May 19, 1999
Mulching the German Mark
By ROGER COHEN
GANDERKESEE, Germany -- Into a stinking mixture of potato peels,
apple cores, animal excrement, grass, wilting cabbage and rotten
carrots, Gerald Vollmer-Heuer casually tossed about 100,000 German
marks, or $57,000.
He smiled, asked a visitor to excuse the stench and watched the
long-prized symbol of Germany's economic virility disappear into a
heaving mound of refuse chugging along a conveyor belt. Nothing more
natural in the world, for this corporate director, than the notion of
turning Europe's most trusted currency into compost.
"The mark will enrich our soil, as it once enriched our lives," he
said. "It contains carbon and cellulose that are good for my
production process. Waste tends to be damp, and the paper absorbs the
These are trying times in Europe. A war in the Balkans is being
prosecuted, with unhappy results, by a group of leaders who spent
their youths denouncing war as wrong. The buoyant U.S. economy
amounts to a daily dose of depressant for a lethargic continent.
Young people cannot find jobs. A man could be forgiven for going mad.
But for all his hilarity as he sprinkles marks into muck,
Vollmer-Heuer is sane. Germany, like most countries in the 15-member
European Union, has decided to eliminate its currency by 2002 in
favor of the nascent common currency, the euro. That plan has raised
the question of what to do with 2,600 tons of German mark bills.
That may seem a simple question. Burn them. Shred them and dump them
in a landfill site. Sell them to some American collector as souvenirs
of Germany's stunning reconstruction after World War II. Recycle them
as toilet paper or official stationery for the European Central Bank
But no. This being ecological, earnest Germany, nothing is quite that
simple. The bills contain oils and waxes that make them
water-resistant but also make them impossible to recycle. Landfill
sites are expensive. The Bundesbank does not want the onetime pride
of Germany ending up on souvenir stands in Florida. And burning is
So the notion of the mark-as-manure has emerged, and nobody, as yet,
is being sniffy about it. Indeed, it is being viewed with great
"Of course, if you think of the smell and what goes into compost, it
is not that nice," said Karl Schnitzler, a spokesman for the Bavarian
State Central Bank, the institution that will decide on the mark's
fate. "But if you think that compost is a stimulus to growth, then it
is quite a nice symbol."
Perhaps. Still, it is mildly shocking, and more than mildly
nauseating, to watch the famous bills -- shredded into 800 pieces
each before 60 million marks ($34.2 million) were given to
Vollmer-Heuer's Environmental Protection North plant in this northern
German town on a trial basis -- sitting like confetti on a sea of
putrid filth. The money consists of old bills that are being
withdrawn from circulation.
A man with a protective mask over the lower part of his face pulls
impurities like glass and plastic from the muck. "You wouldn't
believe the things we pull out," Vollmer-Heuer said. "Dead dogs, dead
cats, old spades. People are crazy."
Crazy is the word that Dirk Adolf, the technical director of a waste
recycling company called GFU, thinks appropriate for the
mark-to-compost proposal. He has another idea that came to him while
treating labels from bottles.
These labels, he found, are useful for making tiny bullet-like
pellets about 10 millimeters long and 3 millimeters thick.
Now what, it is legitimate to ask, is the use of tiny bullet-like
pellets made from discarded bottle labels? Well, Adolf is able to
sell them to the construction industry, which puts them into bricks.
As the brick is fired, the pellets inside burn -- creating a lighter
brick with unusual insulation qualities.
Pellets made of bottle labels could equally well be made of billions
of dollars' worth of shredded marks. That, at least, is Adolf's
proposal. "Compost is a lousy end for the mark," he said. "It is
cheap, it is degrading, it is smelly. What I propose is something
clean, useful and solid."
At the Bavarian State Central Bank, the marks-to-bricks idea is also
getting appropriate consideration. If compost, at a stretch, can
symbolize growth, bricks are an obvious symbol of stability, the very
essence of the mark during its postwar life and the most desired
quality for its successor, the euro.
"The stability of bricks is very interesting to us," Schnitzler said.
"This is a useful idea. We will make a decision on the two proposals
by the end of the year. Of course, we could give some to compost and
some to bricks."
Such a fudge would, of course, have the advantage of symbolizing
growth and stability, both much needed in Europe these days. But
Vollmer-Heuer is determined to get the entire load.
After it emerges from sorting on the conveyor belts, his refuse is
stored and periodically churned for at least two weeks in tunnel-like
containers where the humidity is 100 percent and the temperature
about 125 degrees. Further sifting follows, and after about 12 weeks
a fine, odorless compost is ready.
"At a ratio of 10 percent of shredded bills to other waste, our
typical sack of compost will contain bills worth about 200,000
marks," he said. "That is rich stuff and it is good for Germany."
But what Germans now believe will be good for Germany is a solid
euro. Having fretted over the loss of the beloved mark, they now give
it little thought.
"Building pellets or manure, the question is secondary," said
Schnitzler of the Bavarian State Central Bank. "The mark will soon be
history, and what matters is the stability of the currency in use."