Trash or Treasure? – cross continental sustainable waste practices

by John

Having been born and raised in the north of South Africa, coming to Germany has been a real adventure-filled journey of curiosity and discovery. I often find myself pondering away at some of the interesting systems used here. In this piece I share with you my observations and thoughts from a sustainability point of view regarding waste management practices on the opposite sides of the world.

During a class activity at Leuphana University, my project group and I explored Lüneburg and its surroundings during a 6 hour experienced based walk. Our task was to experience firsthand the food, waste and energy systems in and around Lüneburg, how they can be understood from a sustainability point of view, and to then build some conclusions based on our observations. It was during this walk that I noticed something that caught my attention.

There was a black bin in front of a house which immediately reminded me of home in South Africa. This was because the bin had a thick chain secured over the lid, so as to stop anyone from getting to the contents inside. I remember thinking to myself ‘why would anybody try and steal rubbish here in a developed country’. Back home in South Africa this was quite normal, I have on many occasions locked away the bin after putting out the trash. Unfortunately I have to do this to stop people from tipping over our bins at night. Bins that are left outside unlocked are vulnerable to being raided or taken altogether. This often results in all of the trash being strewn on the sidewalk and in the road. I am sure this will seem odd to some, but not as odd as it was for me to see evidence of the same phenomenon here in Germany.

Upon arriving in the country I had learned that due to a very well established social system that takes care of the poor, there are considerably less homeless people in Germany compared to South Africa. I could therefore not come up with any reason why any person would need to dig through somebody else’s rubbish. One of the big reasons for people tipping over bins in South Africa is to get to recyclable materials that they can exchange for money. There is an innovative system in place where people in need are able to make money by collecting recyclable waste and then taking it to recycling plants, or to specified pickup points, where they are paid per Kilogram or unit collected. This system can be seen in many of the cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, and the materials include copper, paper plastic and glass. The other unfortunate reason for bins being toppled over is that some people dig through trash as a last resort for food and clothes. South Africa does not have an effective enough social system like that of Germany that supports the poor and homeless.

To my surprise I learned that these chains and locks were in fact not to keep people from taking waste at all, but that they were instead there to keep people from dumping their own waste in other people’s bins. I was astonished at first, but a German friend of mine explained to me that people are required to take out licences for their bins from the waste removal company (GFA), and that this costs money. These licences then also regularly need to be renewed. As a result, some people opt to take their rubbish and dump it in other people’s bins in order to avoid the costs of the licences for rubbish collection. This has lead to some people having to lock their bins with chains or to even build metal cages with lockable doors in which to store their bins at night. I was completely taken aback by this information, and I found myself asking even more questions than before. Why would people not just leave their bins behind their houses? Were some people really willing to go to the effort of transporting their trash bags to other areas to dump their waste in somebody else’s bin when they could just leave it next to the road somewhere? I wondered whether leaving a rubbish bag next to the road would be more illegal than taking advantage of other people by making them pay for your own rubbish.

When I spoke to my German friend about some of my thoughts, he explained to me that there was in-fact many people who do also look for recyclable materials in Germany, especially plastic bottles, as these can be exchanged for a considerable amount of money. According to him, big cities like Berlin do have homeless people too, and during the summer months many of these people make a living off collecting plastic bottles. He explained that this system was quite well established and the plastic bottles were referred to as “Pfand”. It was very interesting for me to note that this system could be observed on opposite sides of the planet, and to see that these processes, although different, play an important role in terms of sustainable waste management for cities.

An important difference between the two countries is that the cultural aspect of recycling is not the same. In Germany the “pfand” system was not necessarily developed for homeless people to make money off, it was created to minimise carbon footprints and to ensure that raw materials are reused in order to foster a process of sustainable growth towards a positive future. In South Africa, on the other hand, less people practise recycling and the mentality in society is one much less concerned with individual environmental impacts and rather more concerned with personal wellbeing or even survival in some cases. This cultural difference highlights one of the stark contrasts between developed and developing countries

I still do not have definitive answers for why people would want to go to the effort of transporting their rubbish to other people’s bins other than the simple fact that it costs them less. The idea would probably seem humorous when explained to certain people in South Africa. Many people would simply opt to rather just dump their trash next to the road. The societal mentality about proper waste management in South Africa is generally light-years behind that of Germany. It has definitely been an eye opening experience seeing some of the well established systems in place here, and how people use them willingly.

