Moving to Germany has made me look at the United States in a different way. I am constantly blown away by Germany’s innovations and efficiency; little things like how the toilets flush, to the way the windows open, and bigger things like the public transportation and waste system. In comparison, Germany makes the U.S. look like a third world country.*
As one of the most powerful countries on Earth, Germany is saving the world.
Going Old School
When at a coffee shop, restaurant, or special event, your drink will come in a mug or a glass. And you’ll pay for that glass. (usually, it’s 1-3 euro). This is called a Pfand. When you bring it back, you’ll get your money back for the glass. Rarely, if ever, do you get a paper to-go cup. In fact, most cafes will give you a discount for bringing your own mug or thermos (and it’s usually a good discount!).
All plastic bottles (and some glass) purchased also have pfand. When at the market, you pay for the drink, plus the pfand. When the bottle is empty, you can return it to the Leergutautomat, which works like a reverse ATM. It’s not like in California, where you take your empty cans to some unused backside of a creepy parking lot and sort them into a metal crate that smells like stale beer. Every market has Leergutautomat machines. Put the bottles into the machine and out comes a slip of paper with your total Pfand refund on it. This paper can then be used as a credit at the market or redeemed for cash at the register. It’s simple, easy, and guarantees that no recyclable material ends up in a landfill.
Doing laundry in Germany is like stepping into a time machine. Nearly every garden has a laundry line, because most people don’t use dryers. The cellar in our building includes a room specifically for hanging laundry. At first, this way of doing laundry irritated me, because I felt like it would take forever. And honestly, it kind of does. Typically, the washing machine (yes, we still have those here) takes about 2 and half hours for a full cycle, and most of that time it’s just spinning to dry out the clothes. If the sun’s out, the laundry will typically be dry in a couple hours, but in the winter, it must hang overnight inside. It might take forever, but I’m not sitting around waiting for it, and I don’t do more laundry than I did in the States. Plus, what’s better than fresh laundry dried in the sun?
It might seem that Germany has poo-pooed on modern conveniences like dryers or air conditioning, but I think they found a better way to handle it which is better for the environment. The first thing we were told by our landlord when we moved in was to regularly air out our flat. Germans love to air out. Basically, this means, in any given season, regardless of weather, to open every window and door to the outside and let in fresh air. None of the windows in Germany have screens on them, and most of them will open a variety of ways; fully open, just a tad, etc. This is great because you can regulate the airflow into the home; like nature’s air-conditioning.
We also regulate indoor temperatures with the use of Rolladen. These look like metal blinds that fit over the front of the window on the outside, blocking light, noise, and temperature from entering. From the outside, the building looks like a fortress ready for a zombie apocalypse, and from the inside, it’s perfectly comfortable, no air-conditioning required.
For newcomers, the trash system is a common topic of conversation. Mainly because it can be overwhelming and confusing. Inevitably we all start talking trash when at someone’s house and trying to figure out where to throw away food, napkins, etc. There are 4 different trash cans: Biotonne (green), Restmülltonne (brown), Papiertonne (blue), Wertstofftonne (yellow; often referred to as Gelbetonne or just Gelb), not to mention a completely separate bin for throwing away glass. Here’s how it works:
- Biotonne: Bio waste like food, plants, etc.
- Papiertonne: Paper products likes cardboard, newspaper, cereal boxes, envelopes etc.
- Wertstofftonne: Plastics, metals, the plastic window from the envelopes (seriously), etc.
- Restmülltonne: All the rest. Anything in this bin gets incinerated.
Most parks are equipped with recycling bins for glass products, which are separated by color, clear, brown, green. Any bottle or jar that doesn’t collect a pfand gets tossed in here. Often you will find empty glass bottles sitting on the top of trash cans in public parks, because people know they shouldn’t toss them in.
I still won’t throw my trash away if anyone is outside, because I am still afraid I am doing it wrong. 🤷♀️
When we moved from Colorado to Ohio, we became a single-car household. Then, when we moved to Germany, we didn’t have a car at all. Our main transportation has been train, bus, or foot (we still need to get bikes!). Germany has a well-established (mostly) efficient public transportation system that helps reduce traffic and emissions. Most major cities, including Bielefeld, have connected park trails that go through the city, making it easy to get around on bike while still taking the scenic route.
This year, Germany pledged to end its use on coal by 2038 and has been continually closing coal mines and establishing alternate energy plants. While some changes need to occur on a larger political level, people around the globe can make small lifestyle changes to affect their global impact. Maybe try doing laundry the German way.
Do you think Germany’s ways to save energy are strange? Would they work where you live? What do you do to reduce your global impact?
*(I realize that Germany is a much smaller country, and the States is both enormous, mostly rural, and definitely votes differently.)