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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Pros and Cons - USA and Germany

I was just in the US this Easter and was quite impressed with the way most individuals are attempting to recycle in order to put less strain on our environment. A certain level of willingness is there, but it seems that big businesses are holding everyone up. Yes, I know that Germany is a forerunner in the environmentally friendly game and that it is unfair to compare the U.S. to Germany, but come on, is it that difficult to recycle anything other than newspapers? I, of course, can not give a first hand account on how the entire USA is tackling this problem. I am sure there are communities everywhere that are giving it their best. After doing some research and talking with my family I was surprised to see how many communities are really making a huge effort to do their part.

Lansing, Michigan, where both my brother - his family - and my mother live, has been providing convenient weekly curbside recycling services to its residents since 1991. They have a recycling program which would make most communities proud. Clear and brown glass food jars and beverage bottles, metal steel cans, aluminum cans, trays and clean foil, plastic jugs and bottles, PETE/PET plastic bottles, newspapers, and mixed paper/junk mail can be recycled there. I think that is quite impressive. Although there is a very comprehensive list of which kinds of plastic and papers may or may not be recycled my brother‘s family and my mother are doing their part, recycling what they can. They get a gold star in my book!

An exemplary recycling program can be found in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, where my home-town is. Here just about everything can be recycled. The waste management service even makes an effort to let citizens know that large item refuse, such as trash cans, plastic buckets, toys, pools and play sets, flower pots and furniture, will be taken by the weekly trash pick up without a special order. In comparison to this, in Germany you need to fill out, and mail in, a detailed form and endure a three week wait until the items free up that extra space they have been taking up in your basement or attic. What impressed me the most about the AA County website‘s information was their final statement, „When in doubt, place the item in the recycle container and we will handle it.“ Even the most reluctant recyclers can become tree huggers with help like that.

However, not all grass is greener on the other side. What makes me want to throttle people is the use of plastic bags from the grocery store. These bags take over entire closets in people‘s homes waiting to be re-used! Even though there are many alternatives for these bags! In Germany, for example, you very rarely see people purchasing a week‘s worth of groceries without having brought their own cotton bags or those nifty folding crates. So many people are unwilling to bring their own re-usable bags to the grocery store. The Kroger store where I usually grocery shop in the US even offers five cents per bag discount if you bring your own.

The waste management website for Montgomery County, Ohio, (where my sister lives) states that there are very limited end uses for recycling plastic shopping bags and, if they are added to recycling bins or drop-offs, they will be pulled out and thrown away. Citizens are asked to throw them away until a secured place to recycle them can be found. Huh? If many communities can find a solution to this problem, why can‘t another?

In my opinion, the direction of influence should be east to west with America benefiting from Germany‘s years of experience in the recycling game. However, I am seeing more and more of America‘s influence on the German market, and I don‘t mean in a positive fashion. Food products boasting individual slices or single servings are making their way onto our grocery shelves here in Europe. I agree that for singles, or couples with no children, this is probably a welcomed relief from having to throw away leftover portions, but, do we really need bite-sized individually wrapped Hanuta squares? The original packaging of Hanuta has always been individually wrapped squares that are two, at best three bite sized. What demographic group needs an even smaller bite sized Hanuta?

This brings me to a commercial for prunes I saw recently while in the U.S. this April. Did you know you can now buy prunes in a bag? No, no, not a lot of prunes in one bag, but single prunes, sold individually wrapped in larger bags. Yes, that is a large plastic bag containing many prunes each wrapped in a plastic wrapper. As the mother in the commercial says: „The kids just think they are eating candy!“ Is it necessary to use so much plastic (we really don‘t need to list all the reasons why this is a wrong choice) to trick your kid into thinking a prune is candy? This is bizarre on so many levels, not all of them environmental!

Another thing the US needs to work on is the good old bike path. This is where Europe is the hands-down winner. We have bike paths everywhere, and I do mean, literally everywhere. Bike shops and the wide variety of bikes they offer and just the mind-set to actually get on a bike to run errands and go shopping are concepts which need to catch on in the States where bike riding is basically limited to small children riding in the streets and athletes who train and race competitively. My sister complains that she can‘t even find a proper sturdy bike on which she can sit upright. Well, with only one shop in a 50-mile radius, I guess that could be problematic! Anyone returning to America after living in Europe should consider opening a bike shop and petitioning for more bike paths. This is a perfect set up for a millionaire in the making!

Sometimes I am asked if I could ever move back to the US. After reflecting on environmental issues alone - and not even considering the health insurance aspect - I would have to say no. I would miss my bike and also the feeling that I am actually doing my part to eliminate my carbon footprint on the planet. You can check your footprint by visiting www.myfootprint.org. It takes only five minutes to complete and you can see step-by-step how you rank within your area. In four or five areas I ranked below the European average. So, how do you rank?

originally published in Currents Aug/Sep 2009

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