Green living in Maryland?

How state can encourage us to end wasteful habits

March 04, 2009|By Mike McGrew

Germans are widely praised - and sometimes, widely ridiculed - for their ruthless efficiency in business and government. They famously make the trains run on time.

As I discovered while living in Badem, Germany, those traits carry over to the household level, too. The average German's environmental habits leave the average American's in the dust, whether by using natural fertilizers, recyclable shopping bags and energy-efficient appliances or by refusing to live in sprawling, car-dependent suburbs.

Well, I'm back in Carroll County now, trying to maintain some of the habits I developed overseas. However, given the lack of incentives - either carrots or sticks - for doing so, it's often hard, especially since, like most people, I was never much of an environmentalist or particularly compulsive to begin with.

Upon my return, I did purchase an energy- and emissions-efficient Honda Fit, and I still maintain my compartmentalized German trash bin (garbage red, recyclable yellow and biodegradable green). I exclusively use compact fluorescent light bulbs, I rarely run water I'm not immediately using, and I wear turtlenecks to keep warm, with my computerized thermostat set at 68 degrees for energy efficiency. I also continue to compost yard waste and reuse plastic bottles regularly.

Nevertheless, I produce much more trash than I did overseas (I blame this in part on excessive American packaging) and still recycle my tired excuses for why doing more to conserve and reuse (e.g., shopping bags) isn't worth the trouble.

Why? Remember, I'm not an activist, and I can be lazy, especially when there's no immediate payoff. Most of my practices are primarily motivated by cost savings, and I suspect I'm pretty similar to most readers in this respect. In fact, this was what convinced me in Germany that "throwaway guys" like me could be rehabilitated.

So, what could Maryland do to reduce how much is thrown out, increase how much is recycled and save residents a few bucks for their trouble?

First, institute "pay by the can" garbage collection plans. We could pre-purchase stickers to place on full toters at pickup time. The more you reuse and recycle, the less frequently you pay.

Second, charge nothing for recyclable pick-ups. Soon, you'd see increased attention to recycling and more compost bins for yard and food waste. Our goal should be to double the amount of trash we currently recycle (30 percent in Carroll County, 39 percent statewide).

Third, as some states have begun to do, return glass and thick plastic water, beer, juice and soda containers - plus our shopping bags - for deposits, expanding on a once-widespread practice. In Germany, all big grocery stores charge for plastic bags and have computerized terminals with conveyor belts for return of bottles.

Fourth, consider tax breaks for installing rolling metal shutters (these are ubiquitous in Europe) to reflect heat in summer and insulate windows in winter.

Fifth, require builders to install energy-saving thermostats and windows and fireplaces that vent effectively. New appliance standards should include washers using less water, dryers that pause while tumbling for efficiency and toilets with two push buttons to adjust the flush needed for solids versus liquids. If Europeans can do it, why can't we?

Finally, invest more to promote car pools and make commercial transportation more affordable and convenient. Commuter buses to Metro stations, Baltimore and D.C. should be expanded and subsidized.

More environmental regulations and practices might disrupt our lives - but only temporarily. And if throwaway guys like me can also save a buck by doing what is right, the transition shouldn't be that hard at all.

Mike McGrew is a school psychologist from Carroll County who recently returned from working in Germany. His e-mail is

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