10 Everyday Examples of German Resource Efficiency

I’m a glutton for American convenience; big cars, big homes, space from my neighbors, cheap gas and electricity and easy shopping around the clock. Yet I can’t help but feel like a wasteful pig every time I’m in Germany. Here are 10 examples of how the Germans are so much less wasteful and more resource efficient than me.

  1. onionsNo “supersized” produce. Have you noticed how humongous shallots, leeks, potatoes, apples, strawberries and pretty much every food in your produce section has become? Unfortunately this leads to a ton of food waste – especially for the occasional cook. As you can see in this picture, German onions are, on average, about half the size of American onions and the same holds true for many items in the produce section. I’ve noticed that smaller fruits and veggies tend to taste better too!
  2. No grocery bags. Well, technically, you can buy a bag from German grocery stores, but few people do. Nearly everyone brings their own re-usable basket, such as these stylish shopping baskets from Reisenthel. Apparently the government is cracking down even more on plastic bag use. Starting in April 2016, Germans will have to pay for all plastic bags – perhaps around 0.20 per bag.
  3. cabinetsPortable/re-usable kitchens. While German cabinets and countertops have a similar built-in look to American kitchens, they’re different in two important ways. One is that they aren’t actually built-in. They’re modular and more often than not, when a family moves to a new home, they take their kitchen with them. And no, they don’t need to hire a contractor or handyman to do the install. The second difference is that German cabinetry is built to last. This photo shows my in-laws’ metal cabinets, which they’ve been using for over 40 years. Even the lazy-susan still spins.
  4. TPToilet paper squares are optimized. Has a single square of toilet paper ever been enough to get the job done properly? Probably not, right? Well it’s different in Germany. I find that a single square is enough 80% of the time. For some reason, TP manufacturers can’t get away with the antics that US manufacturers use to sell you less product for more money and get you to use more of it than you really need. On the other hand, their toilet paper isn’t nearly as soft. “Soft and cushy” isn’t really what you associate with Germans, though, is it?
  5. Dual-flush toilets. Since we’re on the topic of toilets, I must point out the water-efficient toilets in Germany. They not only allow you to choose “big flush” vs “small flush” but they are designed to hold much less water in the basin. They use about half as much water as American style toilets. But the tradeoff is the smell. As this commenter explained so clearly (and visually), “I hate the smell you get which occurs cos it just sits on the ledge, staring at you.
  6. Mentadent Wrap and Towel DispenserProduct Packaging Efficiency. Years ago when I first met my husband, I remember him expressing surprise at my Mentadent toothpaste dispenser. “There’s almost more plastic in this container than there is toothpaste inside!” he proclaimed. “So what?“I thought. But then I began visiting Germany and year after year I began to understand that waste reduction is ingrained in the German mindset. For instance, plastic wrap and aluminum foil rolls are often sold on their own, intended to be inserted into re-usable dispensers, such as this one. Compare that to the American approach of always buying and then disposing of a cardboard box with a disposable metal blade attached. Germans strive to do better every year. I now know that this packaging efficiency is due in large part to legislation, such as the Green Dot System, which fines manufacturers and retailers based on the amount of packaging on their goods.
  7. tiltandturnwindowWindows and Doors. I should probably broaden this to say that all construction in Germany is efficient, but the windows and doors are the most apparent to the non construction-minded visitor. German homes are built with extremely heavy, solid and well-insulating doors and windows. They make my own front door and windows feel like cheap child’s toys. German windows operate differently from mine too – they use a tilt-turn mechanism, which is brilliant because you can either open them all the way or just tilt them inward from the top to limit airflow but also allow them to be open while it’s raining. And there’s no issue with them not sliding easily when the house settles. Outside of these windows most homes also have electric-powered exterior shutters. They provide additional insulation on top of the already most well-insulated windows in the world. They also provide security and can be used for shade or even total blackout of the sun. They are controlled using a remote just like a garage door opener.  I think that one reason we Americans don’t care as much about quality construction is that few of us ever stay in a home for 40+ years. So 10-20 year doors, windows and roofs are acceptable.
  8. Tiny trash & recycling bins. I wish I had photographed this on my recent visit, but trust me, German trash cans are minuscule – maybe half the size of my own trash bin. And unlike in America, if you’re slightly over the weight or volume limit in Germany, you’re paying extra. Home compost and recycle bins are also tiny and are separated by material. So no, you can’t just toss your paper into the same bin as your clear glass, which by the way, must go into a different bin from your green and brown glass. And those glass bins aren’t at your house, but are located somewhere in your neighborhood, thereby pushing much of the waste sorting and pooling responsibility on consumers. Contrast this with all the problems with American recycling. Why not just avoid the effort and toss it into your trash bin, you ask? Because of the financial penalties of being over your trash weight or volume limit. German legislators also realize that re-use is much better than energy-intensive recycling, so they passed container deposit legislation more than a decade ago (Pfand).  There is a 0.25 deposit tacked on to the price for all single-use containers (cans, single-use glass and plastic bottles) and various for reusable bottles (wine, beer, water, milk, yogurt, etc).  Bottle crates have a Deposit of €1.50.Most supermarkets in Germany have a reverse vending machine designed to be used by customers which scans “Pfand” returns and prints a receipt to the total value of the items given which can in turn be exchanged for cash or used against the value of ones next purchases.
  9. Washable clothes. This is a long-time pet peeve of mine in America – nearly all women’s clothes require energy-intensive and expensive dry cleaning. We’re fixated on these novel but unwashable synthetic fabrics. On the rare occasion that we do use boring old cotton, we must add unwashable embellishments like sequins, stones or metal so that the garment must go to the professional cleaners. In Germany most clothes are washable, including very high-fashion items, since consumers demand it.  Adding to the resource-efficient mindset, many German households do not own dryers, preferring to hang dry their clothes instead – usually on racks in the basement.
  10. Fewer working hours. Many articles have been written about how Germans work fewer hours than Americans, yet are more productive. For me as a tourist, this translates into annoyance at the limited hours for shopping. On my recent trip to Germany over Christmas, I was stunned to learn that shops and even supermarkets were closed for nearly 4 days straight for the Christmas holiday. Stores closed midday on the “Holy Eve.” Then they remained closed for the 2 Christmas holidays (24th & 25th). Then the next day happened to be a Sunday and stores are always closed on Sundays. Ridiculous, right? But then I got to thinking: if I lived in such a country, I would be forced to plan my meals and would probably put fewer miles on my car due to fewer shopping trips through the week. I supposed that’s a good thing. And for the workers it means more quality time with the family, which is something we Americans could all use, don’t you think?