Now that I have been living here for a few months I am proud to say that I am a member of the GFA. I even have three different bins in my kitchen, one for biological waste, one for paper and one for plastic. On the other hand, in true opportunistic South African style, I find myself collecting plastic bottles whenever I see them lying around in order to benefit from the “pfand” system.John_Blog post 1_picture 1

Locked down trash bins in Germany – photo taken by John

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Locked down trash bins in South Africa – photo taken by John

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Trash collector in South Africa – Photo taken by John

Living sustainably on a budget in Lüneburg – 10 ideas to save money and emissions that will make your day!

By Tara

The more our living standard degrades the world around us, the more we tend to feel paralyzed and incapable of facing fundamental challenges, like changing our lifestyle. Overlooking the fact that we live in a finite world is a convenient reality. There are many easy excuses to sticking to the way we consume. We might feel like one individual cannot change things plus we have enough personal problems, but the biggest illusion of all is that we lack the money to buy responsibly. The good news is: Living sustainably is easy, fun and possible on budget! Even though the following 10 ideas were collected in Lüneburg, I am sure they will inspire you to live sustainably in any other city. Do you want to see a change in the world? Then start with changing the things that surround you.

  1. Grow your own vegetables!

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Did you ever feel your smile freeze when the vendor at the local farmer’s market hands you three carrots and some tomatoes and tells you she wants everything that is left in your bank account? Gardening is a sustainable and peaceful alternative to save a lot of money. Now, before you persuade your roommates to rent and share an allotment garden (read more on cultural confusion that this might cause, in Rebecca’s post), you might want to get a taste of urban gardening in a community garden. Check out if there is an edible campus project or a community garden in your city and get started! In Lüneburg a student initiative called Leufarm cares for a vegetable garden on campus. Participate & share responsibilities with others. Thus you can learn from scratch what is necessary to care for your own piece of soil.

  1. Get a refill!

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17 million barrels of oil are used in the production of disposable water bottles annually . Thankfully, in many areas, tap water still has better quality than bottled water, but most people buy water in plastic bottles out of convenience or habit. Forget buying bottled water and get used to bringing your own, reusable water bottle everywhere you go and get a tap water refill. A beverage-producing company situated near Lüneburg, promoted the “unique, smooth taste” of their water. That same water being packaged and shipped comes out of the Lüneburg taps. All you can drink and  package free.

  1. Share your food!
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I found this pun, written on a wall at a food sharing shelf in Lüneburg.
It is a combination of the German word “Tauschen” (swapping) and Taj Mahal.    
So it might be translated in SWAPMAHAL.

Protest against consumerism and help to save goods that would have been thrown away. Share in your neighbourhood, with roommates and friends when you have food left. If you want to meet more people who are interested in this topic, search for a Facebook group in your area. In Germany and Austria you could make an account at foodsharing.de and get into direct contact with people who have groceries to share. In Lüneburg and many other cities this community also provides food sharing shelves, where you can bring leftovers and help yourself with just as much as you need. Read John’s blog post for more insight on food sharing and waste in Germany. The shelves’ locations, more information on the topic and ways to participate are published on the website.

  1. Have more stay-cations!

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The current prices at low cost airlines threaten to extend your intention-action gap? Stay strong and cure your wanderlust by behaving like a tourist in your own city. If you live in Lüneburg get some ice cream and smell the salty air at the Gradierwerk (use the link to see the location). At this construction, situated in the city park, natural brine gradually drops down brushwood, filling the surrounding air with salt. Other than the notion of being at the sea, this is supposed to have a positive effect on your lungs. After a refreshing bath in our beautiful river Ilmenau you leave all the sorrows of everyday life behind.

