American waste habits shock and disgust Europeans

Anna Westkaemper | Guest Columnist


When you come to the U.S. from a European country — in my case Germany — a lot of things in America seem odd to you. You might think that in “Western Culture” there aren’t a lot of distinctions, but the longer I am here, the more things I notice around me that are special: the ubiquitous small talk, the huge sizes of soft drinks and, above all; the immense differences when it comes to environmental awareness.

In the bathroom of the dorm I live in, a girl next to me brushes her teeth. Nothing unusual; you should be glad she does that, one might say. However, something about the way she does it upsets me. The entire three minutes she brushes her teeth (I measured the time), she lets the water run. On average, 17 liters of water get lost doing that – per minute.

Trying to calculate what she was wasting over there (four buckets of drinking water), I get more impatient every second I look at it. Finally, I get the guts to tell her to turn the water off. She looks at me with a mix of astonishment and anger, so I tell her that water is not an endless resource. This understanding seems to not have reached the majority of the American society yet. In 2016, Americans used about 1,583 cubic meters of drinking water per person. In comparison, German citizens used about 312 cubic meters of drinking water per person.

Of course, this does not only have to do with college students not turning off the water in the morning when they are still sleepy. The extremely high usage of water in America mainly has to do with agriculture and the watering of dry land. This is where America seems to be stuck in a circle. Because of climate change, the temperatures will get even higher, the land will be dryer and more water will be used, which reinforces climate change. So, the next time you brush your teeth or shave in the shower: Turn the water off.

But the usage of water is just one drop in the bucket when it comes to the small and big environmental sins in America.

There is also plastic. The first time I visited a pharmacy in the U.S., I couldn’t believe my eyes. It seems to be perfectly normal to put two or three items in only not one, but two single usage plastic bags. I have never been to any other place in the world where I could buy peeled garlic or pre-cooked eggs – of course packaged in a lot of plastic. The US constitutes only 4% of the world population but is responsible for 12% of its garbage. While Americans recycle only 35% of their waste, Germany recycles 68% of it. Seriously, America? Don’t make me write that Germany is better than you, because history proves that this has never turned out well for us.

The U.S. is probably one of the few developed countries in the world with an almost non-existing recycling system. If a trash can says “recycling,” it means that you can put in everything from paper to cans to plastic. So, it is no surprise that this does not work out in the end. All of those garbage types are strictly separated in Germany. This bewilders me, because America definitely doesn’t have a lack of knowledge or resources to implement a better system. So, is it just to blame on the politics? On a president that claims that climate change is an ideology?

Partly, yes. But on the other hand, it seems like Americans just like it comfortable. It is easy to not return your bottles and cans to the store. It is easy to not separate your trash. It is easy to buy a plastic water bottle every time you’re thirsty or get a coffee to go in a paper cup. It is easy to drive around in a big truck or taking an Uber. It is easy to just eat meat every time you crave it. All those things are easy, and they constitute the daily American life.

But would the American way of life really change dramatically if the environmental awareness would be bigger? Why don’t we make a deal: Keep the ubiquitous small talk. Even keep the huge soft drinks. But carry them around in reusable cups and bottles. Take cotton bags to the store. Buy a vegetarian cookbook and try to use it once in a while. And don’t be scared: I’m not asking you to become a vegan right away. I’d just love to see that the next time I visit the U.S., I don’t see trashcans full of plastic anymore. Or peeled garlic in the store, because no matter the environment – that’s just gross.