Nat Friedman

Green Moments in Germany

Yesterday Stephanie took my car to the Volkswagen dealership to be repaired. It’s only about a mile from our place. They needed to keep the car overnight. It’s under warranty, so to get home, Volkswagen gave her the option of a free taxi, a subway ticket, or a loaner bicycle.

She took the bicycle.

One day while cleaning the house, Stephanie saw me putting a handful of dead double-A batteries in the trash.

“What are you doing?!” she said.

“I’m throwing away these batteries. They’re dead.”

“You don’t put batteries in the trash! You take them to the pharmacy where they dispose of them properly.”

Then, a moment later, her face fell. ”Do you mean that the whole of the US is throwing their batteries into landfills?”

Jimmac told me that on one of his first visits to Germany from the Czech Republic, he was astounded at how smoothly everything worked. Coming out of the subway, he came upon an escalator that was not running. “Hah,” he thought to himself, “at least their escalators break too.”

Then, as he stepped onto the escalator, he tripped a photoelectric sensor, and the escalator started.

“Damn.”

23 October 2009
Show comments
  1. Are you in trouble? Come in Italy ;)

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    1. I’m Italian too and I have never thrown batteries in the trash in 30 years.

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      1. well, there is quite a difference where in italy you live ;)

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      2. I live near Milan and here is the same since a very long time.

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        1. I’m Italian too, and battery recollection has been a reality for years (I was a child and I’m 31 now…). You just bring batteries to resellers or to special containers along the streets.

          In US the situation is spotty. Somewhere recycling services are present, somewhere they are not present at all also for other materials like paper, plastic. and so on.

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  2. Germany has surprised me for a lot of reasons – Healthcare (medicine availability), Autobahn, Exports, Short-time-work. Now there is one more reason – electronic waste clearance.

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  3. I love riding around in the countryside and looking at all the houses with solar panels on their roofs. It’s like living in the future.

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  4. So dogs are allowed to buses? Interesting

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    1. Yes, and in restaurants and grocery stores. That’s a tram, BTW.

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      1. I think actually they aren’t allowed in most restaurants. Fast foods “restaurants” like MC Donalds being an exception.

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        1. I see them in restaurants a lot. Maybe it’s just my neighborhood.

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          1. It’s not just you — I see them in restaurants all the time too.

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      2. The Germans are dog lovers. That’s one of the things I hate about them. If you speak German, watch this hillarious satire:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4SLS0UR-7s

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  5. Normal use-once batteries is not toxic anymore.

    Of course it is better to collect them and add proper recycle measures. This applies to many types of waste though…

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  6. Yeah – that’s one of the things that shocked me after I moved from Austria to the US. Like that no matter how much you buy in a shop – they always stuff it inside a plastic bag. In Europa that’s completely different (at least where I live): When you go shopping you usually have a re-usable cotton bag (or something else) with you. Using use-only-once-and-throw-away-plastic-bags can be compared to throwing batteries in the trash.

    Btw, just a hint: The Germans also have extra trash cans for stuff like paper and bottles – so don’t throw them into the normal thrash.

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    1. Yes, we use way too many plastic bags in the US. Even if you buy a bag, they put it in a bag.

      There’s a picture of one of those trash cans in the post :-)

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    2. Plastic bags: Totally depends on where you are in Europe.
      In Germany I often had to pay extra money for a plastic bag in a shop, while in Czech I often have to tell people to not automatically put my stuff into a plastic bag when I obviously already have my own bag with me, visible.

      And if taking a plastic bag you can still use it at home to put your other trash in…

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  7. at least something we can be proud of. :)

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  8. Nice to hear that you like our country. Indeed, it is quite convenient to live here in terms of modern society things. But I am always astounded when I see people being surprised about things which are quite regular and standard here. That remembers me, that there I alot left to do in the world, so to speak.

    Regards

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    1. Well, it goes both ways. Whenever I’m in Germany I miss the incredible convenience of the US, like wash-dry-fold laundry and having the whole society hooked up to the internet like yelp.com and book stores that are open till midnight. Also the grocery stores in Germany are like something from the 70s for an American.

