If there is one thing I wish my German high school teacher would have taught me before my first time abroad, it would be about trash. I know, it seems strange, but trust me when I tell you that you do not want to be that person who panics because they do not know how the disposal system works in Germany and simply throws their empty water bottle in whatever can is nearest. Unlike the United States, where disposing of unwanted items is separated into two simple categories of “trash” and “recycling,” Germany separates its waste into five different categories: Recyclable material, glass, paper/cardboard, organic waste, and household waste. Though I have been living in Hamburg for quite some time now, I would be lying if I said that I was one-hundred percent confident each time I threw my stuff away. Nevertheless, the idea of sorting trash into just more than two categories makes perfect sense, especially considering the materialistic, and unfortunately, over-consumption-oriented society we live in.
Currently, climate change is one of the biggest crises impacting the entire globe, and even just the slightest increase in temperature could have drastic consequences on ecosystems, food systems, agriculture, allocation of water, housing, and much more. This means that sustainability practices are vital now more than ever. And I know reading about garbage disposal practices in different countries may not seem super interesting, but Germany’s recycling efforts represent a step in the right direction toward promoting sustainable practices. By sorting leftover waste more efficiently, less trash will be consumed or incinerated and later utilized for fuel, which consequently emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Another green practice is found in the expansive and efficient subway and bus systems, which are common in almost every major city in Germany. These systems are not only helpful for transportation around urban spaces but are also environmentally friendly, as most, and especially the younger generation, find it too expensive and unnecessary to own a fuel-emitting car. Even in smaller cities and towns, bikes and e-scooters remain top, eco-friendly choices for getting around. And if you wanted to hypothetically travel from Hamburg all the way to Munich in the south, Germany’s national train system, the Deutsche Bahn, provides multiple trips throughout the day that could get you to your destination in just six hours.
As an American, I cannot tell you how great it is to live in a country where public transportation is so accessible. Coming from the suburbs, any transportation besides taking the car is out of the question, and even in relatively big cities, public transportation is not always reliable or usually anyone’s first choice. Because driving is the norm in the United States, most of us do not realize how damaging single car usage is to our environment. Small cities and suburbs could benefit immensely from the implementation of improved and efficient infrastructure while also helping to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
Though I myself find public transportation in Germany energy efficient and all around useful, some German citizens still think improvements are necessary. While staying with family friends in a town in the north of Germany, my host explained her disappointment regarding the infrequency of the bus schedules. In her opinion, the busses in smaller towns like hers only appeared every so often, which have incentivized more and more people to purchase cars and drive to work instead of taking the bus to the main train station, which in turn, add to the earth’s warming.
Many of us rarely see industrialized countries like Germany as sufferers of the consequences of climate change, but a report by the organization Germanwatch recently found that the federal nation was ranked third in terms of countries most impacted by harsh weather like droughts, heat waves, and storms. Though I was not in Germany at the time, reading about the country’s intense flooding that left towns in shambles and livelihoods destroyed in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia this past summer made me realize how dire the climate crisis is.
Though German lawmakers enacted the Climate Action Law this past summer, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immensely, climate activism is far from over. Protests like Friday for Future, as well as smaller ones that have occurred throughout Hamburg, are still common and many are demanding for more action to ensure not just a greener future, but a future at all.
The climate crisis will impact all of us in the end, but advocating for policies that can hinder the adverse consequences of global warming, whether that be abroad or at home, is a much-needed first step in the right direction.
I hope you’ll join me and my fellow students as we discuss Study Abroad and Sustainable Living during International Education Week 2021. Watch the recording.