The Start of Green Living: My American Experience in Germany

Recycling and composting in Germany

German recycling bins at the train station

By Celine De Perlinghi-Johanson

As I packed for my sophomore semester abroad in Fall 2011, I wondered what life would be like in Munich, Germany.  Stereotypically, I pictured Germans enjoying themselves, eating schnitzel and drinking beer in local pubs.  I did not imagine them recycling and composting.  Yet this was the surprising reality that struck me almost immediately when I arrived.

I unpacked my bags in my host family’s three-bedroom city apartment that would be my home for the next four months. I was about to discard some of the things I’d accumulated during my travel when I opened up the cabinet under the kitchen sink to find six separate containers. American households commonly have a trashcan and one recycling bin (maybe); however, in my new home, I found separate recycling containers for paper, aluminum, plastic, glass and compost!  I looked at my pile of debris and for the first time I realized how much material I customarily and thoughtlessly discarded as trash as a typical American citizen.

Less Water to Waste: the Green Bathroom Version

During my time in Munich, I became increasingly aware of the extent of green living in Germany, and subsequently, the lack of it in my own life back home in America.  I noticed the differences between the German toilet and the American toilet.  The difference was not just that most German toilets use less water and have the option of “Number 1” or “Number 2” flush, but the construction of the toilet bowl is completely different.  Your typical American toilet has a bowl full of water.  Its German counterpart, however, has barely any water in it at all.  Instead, it has a kind of shelf onto which the waste falls and then gets pushed down the drain when you flush.

I made another observation when the temperature began to drop suddenly at the beginning of October.  Instead of having a central heating source, each room had its own radiator.  The system requires you to manually turn the radiator on or off for every room. I found that I actually liked the German system better because I tend to like a cooler room and I could control the temperature of my room without freezing the others in the apartment.  Also, the family needn’t pay to heat the entire apartment when they spent most of their time in one or two common rooms.

These are just a couple of examples how I found life in Germany to be a bit greener.  Living in Germany made me more aware of the simple, yet important things people can do to live a greener life.  Now that I am back in America, I find my own habits have changed for the better. I plan to continue on my green path, but I also feel a new sense of responsibility to make others aware of what’s possible.  We can change our old habits!  I changed mine in as little as one semester.

So although some of my expectations of Germany were not so far off (it turns out Germans do enjoy their traditional food with a nice beer!) they are also surprisingly committed to conservation and the environment.  I know I’m a more environmentally conscious American because I’ve seen what can be accomplished when we all change our habits.

Celine De Perlinghi-Johanson is a new intern at Greenspiration Homes.  She is a senior at Guilford College majoring in German and Philosophy and hopes to pursue a masters in Sustainable Design.

3 Responses »

  1. Great article, thank you for sharing. Hoping to travel to Germany one day to ‘learn’ more about renewable energy.

  2. Great article Celine!

    While I worked for DaimlerChrysler I had the chance to experience Germany briefly and although I didn’t see the extent of recycle containers as you did I did have an experience that was quite unique (I thought anyway). We stayed in one hotel outside Stuttgart on one trip and the electronic room key had to be inserted in a wall mounted slot at the room’s entry hall before the light / heat would turn on. When you left the room, taking your key, all the lights went off and heat went to a minimum setting. Cool, I thought! Want to install one of these in my kid’s room!!! lol

    Also, while at the DaimlerChrysler Stuttgart HQ, they didn’t have A/C in many parts of the building, just windows and automatic shutters that came down when the sun was on that part of the building – that really works for me, A/C in Auburn Hills gave me headaches many times.

    Back to the recycle bins, a question – what about steel, like steel soup cans. . . Was there a steel recycle bin or was that put in a trash bin?

    Thanks for sharing your experiences! =];-)

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