is even combined with a boat trip, where garbage is fished out of the canals with the help of cages.
The first part of the three-part clean-up took place on Monday, August 26. Despite summer temperatures of around 30 degrees, over 70 people took part in the cleaning campaign. There will be two more events of this kind on September 9 and 23. The next two events will take place at the Ernst-Thälmann-Park — a rather unknown park among Berlin's parks.