A few years ago, during a trip to Germany, litter made the deepest impression.
Discarded trash lined both sides of a two-lane country road for some 60 kilometers as our tour bus headed to a factory in the little hamlet of Grossheringen, in what used to be communist East Germany.
The factory belongs to Viega Pro-Press, which makes crimped plumbing fittings that have been marketed in the United States for several years. I was with more than 30 fellow travelers on a tour co-sponsored by SNIPS' sibling magazines, Plumbing & Mechanical and PM Engineer. We visited several Viega facilities as well as the renowned ISH Fair in Frankfurt, the world's largest exposition of plumbing, heating and piping products.
With so much glitter on display, it seems perverse to write about litter. But all that litter spoke volumes.
That's because it contrasted so starkly with the fastidiousness one finds in the west side of Germany. There, people will stare holes through you if you drop a gum wrapper anywhere but a trash receptacle.
In fact, the litter I saw in the east was even out of sync with country roadsides in Poland, where I went for a couple of days to visit distant relatives after breaking off from the Viega tour. This is curious because Poland shared the communist postwar fate of the former East Germany. In today's Poland, one finds even more poverty and shabbiness than in eastern Germany, but virtually no litter. Why is that?
The people of Poland do not litter, nor do the western Germans, because they feel a sense of ownership of their respective lands and pride in themselves. How ironic, because the promise of communism, which they lived under for much of the 20th century, was that "the people," rather than greedy capitalists, would own everything.
The western Germans pay about half of their income in taxes to help dig their eastern neighbors out of the Marxist hole. You hear some grumbling about this, but no significant political opposition. Most think it will take at least one and maybe two generations before the litter of the east transforms into the glitter of the west.
Litter is an issue in sheet metal work as well. I've been on enough construction sites to notice that there, too, one can sense a correlation between the degree of disorder and the ultimate quality of work performed.
Don't get me wrong. Construction is inherently messy and nobody expects to find a pristine environment until the last punch-list item is resolved. But there are degrees of messiness, and much can be judged from its duration. Many workers don't see any point in cleaning up at the end of a workday because the site is going to get filled with dirt and debris once again during the next shift.
Cleaning up is more than simply a matter of cosmetics. Clutter and debris lead to health and safety hazards. In the plumbing field that I know best, one still finds an occasional old-fashioned plumber who takes the time to polish joints with steel wool. The task makes no sense from a performance standpoint, since polished fittings work no better than those that have been dulled or discolored. It's simply a drain on productivity. Yet, there is something admirable about such senseless quirks of artistry. Thank goodness this world still has places where pride trumps efficiency, and where some workers feel a personal stake in what they do.
Litterbugs do not feel welcome in such a world.