A few weeks ago I wrote all about how good Germans are at recycling (and how difficult it can be in America). Since I’ve spent the last two years of my life in Europe (and about 2 years total in Germany specifically), I think it would be pretty incredible for me not to have picked up and brought back any of the habits I formed there.
Living in Europe has, without a doubt, made me a greener person. That’s not to say that I wasn’t an environmentally conscious person before living there; I just lacked the experience necessary to turn my ambitions into reality.
What really helped me learn and create good habits was my host mom, Vera, from my very time studying abroad in Berlin in Berlin. Instead of having to figure out things for myself, I had a mother with me to take a lot of the guess-work out of things and instill good habits. Since she grew up and lived in such an environmentally conscious culture her whole life, had raised and taught three of her own children how to live within this system, and had been hosting study abroad students for nearly a decade before I arrived, she was a natural at getting newbies like me up to speed with how things are done in Germany. Since many of her former study abroad students were Americans, she was even familiar with what we, specifically, tend to struggle with.
Why do I mention this? Well, a lot of people go abroad. I think a lot fewer of them are there for a significant amount of time and even fewer probably try to consciously culturally integrate in all facets of life. Most probably have to learn things on their own which means that they could be doing things wrong or the hard way because they didn’t know any better.
I’m not sure that anything I’m about to write will be revolutionary and I’m also sure there are so many smaller mindset changes I have made in Europe that I can’t even put a finger on, but when combined together, it has made for a pretty significant lifestyle change.
Glass is different
Many, if not most Americans, including myself, treated glass just like any other waste product; throw it in the garbage just like everything else. In Germany, they will refuse to collect your garbage if they notice something wrong with it such as having glass in any of your bins. Glass is different from other waste and it becomes pretty obvious when you think about it. For one, it’s pretty dang sharp making it a hazard to chuck into a garbage truck. Secondly, it’s super easy to recycle; just a short bath to get it clean and then it just has to be remelted and recast. It’s not like plastic which has a multitude of different types to sort; the biggest challenge for glass is keeping the different colors separate.
So glass is different, then how is it treated? Well, each neighborhood has its own collection bins which are usually located in a pretty conspicuous and accessible place like behind a grocery story or near a busy intersection that most of the neighborhood uses. This also means that every household has some way of separating glass from everything else, whether it’s another bin undertake sink next to the trash and recycling, or a basket by the door so it’s easy to grab and go.
How does this translate to the United States? Well, for me, things are exactly the same. My apartment complex has vallet trash who will not accept glass in their recycling bins. You are supposed to, I assume, just throw it in the trash. Well, to me that is not an acceptable answer and so, after a little bit of research, I found that my city has a glass collection bin right next to the library (which I frequent monthly with my library card). Instead of walking my bag of glass to the collection bin like I would in Europe, I will drive it to the city’s bins whenever I head to the library.
We Own Too Much
This observation is partly a European standard and partly my own, personal experience in Europe. There’s just a lot less space in Europe. Their flats are smaller, their houses are smaller, their parking spaces are smaller (if you get one at all) and so even their cars are smaller. Many houses and apartments don’t even have closets, let alone walk-in closets, and instead have modular wardrobes which fit basically everything.
To compound this, I personally wanted to keep my belongings down to a suitcase or two while I was there so that I didn’t have a headache when it came time to relocate. I often had “too much space” in the flats I rented despite the fact that they often only came with an Ikea wardrobe and no dresser. Did I struggle with this lack of storage or lack of stuff? Absolutely not! Before I left, I cut down my clothing to essentially a capsule wardrobe and aside from replacing things that wore out, I only bought essentials that I was missing such as a winter coat, a suit and a few sweaters.
Now that I am back in the states, I have undoubtedly fallen back towards the Land of Excess mentality but compared to how I used to be “pre-Europe,” I’m much better. The vast majority of my shopping has been to furnish my new home (which you can’t really blame me for since I’ve essentially been a nomad since moving out at 18). The few clothing purchases I have made have mostly been to flesh out my minimal shoe collection.
Buy What You Can Reasonably Use
This was a big one for me. I was used to being able to load all my groceries up into my car (often a giant SUV) to bring home and then stuff into a giant fridge and freezer. To be fair, I grew up in a tiny town which was an hour and a state away from a cheep grocery store. I grew up taking trips into Oregon with two giant ice chests and separating the refrigerator and freezer stuff from the regular food so as to maximize said ice chest space so that we could make as few of trips down there as possible. My parents even had a giant chest freezer in the garage to story extra bread or ice cream as well as the fish and game my dad caught seasonally.
In Europe, this would be impossible for two reasons. One, I didn’t have a car and so everything I bough had to be reasonable enough to carry home in a bag or two. Two, the size of European refrigerators simply won’t fit more than a couple of days worth of food. If you have roommates, which I frequently did, then that tiny little fridge got split even further. In several apartments I lived, I had a single shelf in a fridge the size of what we would call a mini fridge in America.
This resulted in more frequent small trips to the grocery store in Europe and I have pretty much stuck with that habit back in the states. My current fridge is mostly empty simply because I mostly eat vegetables which makes no sense to stock up on since they would undoubtedly go bad before I could eat them. This method of living was actually easier in Europe because of the abundance of grocery stores. No matter which way I came home, there would always be a grocery store. Here, I live so close to work that even the grocery story is a detour.
But what does this have to do with being a greener person? Well, when you buy less and go to the grocery store more often, you’re shopping for what sounds good in the next couple of meals. For me, this means that I enjoy what I’m eating more and am less likely to waste what’s in my fridge. It would be pretty hard to let something spoil when the whole reason for having it in the fridge in the first place is because it’s part of your next meal. Food waste is a big problem in the USA and just bringing my habits from Europe here has helped me cut down my own waste tremendously.
As I said before, this is undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg in term of all the sustainable habits I picked up in Europe. I really wish I had a weekly vlog from pre-Europe time that I could reference back to and see exactly how I was living my day to day life because I feel like it would be night and day. All of these changes may seem huge and difficult to implement but I promise you that once they become habit, they are actually so much easier. For example, I take out the trash so much less frequently now that I’m buying less and recycling more. I also have so much easier a time getting dressed in the morning having a more thought-out and streamlined wardrobe.
Let me know if you have had a similar experience coming back to the States after spending significant time in Europe. Even more interesting to me would be to hear if Europeans have brought bad habits back home with them after living in America. Sound off in the comments below!