In Germany, I'm a Recycling Novice

By Blythe Butler. Blythe is a Portlander-in-exile and current lives in Furth, Germany. She writes about her European adventures at

Forget BlueOregon. Like most Oregonians, I always considered it a Green state. When I moved to Oregon for college in the late eighties, I would return to my home state (Montana) and lecture my parents about separating their cans from their trash; about re-using scrap paper and printing on both sides; about buying recycled greeting cards.

I, like many newly-minted Oregonians, would tick off Oregon's environmental firsts, including the famous bottle bill. For years, I proudly hauled yellow recycling bins down my driveway once each week and took out-of-state visitors along when I dropped off a sack of magazines at the big recycling center. Then, after sixteen years of believing I was saving the earth simply by paying my local taxes and taking out the trash, I moved to Germany.

Here, I am a recycling novice.

German manufacturers and distributors are obligated by law to take back and recycle all sales packaging sold in Germany, and they have formed a cooperative to handle the task. When I visit the grocery store, I notice that packaging is minimal - toothpaste tubes sit boxless on the shelves. After paying for my purchases, I go straight to the recycling area where I can unwrap and recycle unnecessary packaging before loading my groceries into the canvas bags I've brought along so I don't have to pay extra for plastic sacks. I've spent the last seven months learning how to separate my recycling into the ubiquitous yellow bags, which are provided free of charge.

I'm still getting the hang of what goes where - separate sacks for glass, biodegradable waste, paper, plastic, metal, and more - and I have been warned that my apartment manager or even the local authorities might check the trash to make sure I'm getting it right, and that I'm not trying to sneak any recyclables into the small black bins reserved for true garbage.

While Germany's recycling system has its problems - the cost of recycling all the contents of those yellow bags being an obvious one - it has encouraged the country's citizens to feel like part of a solution.

A 2004 study showed that 91 percent of Germans surveyed separated their waste, and 95 percent believed the could contribute to environmental protection in this way. Conservation is part of the culture here; wasteful behavior is questioned and discouraged. And though sometimes I get weary of carrying around a candy wrapper until I find the appropriate recycling bin, I'm getting into the spirit.

While Oregon is doing pretty well in terms of participation (76 percent in the most recent survey I could locate, please jump in if you have an updated number), it has been enlightening to live in a place where recycling isn't celebrated, it's just normal.

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