By Joanna Chojnicka
I’m really happy to be able to live in Germany, where waste segregation and recycling are a big deal. I’ve been trying constantly to improve my habits and reduce the amount of waste I produce in my everyday life; however, I have to admit that I didn’t give it too much thought – up to a point. The point when I realised that the only waste going into my general waste basket were banana peels and used coffee. I then went and bought biodegradable organic waste bags that are supposed to go to the brown Biomüll containers. Since then – and it was a couple of weeks ago – the only thing that I have put into the general waste container was a vacuum cleaner bag.
In Germany, your household waste gets divided into the following categories:
- recyclables that go into the “yellow sack” (der gelbe Sack),
- paper that goes into the blue, Altpapier container,
- glass, which can be divided into white and coloured glass,
- organic waste (Biomüll),
- old electronic and big household items (furniture, mattresses etc.) that get taken away a couple of times per year or upon request,
- and general garbage (everything else).
- Additionally, you can put your unwanted clothes, shoes and textiles into the donation boxes that are to be found at pretty much every corner.
Now, the realistic goal is to reduce the amount of general garbage. Of course, it is always a good idea to try and buy less packaging and use less plastic that goes into the yellow sack, but it is probably not possible to stop using it completely. I am sure you can survive without that pack of separately wrapped candy. It’s probably more difficult to survive without the medicine that is prescribed to you and that comes in a plastic blister.
At this point I use one yellow sack per two weeks and two people, so that’s like one yellow sack per month per person. First, I try to buy less – full stop. Second, I try to buy things packed in paper or glass rather than plastic whenever possible. Milk, juice, yoghurt… an additional advantage is that there is a deposit on many juice, beer, and even yoghurt containers that you get back when you return the bottles and jars. Of course, there is a deposit on plastic bottles and cans as well, but, you know, recycled plastic is still plastic. Glass is still the better option. The glass jars I cannot return are washed and put away to be potentially used for storing and transporting food.
I stopped using plastic bags completely. I always go shopping with my own shopping bags. When I buy bigger vegetables or fruit such as tomatoes, apples, bananas, I don’t pack them into anything, they go directly into the shopping cart and then into my bag. I mean, we all do wash this stuff. For such items as mushrooms or beans I use paper bags. My supermarket has them. It would probably also be possible to bring your own.
If I really, really need to use a plastic bag (e.g. to pack a pair of dirty shoes into a suitcase), I use a yellow sack which I reuse later according to its purpose. And I buy biodegradable, environmentally friendly bags for general waste (which I don’t make, so the last pack has been sitting in the closet unopened for ages now).
Another good tip is to get rid of the garbage bin in the bathroom. Stuff that goes there belongs elsewhere anyway (paper, yellow sack). As I don’t menstruate I don’t use any feminine products. But if I did, I would use the menstrual cup which does not generate any waste as it can be reused for a long time.
The plastic boxes and bottles that cosmetics come from often can be reused. I keep them for art projects, storing small items, refilling for travelling (when you don’t want to pack the whole thing), etc.
It takes a little bit of thinking, considering what you’re doing, to notice and start making small changes. Buy a reusable water bottle and use tap water instead of buying bottled water. Fill your own coffee mug instead of taking a plastic cup. The other day I went to the ladies’ at my work and realised how many paper towels are being used there every day by all the students, teachers, researchers, administrators. Isn’t that crazy? Yes it’s paper, better than plastic – but producing paper isn’t good for the planet either, and we shouldn’t just use it without any limits. How about everyone starts carrying around a small hand towel? It’s not a nuisance, it’s individual so hygienic, and it would reduce the use of paper immensely. Just like carrying your own coffee mug!
This leads me to my last but not least point. It’s really important: reducing waste at home isn’t enough. We spend one third of our time at work, and there we should adhere to exactly the same rules and standards as at home! Don’t use plastic dishes and cutlery at the cafeteria. Don’t throw all your garbage into the same basket in the corner of your office. Don’t buy all those sodas in plastic bottles and sweets from the vending machines. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the planet.
Do you have any other tips on how to reduce your waste?