Thursday, July 23, 2009

Green Options: 7 Environmental Lessons from Living in Europe

This post is brought to you as part of our content partnership with the Green Options. It was originally posted on Sustainablog by Zachary Shahan on July 21.

I have lived in Europe on two occasions now -- for five months in the Netherlands (two years ago) and for ten months in Poland (currently). I have been green-minded since I was a young child, and knew that Europe did better on many green issues. Nonetheless, to come here and live here has given me more insight on the perspectives of the people and more of a practical understanding of why Europe fairs so much better than the US on many environmental issues.

Recently, I came up with a list of seven things that really stand out to me as good environmental practices in Europe that could be transferred to the US. These could all be adopted in the US, but some are more personal in nature and some are more systemic. Furthermore, some of the personal ones regard large, life decisions, and some are much simpler in nature and easier to implement into your life now.

Of course, Europe is not one country and things vary from country to country. Nonetheless, there are also several similarities across borders. I have friends in other countries and have traveled a bit as well, so I hope to be sharing the best of the best.

Here's the list!

1) Live within a pleasant walk or bike ride from where you shop or work (or both), and use these modes of transport! A large percentage of people walk or bike to get groceries or to go to work in Europe. Parking lots at supermarkets and malls are miniature compared to parking lots in the States. A pleasant walk or ride (not just proximity) to your destinations is an important factor -- if it isn't pleasant, it is unlikely your environmental ethic will be stronger than your desire for a comfortable trip. My master's thesis on bicycling in the United States and the Netherlands confirmed this theory. Of course, there are many hurdles in the system of US cities and how they were built that makes this harder in the US (i.e. it can be hard to find an affordable place in such a location, and it can be hard to find a good route anywhere because of the way we've planned around cars), but there are also many opportunities. Often, you can find a back-route and 40% of trips in metropolitan areas in the US are two miles or less, ideal distances for bicycling. For more information on transportation's environmental importance, read this post.

2) Put a basket on your bike, or buy a bike with a basket! This is common practice in Europe and hardly seen in the US. Although, city bikes, practical cruisers and Dutch-style bikes are becoming more and more popular in the US (read this New York Times article). This may seem like a superficial, aesthetic issue, but I think it is paramount to using the bike for transportation purposes. With a basket on your bike, you can easily go shopping on your bike and it becomes a fun, attractive thing to do.

3) Make recycling visible! This is an interesting one for me, a new one. In Poland, recycling bins are not hidden (like the trash bins are). They are generally very visible and accessible, and they are frequent in many cities and even small villages. Plastic bins are the most prominent. They are large cages and you can see all the plastic that is in them. In a traditional society like Poland, but even in the US, social norms can drive environmental action. When you see a big cage full of plastic, you think, "Hmm, it is normal to recycle and I should be sure I am doing it as well." Social norms and social pressure can be created by simple means such as this.

4) Live in a smaller space. Well, this is a hard one to convince people of, but it is also a big one. Even if you "green" everything in your home, if you live in a big home it can often be more environmentally unfriendly than a smaller home. Live in enough space for your needs, but don't just have a big home to have a big home. Many of the people in Europe who live in small apartments or townhouses would opt for a big home if they had more choice. I've heard this in the Netherlands and Poland repeatedly. Due to governmental policies, an older history, and economical reasons, more people live in smaller homes. Nonetheless, this is a big reason why Europe is more green. People have learned to live in smaller spaces and are very creative and efficient with the use of their space. One example is that people often sleep on fold-out couches (slightly different from the ones in the US), so that your living room turns into a bedroom at night. This works very well, it seems, and is a big space saver.

5) Protect the countryside. Many countries in Europe have strong protection of the countryside around and between cities and towns. This is often governmental, so it is a systematic issue. There is a lot of push to do this more in the US, but it is a struggle and requires citizen support in many cases. If you get involved in the situation where you live, however, planners and government officials are often on your side and just need more citizen demand to make this happen. Protection of greenspace is a common ideal in related government fields these days, and especially in the field of city and regional planning. Make it happen!

6) Use the train or bus for long-distance travel. Common practice in Europe, and several times more efficient that driving or flying (see this graph), traveling by train or bus is an option in the US and you can look into it for your next trip. Greyhound is introducing new buses that include wireless internet access and electrical sockets. It is giving more legroom for passengers as well. Step outside of the automatic key-in-the-ignition or get-on-a-plane policy and try going by train or bus to your next destination.

7) BYOB: Bring Your Own Bag. Here's a simple one to end the list. Many people here in Europe bring a reusable bag to do their shopping. I'm not sure how this process became so popular, as many people do not actually have any special care for the environment or see themselves as environmentalists, but it is a common practice. Perhaps, because it is easier -- bags are easier to carry and unlikely to break -- or because some shops charge for a bag (very few do this, though). Perhaps, it is a habit from the past that was never broken. Whatever the reason, it is easy to do and still has a huge impact -- try to count how many plastic bags you use in a year. In the US, Whole Foods Market has banned plastic bags from their stores (pushing reusable bags as much as possible, but still providing paper if needed). Get into the habit and you will find it makes your life easier!

Lessons from Europe. Implement some in your life.

Image credit: Zachary Shahan

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