      But Germany has its definite advantages too.

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      1. There’s a lot of difference between different European countries too. I’m from a neighbouring country (Belgium), and the German’s insistence on closing at 17:30 (or whatever it is), and their sad looking grocery stores and supermarkets (don’t get why that is) surprise me all the time too.

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        1. They close at 8pm now in Bavaria, and everything is closed on Sunday.

          I don’t think I will ever get used to that.

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          1. It is different between the German states: I have lived in Bavaria too and shops closing early annoyed me to no end. Now I live in Berlin and the supermarket at Ostbahnhof (Eastern Train Station) is open 365 days, from 8 AM to midnight. Also, there are small shops called „Spätkauf“ (literally „late buy“) where you can get stuff in the middle of the night (but things are more expensive there).

            Btw: Bavaria is the most conservative state, so that is not really a surprise.

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  9. Escalators don’t break—they become stairs.

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    1. Actually, the size of elevator steps are different from stairs. Stairs are designed to be walked, and elevators are supposed to be for riding.

      That’s why it’s more comfortable to walk up and down stairs compared to elevators. (It’s also *much* safer.)

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      1. Quite often there are signs by the escalators, saying things like “stand on the right, pass on the left.” Implying that they’re also designed for people who are walking (like me).

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  10. Escalators work permanently in the US ??

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    1. The escalator story is from 1990 ;)

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    2. Yes, during business hours, they’re always on. After business hours, I seriously hope they turn them off.

      At least this is the case in most malls in the ‘States, where escalators are usually located.

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  11. If you like that they offered her a bicycle you should definitely visit the Netherlands. Nearly everyone bikes there!
    They have special bike lanes laid in red bricks separated from the regular street and footpath. Bike stands are everywhere and car drivers have to be very careful when there’s a shared lane for bikes and cars as they are always guilty when they have contact with a cyclist.

    That’s really green!

    Well, one must admit that they also like to throw bikes into the grachts from time to time. ^^

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    1. We have the special, curbed bike lanes here in Munich too, on I’d say 75% of the streets.

      I love bicycles. Five minutes in a bicycle is always enough to restore me to a good state of mind.

      But you’re right – Holland is even more bike-friendly. Is it true people even use bikes for inter-city trips?

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      1. In the Netherlands, bikes are mostly used for distances up to about 10km. There are people who do inter-city commutes, but that’s a small minority: even for people who are willing to cycle longer distances, it just takes too long. Commutes from a suburb or neighboring village are common though.

        Note that Dutch cities are built with many small shopping areas, so there is always a supermarket within 5 to 10 minutes cycling distance. Stores you don’t need on a daily basis are mostly found in the city center. In the larger cities, parking a car in the center is always paid and can be quite expensive. So unless you plan to buy something bulky, going there by bike is a good idea.

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    2. Bike stands are everywhere and car drivers have to be very careful when there’s a shared lane for bikes and cars as they are always guilty when they have contact with a cyclist.

      Haha, that reminds me of Münster, NRW. My mother was always afraid she would bump into a cyclist because there were so many of them.

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    3. recently i went to kopenhagen and was amazed by the bike friendlyness.

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  12. The case with the elevator also happened to us :)

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  13. Interesting to read this ;) Some hours ago I saw a discovery-channel like tv-show in the swiss tv! It was about recycling…not only batteries but everything else as well!

    They recycle concrete for their buildings as well ;)

    if someone finds this interesting and understands german (well, its not really german but more swiss) you will enjoy the tv show which can be found here: http://www.sf.tv/sendungen/einstein/index.php

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  14. I remember through our batteries away at either the town hall or libraries at least 20 years ago.

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    1. My local public library has also had battery collection buckets has long as I can remember.

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  15. awww, picturing stephanie’s face falling over the batteries. makes me weepy! i will save my dead ones for my trip to munich??

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    1. Actually I forgot about that – I know a German who works in the US, who saves all of his dead batteries for his trips back home!

