I’ve lived in a bunch of college towns – Ithaca, Oberlin, Cambridge (MA), Austin, Madison, and Middlebury. College towns tend to be more environmentally conscious than most American towns, what with all of those concerned 20-somethings and academic hippies around, right? My home town of Ithaca, New York probably has more of both per capita than any other American city. And it has one of, if not the first, comprehensive recycling programs in the country. I remember sorting glass bottles and bringing stacks of the New York Times to the recycling center when I was a tiny girl in the 1970s. My alma mater, Oberlin, and my employer, Middlebury, regularly duel over which is the greenest liberal arts college. It’s probably a draw, but I do have my favorite in the eco-race.
But, after living in all of these places, and spending significant time in many other supposedly eco-friendly locales, I have never lived in a college town where life is more obviously, and nonchalantly, environmentally-friendly, than Göttingen, Germany. I say nonchalantly because living in an environmentally-friendly way here is so integrated into daily life that it’s hardly noticeable. But, as an American, I notice it, and over the past few weeks, I’ve taken some photos to document what I’ve noticed (scroll down for a gallery of more).
The most significant feature is that bicycles abound here. The first thing you see as you exit the train station in Göttingen is a sea of thousands of bicycles, parked by commuters coming and going from the city. I can never figure out how people find their bikes in the mass, but I think most bikes are in use rather than abandoned, as a good bike is too important to leave behind here. There are bikes and bike racks everywhere, and cars defer to bikes on the road in most cases. Even buses wait for bikes to make their way down the narrow city streets, driving slowly behind without honking until an opportunity to pass presents itself. I’ve never heard any driver complain, probably because most car and bus drivers are also bike riders.
Jason’s academic fellowship at the University of Göttingen included a bike for each member of the family. Jason and I were given loaner bikes from the University’s stock, but they bought bikes for each of the kids to use this year. One of our first shopping experiences was choosing bikes and helmets at one of the dozens of bike shops in town. The next visiting faculty family will inherit our kids’ bikes, but in the meantime, bike riding is important enough here that it was assumed by the University that buying bikes for the family should be, without question, included in the fellowship. (Jason and I hope to write about a year without a car, and life on a bicycle, in a future blog post.)
Next we noticed the vast array of recycling options and locales here. Jason mentioned in an earlier post how confused we were at first, as there are no less than six daily options for disposing of household waste. But now, just like German families, we’ve got the system figured out and integrated into our daily routine. In Vermont, we’re used to a single-stream system, plus returnable bottles, which is user-friendly because we can just dump all paper, metal, glass, and most plastic into a single bin and put it out on the curb every-other-week. We also regularly compost, bringing food waste out to a large bin in our back yard.
In Göttingen, every building shares paper recycling bins, as well as compost bins for food and garden waste, and garbage bins for stuff than can’t go in any of the other diverse receptacles. For beverage containers, all beer bottles and most soda and water bottles must be returned for a deposit ranging from eight cents to 25 cents depending on the size and material (large plastic bottles require the heftiest deposit). You often see (and hear) people hauling back large quantities of beverage (mostly beer and bottled water) containers on their bicycles. I’ve seen people peddling bikes with trailers filled to the brim with bottles clanking down the cobblestone streets back to the supermarket.
Major grocery stores all have bottle return machines, into which you can put an entire case of bottles. Of note, the bottles are washed and reused, as evidenced by the white ring on the outside of most beer bottles, where the glass has worn down from multiple uses. Didn’t Laverne and Shirley used to wash bottles for a Milwaukee brewery in the 1970s – why did this practice stop in the States? Sure, returning lots of fragile, heavy bottles is a pain (especially with only a bike), but if you want to buy more beer, isn’t it worth it?
For non-returnable glass bottles, every few blocks or so there are large tubs, which I think resemble fat friendly aliens who need a bath, for sorting white, brown and green glass. We’re lucky to have the glass recycling aliens living across the street from us (perhaps because we also have a wine shop across the street?!), so we don’t also have to haul the rest of our bottles too far. The kids like to take the glass out by themselves, and put the right color bottles in the right slots, just like I did all those years ago in Ithaca. The tubs are emptied every couple weeks by an enormous semi-truck with a pulley that somehow manages to make its way around the narrow city streets. For the first couple months we were here, watching the glass recycling truck empty the alien tubs was a favorite activity for Walter.
Finally, all plastic and foil packaging, including beverage tetra paks, is picked up curbside every two weeks. Food wrappers, bags, containers and other packaging all goes into city-provided yellow bags. The answer to the question of “where does this thing go?” is usually gelbe Sack! A green dot (grüner Punkt) on the label lets you know that an item can go into the gelbe Sack. The Gelbe Sack recycling is what pushes the German recycling system over even the comprehensive Vermont system, as it allows for many of those miscellaneous items to be recycled. The program is funded by a surcharge on food packaging, so that the food industry is paying to recycle the waste its products create. This incentive to reduce the surcharge and the cost of the program through less waste means that manufacturers here tend to keep packaging to a minimum.
