Having spent a good part of my life in the island state of Singapore, I recently had the opportunity to spend two weeks living in the city of Cologne, Germany. I was pleasantly surprised at the involvement of residents’ everyday life in their local sustainability efforts, most of which are bringing more convenience. It is not my intention to paint a completely rosy picture of the city, but I think the positives are worth mentioning.
On my first evening in Cologne, I was offered a drink by a friend when I noticed that the glass and plastic bottles looked like they have been used for a long time. My worries were alleviated when I found out that the bottles were sent back to the manufacturers (via local shops) to be cleaned and reused. So whenever you run out of drinks, the shops send new bottles and take in your empty bottles, bypassing the need to manufacture new bottles or recycle any materials. Plus you get drinks delivered to the doorstep, brilliant.
It was also Women’s World Cup season in Germany and I was fortunate enough to catch one of the matches. Being thirsty post match, I bought a cup of water and they came in thick plastic cups. “How wasteful it must be to dispose the cups!” Until I realised that I was suppose to return the cups for a dollar back. No more disposable plastic or paper cups. Less consumption, less waste, we are going reusable!
For used products that were not sent back to manufacturers for reuse, they are disposed into trash bins – sorted properly of course. All post consumer wastes are separated into colour coded bins, papers, plastics, biological stuff and others are separated at consumer level. Glasses are separated by their colour (clear, brown and green). A quick internet search revealed that separation of coloured glass from clear glass is important because only clear recycled glass can be used to manufacturer new clear containers (link: “How Glass is Recycled”) . Efforts were not spared even on used cell batteries, I walked past some electronics store and saw containers inviting consumers to dispose batteries properly.
The city’s recycling efforts are no doubt assisted by convenient and ready placements of compartmentalized waste bins, which can be found on streets as well. But perhaps the most encouraging thing I saw was the compliance by the residents, they took effort to sort out their waste at household level, which is less convenient than simply dumping their wastes collectively. More information about their system of recycling can be found here: “All About Recycling”
I’d also made a few trips to the supermarket to purchase daily foodstuff. Being spoilt by the conveniences in my home country, I was half expecting the staff at the checkout counter to place my purchases promptly into plastic bags so I can bring them home and line my trashcans with those bags. I learnt quickly that I would need to fork out money for each plastic bag to be taken, which makes sense, because the bags are treated as any other items for sale. Most people in the supermarket brought along reusable shopping bags to haul their groceries, consumer behaviour changes when plastic bags are no longer available for free. While scientists are trying to make biodegradable plastic bags, people are working collectively to reduce the number of plastic bags consumed in their daily lives. I had my backpack on.
A while back, I wrote a blog post regarding the potential of smaller vehicles in the future (link: “Downsizing vehicles to upsize productivity”) and I was extremely excited to see the sizable number of smaller vehicles scooting on the streets in the city. These microcars appear in a few different makes, from the Japanese manufacturers to more commonly, German manufacturer Smart. Often these cars are very practical to operate in the confines of a densely populated city. It’s common to see microcars wedged comfortably between larger cars in parking spaces, score! I would suspect that higher pump prices due to government taxes (link: “Gas prices around the world”) are encouraging more car owners to favour smaller; more efficient vehicles. Some opt to take the public transport system, or bicycles.
A bicycle is a wonderful mode of intra-city transport: no emission; less traffic congestions; independent of feeder buses and all the health benefits that come along. However I have few concerns and the chief of which is safety, both the safety of pedestrians when sharing footpaths and the increased probability of being a roadkill when cyclist and motorist share the road.
Observing a sizable population of cyclists, I rented a bicycle to explore the city on two wheels. The cyclist lanes made the trip safer and I found it encouraging that bicycles are allowed on board trains and trams. I could explore places further away from the city centre on my bicycle. With proper infrastructure in place, cycling has become a viable mode of transport within the city, from the lady going to buy groceries to the man in suits and ties; it has become just part of everyday life.
Nothing new has been brought to table: no cutting-edge technologies or radical ideas. While scientists and engineers are working to bring us greener technologies; harnessing new energy sources and drilling deeper to get more oil, environmental awareness are driving groups of people to alter their behaviours collectively towards a sustainable existence. With proper policies and infrastructure in place, environmentally responsible behaviours can become a social norm, bridging the gap between humans and technology