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Recycling the Trabant

Curing the Storm in the Head

Flight of the Dragonfly
in the classroom

Recycling the Trabant

Germany has a recycling problem on four wheels -- millions of used Trabant automobiles that cannot be landfilled. Built from Soviet waste products in the 1950s, the Trabant became known as the "people's car" and played an important role in the East German economy. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many Germans drove their Trabant to freedom, then discarded the cars. Frontiers introduces one of the designers of the original Trabant and looks at his ideas for recycling these relics of the Cold War.

Curriculum Links
Notes & Discussion
Activity 1: Sorting the Trash
Activity 2: Build a Model Landfill
Math Connections
Science Fair Idea
Thinking Across the Curriculum





plastic, recycling

European culture

  • What are some of the problems associated with the Trabant -- both as a vehicle on the road and as an object to be recycled? How are four-stroke and two-stroke engines different? What other machines use a two-stroke engine (lawn mowers, chain saws, motorcycles)? What are phenol resins, where else are they found and what is their chemical composition? What problems would they cause in a landfill?

  • Find out more about Germany's ambitious recycling program. What are some of its pitfalls? Would such a program work in the U.S.? What else could your community or state be doing to encourage recycling?

  • At least one U.S. automobile manufacturer is introducing a car that is said to be "85% recyclable." What does that mean? What parts of the car can be recycled? What happens to the rest of it?

  • Bring in examples of innovative recycling projects you read about or see on TV. For example, some companies are making sneakers out of recycled materials. Detergent companies are converting plastic containers into playground equipment. Other companies are recycling plastic soda bottles into a fiber that can be made into a sweater. Entrepreneurs are shredding tires and turning the scraps into playing surfaces, artificial reefs and other objects.

  • Take a stand! What's going on in your community right now? Is a landfill or other trash disposal project under consideration? What are the key issues?


Before automobiles can be recycled, they must first be separated into component materials to insure the purity of materials that are to be recovered. In this activity, you will produce a mixture of several recoverable materials, then apply various techniques to separate the mixture into its component materials.

  • book
  • magnet
  • balloon
  • scissors
  • toothpick
  • wool swatch
  • tissue paper
  • beaker of water
  • aluminum foil
  • steel paper clips
  • round plastic beads
  • steel ball bearings

  1. Prepare the materials: Tear a scrap of aluminum foil into squares about 5 cm on a side. Fold into small, tight wads. Tear a scrap of tissue paper into small pieces, each about .5 cm in diameter. Break a toothpick into smaller segments, each about 1 cm long.

  2. Mix the materials prepared in step 1 with several paper clips, beads and ball bearings. This mixture represents materials that need to be separated before they can be recycled.

  3. Inflate a balloon. Rapidly stroke the balloon with a swatch of wool. Pass the balloon over the mixture. Which materials are separated by the balloon?

  4. Run a magnet through the mixture. Which materials are removed by the magnet?

  5. Place materials removed in Step 4 on the cover of a book. Slowly raise one end of the cover. What objects are first to move?

  6. Place the materials left over in Step 4 in a beaker of water. Which material is removed by this process?

  7. Lightly blow on the materials that remain after Step 6. Which objects are more apt to move?

  1. What force caused the materials to separate in Step 3?
  2. Are all metals magnetic? How do you know?
  3. What physical property was the separation in Step 6 based upon?


  1. How can you improve on Step 6, so that the water is conserved?
  2. Compare and contrast Steps 5 and 7. How are they the same? How are they different?


Landfilling is a primary method for managing municipal solid waste (MSW). Wastes transported to a landfill are spread out into a thin area by bulldozers. The bulldozers then cover the waste with a layer of clean fill. This process continues until a layered hill of waste and fill has been produced. In this activity, you will construct a model landfill. Then you will observe one of the problems associated with landfill management.

  • scrap construction paper
  • food coloring
  • white paper towels
  • clear plastic bin
  • cup of water
  • fine gravel

  1. Tear the scrap paper into small pieces about 3 cm in diameter. Crumple these pieces into wads.

  2. Soak several wads of paper with food coloring. Let dry.

  3. Place several paper towels on the bottom of a clear plastic bin.

  4. Cover the paper with a layer of gravel about 1 cm thick.

  5. Cover the gravel with a layer of paper wads. Make sure that some of these wads are stained with dry food coloring.

  6. Cover the paper with a layer of gravel about 1 cm thick.

  7. Repeat Steps 5 and 6.

  8. Slowly pour a cup of water over the top layer of gravel.

  9. Observe what happens to the paper towels below.

  1. What did the gravel and paper represent?
  2. What did pouring water onto the landfill simulate?
  3. What happened when water was poured over the model?

  1. How might your observations on the behavior of the dye be applied to an actual landfill?
  2. How can you prevent poisons from seeping into the ground-water?


Sorting the Trash:

    3. tissue paper
    4. ball bearings, paper clips
    5. ball bearings
    6. wooden toothpicks
    7. beads

  1. electrostatic forces
  2. No; the aluminum is not attracted to the magnet.
  3. density

Think More About It:
  1. Answers will vary, but may include placing a screen trap in the beaker.
  2. Both steps depend upon the rolling ability of a ball; step 5 uses gravity; step 7 uses wind as a separation force.

Model Landfill:
  1. fill and municipal waste
  2. rainfall
  3. It seeped through the layers, carrying the dye and eventually staining the bottom layer of paper towels.

Think More About It:
  1. Rain might carry buried poisons into groundwater below.
  2. Answers may vary, but may include a ban on the dumping of poisonous wastes and a liner built into the bottom of the landfill.

CREDIT: Science specialist Michael DiSpezio developed this activity. He recently designed a new children's science museum in Falmouth, MA.


If each passenger tire contains 2 1/2 gallons of recoverable petroleum, and there are 42 gallons in a barrel of oil, how many barrels of oil could be recovered from the 250,000,000 old tires thrown away each year in the U.S.?

Find the current price of a barrel of crude oil (check the business pages of your newspaper or search for this figure online). What would be the value of the recovered oil?


Be an Inventor!

Design and draw a complex machine that can automatically separate the materials used in the Sorting the Trash activity. Remember to identify what the machine does at each step and which materials are removed at each step.


The Trabant recycling story is an example of how science, social studies and economics intersect. You might be able to link the Trabant to some work you are doing in another subject, especially if you are learning about World War II and its repercussions. You could even include the Trabant as part of a timeline that identifies the key events in German history since 1945.

HISTORY: When was the Berlin Wall built? What was its significance? When and why was it torn down?

SOCIAL STUDIES: What political problems (e.g., immigration) does a reunited Germany face?

ECONOMICS: How are the dollar and the German mark linked? How well do German autos sell in world markets? What is Germany's role in the EC?


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.