The many recycling containers are confusing, and do require more work than dumping stuff into a single bin. And while I know that all Germans don’t follow the system (somebody in our building puts everything in the garbage bin!), I’m willing to bet that Göttingen’s recycling participation rate is higher than Vermont’s. Many Americans don’t bother to follow rules if it isn’t convenient. Policy makers argue endlessly over creating user-friendly incentives and time-saving ways to follow guidelines. Here it seems that time-consuming and complicated tasks like sorting and hauling stuff to six different locales is done because that what is required, to save resources and to follow the rules!
A year ago, in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and created the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germans took to the streets to demand that their own country find an alternative to the many nuclear power plants Germany has relied on for emission-free power generation. Remarkably, the government responded quickly with a promise to shut-down the bulk of those plants within an incredibly short timeline. This plan has created an enormous scramble to replace nuclear power generation with other renewable, homegrown sources and to do it extremely quickly. The magnitude and complexity of this shift has been compared to the challenge of landing a man on the moon, and will cost billions of Euros.
To me what is remarkable is that German citizens protested, demanding a change in their energy policy, and the government actually listened. Reminders of the numbers of Göttingers who want a shift away from nuclear power are everywhere, in the form of bright yellow and red stickers and flags, which read: “Atomkraft? Nein Danke!” (Nuclear Power? No Thanks!). Walter loves to spot these stickers, especially those in another language. He’s seen Spanish, English, Japanese, and Arabic, to name a few, as well as hundreds in German. Near the town hall there’s a Fukushima memorial asking people not to forget the disaster, complete with a newly planted memory tree decorated with paper cranes.
Efforts to use renewable energy are readily apparent in Göttingen and the surrounding area. Starting just south of town is a water system that includes multiple dams and levies that monitor and shift the water level in the small Leine River that runs through Göttingen. The water levels are manipulated to irrigate farm fields, generate power through a series of dams and mills, and keep an appropriate amount of water in a human-made lake used by people and water fowl alike. So the system serves the multiple purposes of agriculture, energy production, recreation, and wildlife support. The Leine River is tiny and slow, so I can’t imagine that a ton of power is generated, but it follows a long tradition of water mills in Europe and it serves as a constant reminder that every little bit helps. Signage and diagrams along the waterway help people understand how the system works, and why it’s important.
Greta and I like to ride our bikes around the lake, Kiessee, and the paths that line the waterways out to the farm fields south of town. The fields are neatly squared off, with bike and walking paths in between – fitness and fresh food make good neighbors. In the fields, southeast of town are several giant windmills that rotate to catch the wind. Taking the train around Germany, we’ve seen hundreds of windmills dappling fields and hilltops. It’s an incredible site to be zooming past on the Intercity Express (ICE) and see dozens of windmills covering green fields, like dandelions blowing seeds in the wind.
In addition to the windmills, nearly every small town we’ve zoomed past has its red clay roofs covered with shiny blue solar panels. Germany is not an excessively sunny place on average, but it’s one of the world’s leaders in solar energy production. Solar panels cover homes, barns and even churches in small towns. It’s as if the towns are trying to generate all of their own power through the combined efforts of their rooftops. And apparently some towns actually are accomplishing this – truly local and cooperative energy production!
It’s not all sunny, unfortunately. The German government recently announced a sudden reduction in solar power support, which will likely drastically cut into new solar projects. The local paper reported recently that this reduction would mean the loss of local jobs, as the solar power industry here is major economic force. I can’t quite see how Germany will reach its renewables goal without continued support for solar, but even if solar power production remains at today’s levels, it’s still vastly higher than the United States.
And of course, there are tons of very cool and convenient trains here in Germany. We know the local train station extremely well, which includes the fried fish restaurant we eat at almost every time we come home from a family journey – our welcome home comfort food. Jason is an expert on booking train reservations, and has racked up an amazing number of frequent traveler points with his train travel around Europe. Of course, compact, efficient development makes train travel, cooperative energy production, and bike riding through farm fields from town to town much easier too.
As a national symbol of a reunified Germany that values renewable energy production, the Reichstag Building, the seat of German government in Berlin, was fully renovated in the 1990s to include a high-tech energy generation and storage system. We learned a bit about it when we toured the amazing glass dome that spirals up from the center of the building. The dome includes a photovoltaic system of solar panels and shades, and ventilation system, for the central governing chamber.
The Reichstag was burned in 1933 and Hitler used the fire as an excuse to take control of the government and severely curtail fundamental human rights. The building was rebuilt in the late 1990s to serve as the meeting place for the reunified German Bundestag. That renewable energy production even entered into the design of the renovated building is a great feat, given all of the other hugely significant historical and political elements at stake. The weight of history combined with the energy of the future.
Back in Green Göttingen, there are many other little things I notice every day to remind me of how much more environmentally conscious this town is than most American towns, even those with cool colleges. Windmills, low-flush toilets, bikes, no free bags at grocery stores, anti-nuclear signs, extremely energy efficient appliances – and the list goes on.
But I don’t really think that all of this couldn’t be accomplished in my favorite college towns back home, or any other American city or village for that matter. If Americans could stop obsessing over what is easiest and most convenient; start accepting that the not-in-my-back-yard mentality is destructive and that cooperative solutions are most effective; and start urging policy makers and industry at all levels that they are ready for a change, then I think it could be done. Imagine if we had cool trains, free bikes and beautiful windmills everywhere, wouldn’t that be grandly green?