      Sure, bring all the dead batteries you want Peach!

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  16. I wish the VW dealership here offered us a bike when we dropped off Peach’s car yesterday! We had to switch the car seat and it’s always a bit of a pain.

    Beginning February 2006 here in California the state banned the disposal of common household items such as fluorescent lamps and household batteries in household trash. According to law one must treat these items as hazardous waste and dispose of these items at special drop off locations. The City of Sacramento will pick them for free by appointment. I would guess many states in the US – technically – don’t allow batteries in landfills. However, most in the US are likely to just toss them into the trash. Peach and I will do better (I think there’s a proper disposal site at my office).

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    1. Hey Jeffrey! Wow, nice law. The US is making a lot of progress.

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  17. As Jeffrey pointed out, it’s illegal to throw out batteries, eletronic waste, etc. in with regular trash in California.

    Which is why I’ve still got a bunch of electronic junk sitting in my car trunk from my last move (8 months ago) that I have yet to dispose of… but that could be a different problem :)

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  18. I live in Florida, they have a battery/electronics waste pickup once a month. A lot of people don’t like to wait for it, but I always do. Plastic and paper and glass (including the plastic bags stores love to use) is also picked up whenever trash is. Its just not mandated anywhere.

    And escalators around here are mostly controlled by motion sensors on the ceiling… or if they’re in very populated areas, by timers… might not save quite as much power as if it only goes on while someone is on it, but its not exactly that wasteful and makes people feel more welcome to using them. Although almost every escalator around here is used almost continuously during operating hours… usually with lines.

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    1. Sounds more advanced than Boston. Nice.

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  19. Almost all buildings around here have motion sensors. All the grocery stores have motion sensors that control the lights inside all of the fridges as well as above the isles, the self checkout cash registers turn on as you move up to them… at my university every single room, hallway, bathroom etc has motion sensors so they go on whenever anyone is around and then turn off again shortly after… infrared sensors also control nearly all the sinks and toilet flushers around here in public bathrooms and many urinals which haven’t been converted to be waterless urinals yet…

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  20. actually you can get rid of the old batteries in every store that sells stuff containing batteries – it’s a legal requirement to take back old batteries they sold… so you find battery recycle containers in all major shops (incl. aldi etc) – no need to go to the pharmacy

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    1. Good to know, thanks!

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  21. I experienced “culture shock” in quite opposite direction when I came from Europe to USA. Separated collection of waste and recycling seemed to be largely unknown term, both in public places and in households. It was incredible how much food was wasted every day (I worked in an East Coast holiday resort) and it was, of course, thrown into the same trash can as paper and plastic.

    Also, traffic infrastructure was obviously not equipped to accomodate needs of cyclists and pedestrians. To get from point A to point B it has been taken for granted that one has a car ( often a big american car with twice as large consumption of petrol in comparison with European or Japanese car). If point B happened to be a shopping mall, sometimes there was even no entrance for pedestrians, one had to walk in though the garage.

    It seemed to me as if US folks had thought they were here alone and all the natural resources on this planet were here for their use and their comfort. Oh well .. but it was 8 years ago. Things might have improved in the meantime.

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  22. I translated this blog post to Portuguese; Brazil has similar issues with environment protection.

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  23. A friend of mine from America visiting Europe didn’t use escalators but the stairs next to them until I showed him how they worked. He simply thought they were broken.
    If I hadn’t showed him, he still might be carrying his stuff up and down stairs everywhere.

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  24. you should visit austria (südtirol). they had about 8 different containers there for all kinds of waste.

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    1. Südtirol isn’t part of Austria since 1919. And at least in Vienna we have only 6 common containers (PET, white glass, other glass, paper, metal, other).

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  25. In Boston I would throw my batteries in the river to help clean it up!

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  26. Actually even in the US you are supposed to recycle dead batteries (i.e. put them into a designated residential recycle bin) and that’s what we’ve been doing. I live in Raleigh.

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    1. Having said that, I also *do* know that a great majority of people still throw away dead batteries in their regular garbage can.

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