Here in Berlin it is, anyway. I don’t have a scientific way to measure how much of a smaller footprint our family has on the earth in this flat compared to back home, but there are many ways in which we are consuming less energy without sacrificing any comforts at all.
The first thing we noticed in our flat is that every time you use the hot water in the kitchen, the hot water heater in the corner kicks on to replenish what you’ve just used. It’s mounted on the wall in the kitchen, just six feet from the sink. You turn the water on, and if the handle isn’t pulled all the way to the right, where the cold water is, then you’ll hear the pilot click on and a quick blast of heat echoes however long you ran that water. It’s as if someone is forever sweeping up after you, removing all trace of you. I feel good whenever I beat the system and don’t kick on the hot water heater.
You can hear the hot water heater from the bathroom too. And you know that when you run yourself a shower, the rest of your household can tell exactly how long you ran that water, from the second you turned it on until the second you turn it off. Just knowing this makes me cut off the water a little quicker than I might if the process were more anonymous.
This flat we’re in is a typical “alt-bau” style, meaning old building. We have a narrow hall down the middle, and the five rooms of the flat can all be reached via the hall. If we’re in a room, we turn on the light. If we leave the room, we turn it off. Many times we’re all in the kitchen and the rest of the flat is dark, because it’s very obvious whether or not you need a light. Are you in the room? Turn on the light. Are you leaving it for a while? Turn it off. At home, we’d be more likely to have lights on by floor; if you’re on the first floor, you might have a living room light on in addition to the kitchen, since otherwise there’s a cavernous darkness beyond the room you’re in. And the hall light gets left on a lot in case someone is going up or downstairs, which does happen occasionally.
The hall stairway lights for this apartment building (and most others we’ve encountered) are set on a timer. When you come home in the dark, a motion detector turns the front spotlight on so you can find your keys on the front steps. When you enter the hallway, you press the glowing red button and the lights in the hall and up the stairs come on, and they’ll stay on for a few minutes, long enough for you to get to your apartment and even pick up your mail. And then the hall is in darkness again, because really, who needs the hall light on all day and night?
Few people we know here in Berlin have a clothes dryer. We do not have one. We thought we would miss it terribly. I can’t think of anyone I know in the US who doesn’t have a dryer. (Correct me if I’m wrong).
Before we arrived we worried how this might be. We figured we’d have to buy more drying racks to accommodate the laundry of a family of five. But the one provided by the landlord, standard issue in Germany, it seems, does the trick. It’s large enough to fit two full loads of laundry, even three, if you hang the towels on bathroom racks instead. In the warmer months we put the rack on the balcony and the sun dried it quickly. But it dries almost as fast inside our apartment. Things aren’t quite as soft as they are when you pull them out of a dryer, but once you put them on you cease to notice the difference.
I’ve noticed that even commercial businesses often don’t have dryers, such as hair salons. Just walking around town I’ve seen drying racks on the sidewalk in front of salon entryways, drying a dozen towels in the sun. Towels are the one thing I wish I could throw in the dryer to soften up, but after seeing that even professional salons don’t feel they need fluffed towels, I’ve come to terms with going without as well.
Everything we buy seems to have thinner packaging than in the US. Yogurt containers are made of thinner plastic, or even just waxy paper. Caps on bottles are short and thin. Yet nothing ever leaks because the packaging is inadequate. It all is plenty. We don’t need more.
Packages in general are smaller. We brought a family size shampoo and conditioner with us from the US that just ran out a few weeks ago. Since then, we’ve replaced them with German products that are about one fourth the size, and run out in about a week or two. But somehow knowing that they’re smaller leads to each of us using less of the product inside, because we don’t want to use it up too quickly.
Same with juice. When the container is smaller, and the juice glasses are smaller, you serve yourself less and you make it last. Sure, sometimes you drink two glasses. I seem to recall being hungry all the time the first month we got here, influenced by the small size of just about everything. I think that the packaging influences how much you consume. If you’re out for lunch and you order a drink, it tends to come in a bottle that is about 8 ounces. That’s significantly less than a 12 oz. soda or juice. The bottles are smaller, and you’re offered less, and yet you get used to it, and make it stretch through the meal.
The only exception to this seems to be alcohol. Bottles of wine are the same as the US, but some bottles are a full liter, or even 1.5 liter, without appearing to be much larger than the regular 750 ml. bottles. And beer bottles tend to be sold in half-liters, which is about 17 oz. That seems to be one area where Germans have gone the opposite direction from Americans – larger bottles, presumably resulting in more consumption? Maybe there’s something to the association most people make between Germans and their beer.
Recycling and compost
Our apartment building has a rear courtyard between the front building and the garden apartments. In the courtyard is a small enclosed area with about a dozen trash bins, but only two of the bins are for actual garbage. The rest are for glass, paper, light packaging and compost. To this day I’m not certain what the boundaries of “light packaging” might be; we put all plastic, aluminum, and even plastic wrapping and amorphous cereal bags and lids and other things that would have gone into the garbage in St. Paul. Light packaging! It’s brilliant! And there’s a bin for vegetable peels, eggshells and coffee grinds—a compost bin ready to accept all of your organic matter. Since we’re used to composting back home, we were glad to find this communal composting offered here as well.
I’ve written a bit about this before—having no car is easy here. At home we have two cars, or at least we did until we sold one in anticipation of this sabbatical. It’s hard to imagine navigating a life in the Twin Cities with three children and two jobs without two cars, especially given the harsh winters. But here we can get around just fine without even one.
A friend of ours recently lent us her car for two months while she recovers from foot surgery, and so far it hasn’t moved from its spot out front where M parked it after dropping her off at the hospital. I had an appointment this week where I ran down to get my bike only to discover at the last moment that it had a flat tire. I dashed off to catch the bus instead, and it didn’t even dawn on me that I could have taken the car until the bus had already pulled up before me. Which maybe gives you a sense of how un-car focused we are here.
Pretty much anywhere you go around town, you’re going to encounter toilets with two flushes, a small and a large. I’ve seen this in the US, but only in very green-conscious buildings, such as the Wilder Foundation building, a LEED-certified Gold building. But at Wilder and other places I’ve seen it, the flush has a little sign explaining how it works, as if it’s so crazy and newfangled that no one would know how to use it correctly. Here in Berlin there are no little signs explaining the difference. There’s a big button and a little button. Figure it out. I noticed this in Melbourne, Australia on a trip earlier this year, where every single place I went, from my sister’s apartment, to restaurants, museums, offices, the airport, had this two-tiered flush. It makes sense. Use the water you need; no more, no less. In the US it’s full flush all the time, and a whole lot of water getting wasted.
I heard from a colleague back home that Minnesota has made strides in its commitment to solar energy this year; by 2020 Minnesota will require that 1.5 percent of all electricity come from solar energy. That’s good, I thought, until I learned that Germany is already at 10 percent solar now.
“Have you noticed many solar panels in Berlin?” my colleague asked. The sorry answer was no, I had not. Later that day I asked my family members if they’d noticed solar panels around town.
“Oh, yeah, they’re everywhere,” said C. “I see them on the train on the way to school every day.”
That would be the same train I’ve been taking to the Wannsee one or two times a week. I hadn’t noticed a thing. But that’s probably because I always have my nose buried in a book.
That’s how green it is around here. It’s so green you don’t even notice.