Whitesburg KY

Lessons from Germany

To the Editor

My husband, John C. Cleveland, died tragically on September 22, 2008, and one of the last things he asked of me was whether I was writing about my experiences in Germany and sending it to the newspaper. I had said I would get around to it.

Then a day or so ago, on television, they listed the top countries in the world for recycling. The United States was seventh, Switzerland was first, and Germany was third. That reminded me of living there, and of John’s request.

In Germany, there are recycling bins all over the place. There are some which are the size we have here that people put out on their curb for pick up, small, with wheels on them. But most of them are large, the size of waste garbage Dumpsters, only they are for recyclables. They say on the sides, in German, green glass, brown glass. There are large bins for cardboard. Many of these words were unintelligible to me since I do not speak German, but near my apartment in the small town of Baumholder there was a stand of about six large recycling Dumpsters. A few blocks away near a German grocery store there were four more.

Even on the U.S. Army base there were plenty. There was an area labeled for recycling, with a road sign to it. I had expected a large building, like our recycling center here in Letcher County, but it was a medium-sized parking lot with large Dumpsters on two sides.

There were several Dumpsters labeled, fortunately for me, in English, cardboard, paper, glass. There were several for each one. The Dumpsters had a retractable door so that it could be opened to throw in the recyclables and then closed back so rain would not get in. On the other side of the paved lot, as I remember, were the Dumpsters for plastic, cans, and other metal.

It certainly seemed reasonable that our U.S. presence in that country would be more warmly welcomed if we took recycling as seriously as the Germans do. I cannot say whether the U.S. military insisted, or merely encouraged the soldiers and their families to recycle, but it was clearly more convenient than anything I have seen here in the United States. When John was there in Germany, we did not go look at the base’s recycling set up. I wish we had, because I would like to have known his reaction to it.

One thing about Germany that I did get John’s reaction to was the windmills on the ridges visible from the Army base. He was very impressed with the Germans’ taking advantage of a renewable energy source, a nonpolluting, non-carbon based source of energy for electricity. There were windmills on a lot of the hilltops. They were constantly turning in a soothing slow motion. While I half expected the old wooden windmills like we think of in Holland, these were the modern metal ones like a pinwheel. But much of the rolling hilltop land has them, so clearly the German government was using some wind power. John said Germany still has several coalfired power plants so they must not have completely made the switch to renewables.

I was amazed, though, at how energy conscious the German culture is. For example, overhead lights in hallways are on automatic switches. When I went to the basement in my apartment building to do laundry, I was loading a washing machine and the lights suddenly went off. It took me a minute to realize what was going on. The washing machines were very small, and all of them were front loaders. I never saw a water level, just spraying of water onto the clothes. The dryers were small, too.

Doors and doorways inside apartments are fitted with an extra step-off for added closure and cutting down on draft. Windows are equipped with outside metal storm shutters, and John had wondered why, since they do not have hurricanes in Germany. The landlady explained to me it is to save heat, so people use them like an outside Venetian blind. And they do work. Heat inside houses and apartments, which is by heating oil, is not turned on until Oct. 1. Everyone seems to accept that as the way it is and they adjust. There are no air conditioners in homes or buildings. All the windows are large, and people open them for the cool air of night. These windows open like a door on a hinge, but with another turn of the handle they will fold down like a flour bin door. That way a lot or a little air can come in.

It was very interesting to see how other people live, and how they save electricity, and natural resources. I was very impressed with the German people and how they take care of old buildings that are hundreds of years old. And I learned from them that we as a society can make lifestyle changes to take care of our environment. We can build tighter doors and windows to save energy. And we can recycle so easily. I once read that recycling one aluminum pop can saves enough energy to run a standard sized television for a year.

I am very proud of our recycling center here in Letcher county. It is a gem in this world that is in danger of choking on our own garbage and water and air pollution from burning carbon fuels. I am proud of the work that John and so many others have done to help us take care of our county, our state, and our country. Seeing how other countries solve the same problems we have, and vice versa, is a new way to learn.

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