When preparing for my first year abroad ever, I did a bit of research and went through the first few pages of Google (Ecosia) articles on Berlin and climate change. I read about ways to make my trip more sustainable, how to offset my transatlantic flight, a couple of cat articles and of course the top 8 best locations to get sustainable karma (number 6 was unbelievable).

What no one told me was the difference of standards, equipment, and especially mentality between my place of birth, Texas, and the place for my new life: Europe. More precisely Berlin. These guys do it… better? maybe. Different? Absolutely. So here are the five things I would’ve like to know about sustainability before arriving to the land of abandoned amusement parks, energiewende, and autobahns.

1. Recycling

Recycling bins in Berlin give precise indications

A few options to pick from. But careful. Don’t mess up or you’ll cost your whole building a fine! (Credit: onnola)

Germany has really good systems in place for waste management. Living in Germany meant I had to learn to sort my trash into multiple categories. This meant familiarizing myself with crazy words like Restmüll (the trashiest of trash that can’t be salvaged) and learning that cardboard and paper could be considered two separate things. God knows how many different colour coding options for waste collection a foreigner has to figure out. There is brown for Bio waste, green or blue for paper, yellow for plastic, black for straight garbage. In my city in America, we only have two options: general recycling and landfill. As you drive through the countryside in Texas, it is possible to see people still burning trash. (And playing with their firearms in the yard… though that is another story.)

2. Pfand

Pfand machine in Berlin can reap great benefits AND are fun for kids of all ages

Texas vs. bottle machine (Credit: K. Desrosiers)

The deposit on bottles in an ingenious, if slightly inconvenient system. Glass bottles have a deposit worth up to 25 Euro cents, which is always added to the purchase price. It’s an ingenious incentive to recycle. I remember the first month I came to Berlin, I had at least a dozen glass bottles, and I was eager to get my Pfand back from the fancy bottle collection machines I had heard whispers of in the exchange student grapevine. I eagerly lugged a hefty crate down the street. I searched three grocery stores in Kreuzberg- though I perhaps it was just my untrained American eyes- I could not find a single collection machine. Forearms aching I gave up, and did something (which I confess, am not sure is legal), and left my bottles on a street corner as I’d seen Germans do. Within minutes, they disappeared- no doubt picked up by a bottle collector. Win-win-win: for him, for me, and for the planet.

3. Bikes/ public transportation

S-bahn running rain or shine

Commuting in Berlin is made easy with the expansive public transport network. (Credit: K. Desrosiers)

Germany has one of the most comprehensive public transportation networks in the world. It far exceeds anything I’ve seen in American metropoles – both in convenience and in price. In Texas, where people often value autonomy and independence over collective conservation, driving cars is the culture- despite having public transport networks in many major cities. In Berlin, BVG public transport sees 4 million rides per day. What is even more surprising is, that some don’t even use those. A step further, many Berliners bike to work or home, all around town. It’s cheaper, greener, and healthier. The bike lanes in Berlin are the eighth wonder of the world—though I’ve been almost ploughed over by a bike dozens of times, as I accidentally step into the bike lane. I live less than a 5 km away from my university campus in Texas. I guess I could bike, but won’t my car feel lonely? I think I’ll give it a go anyway.

4. Eine Tüte?

Berlin bridge on the lake

A bagless nature for the city of Berlin despite high levels of partying reported there. (Credit: K. Desrosiers)

Whether it’s at a museum or Lidl or H&M, there’s always the question, “Brauchen sie eine Tüte?”- do you need a bag? It usually ranges from 10 cents for plastic to a Euro for a cloth bag. At Walmart in America, they always just give the bag, even if I’ve only bought deodorant or a single banana. Actually, it is only been a few years that we’ve even been able to recycle plastic bags. Similar small fees have been implemented in many locations around the world. Studies show these do wonders for cutting down on the number of bags used and wasted. Though California has a similar measure in place, few American cities have this sort of policy. I can stuff my groceries into my pockets and socks and balance things on the top of my head. Who needs plastic bags, anyway?

5. Green Spaces in Berlin

Tempelhofer feld became a favorite windsport spot in the heart of Berlin

Green spaces are sometimes grey in Germany like this repurposed abandoned Berlin airport (Credit: Wikicommons)

I’ve heard more than one person tell me that Berliners finally begin to smile as the winter draws to a close and spring begins. After the long and dark northern winter, the spring is glorious- with the sun, birds, and warmth. I have seen everyone head outdoors. Though Berlin might not be a paradise to escape to in January, it certainly is full of life in April. Berlin really knows how to handle green space.

From the Mauerweg to the ongoing revitalization of Görlitzerpark, to the Garten der Welt, to Grunewald, to Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin and its outskirts offer ample public green space in which one can do sports, bike, or relax in the sun. These spaces are needed for escaping urban sprawl, and some American cities could take a lesson from Berlin’s book. 

For an Environmental Science student like me, Berlin is the perfect case study of how a city can prioritize a green transition. Though Berlin is far from perfect, the priority it lends to environmental conservation sets a powerful world precedent. I better get back and start practising my bike, if my resolutions are to stand…

Kyle is a third-year student of Environmental Science and Journalism at Baylor University in Texas, USA. He was a research assistant and content producer during an internship with Plan A in Berlin. A native of Dallas, Texas, Kyle loves nothing like his recently acquired Berlin dance moves which he plans to bring the next Texas ho’ down.