  1. Start to fix things!

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Has your bike’s tire been flat for a while and you have no clue how nor motivation to fix it?  Save money and emissions for gasoline and get help in a do-it-yourself shop. At Leuphana campus we have one run by a student initiative named KonRad. No matter if you need a lot of assistance in repairing your bike or bring your own guide book, here you will find all the tools and support you need until your bike runs smoothly again. Also, renting a bike trailer from this shop every now and then will make your life without a car a lot easier.

  1. Get involved!

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The current economic system, based on the illusion of an infinite world, definitively threatens our environment, but in addition it creates social problems. The growing gap between rich and poor, old and young, immigrant and state resident is supported by a culture of competition instead of community. Get involved or support initiatives that fight for social equality and democracy. Every Wednesday at the political project Anna and Arthur’s, one local initiative cooks a delicious vegan dinner for donations. Everybody is invited to join and pays what they can. The collected money goes to the chefs of the night, for example the group “solidarity with migrants”. This event is more than a cheap way to eat out: the place provides a cosy and inspiring atmosphere where people from different backgrounds come together to meet new people and to share great food.

  1. Save trees!

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When you move to a new city or your partner kicks you out, you might need some furniture. Forget kötbullar, save money and emissions and buy second-hand. Personally, I am a fan of online portals like craigslist or ebay kleinanzeigen where you can directly search for literally ANYTHING, second-hand. Often students leave Lüneburg after their graduation and therefore there is a lively second-hand market. The second-hand furniture store Sack & Pack provides everything from forks to couches. As an extra to the benefits of second-hand, your purchase helps to reduce poverty and inequality within the area. The store is one of seven run by the initiative New Work Lüneburg which creates workspace for permanently unemployed.

  1. Shorten supply chains!

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Your urban gardening project provides you with fresh vegetables, but buying everything else organic can still be costly. Find out if there is a package-free or community-run store in your area. In Lüneburg you could check out the package-free and organic store KornKonnection. Because of regional and direct supply chains, membership involvement and volunteering, prices are low and products fair. Koko works towards zero waste, therefore beside the stock of unperishable goods, products like organic bread, cheese or milk can be ordered as you need them.

  1. Learn about local fruits!

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Learn more about local fruits and their condition and meet other people interested in the topic.  In a local club, you can get training and information about edible fruits in your area. Lüneburg, for example, is surrounded by many forested areas where wet summers provide good conditions for mushrooms and berries.  Ok, it might sound a little extreme, but wait until you smell the forest while filling your basket with fresh, handpicked mushrooms, I am sure you will enjoy it! Make sure to become a safe, conscious and sustainable gatherer and gain knowledge on walks with experienced members of your club. When collecting be aware of poisonous species and take into account that for mushrooms, unlike berry bushes, which can be collected fully every year without harming it, damage to the mycelium affects the future yields.

  1. Swap don’t shop!

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With the change of seasons you enjoy changing your wardrobe a little. But will you wear all of it again next year? Step out the vicious cycle of consumerism and donate, while picking up something new. Organize a swap party with neighbours and friends. You also might find a swap shop in your area or get inspired to open one yourself. One we have in Lüneburg is called Die Zwiebel and it is accessible when the university is open. Here everybody can share or find clothing and many other things for free. A commercial alternative are second-hand stores. My favourite in Lüneburg is called ZEUGHAUS. The store is well organized, clean and cosy. Like the furniture shop Sack & Pack it creates work space for permanently unemployed while saving resources. People with low income, e.g. students supported with financial aid, like BAföG get discounts up to 50 %.

So, realising these 10 ideas will change the world? It will contribute to a change, as soon as it motivates you to see the space you move around in every day with new eyes. Leaving unsustainable trajectories behind, while you start to enjoy finding and creating sustainable solutions around you, you will have successfully contributed to make this world a better place. I look forward to learning about which solutions you will find in your city in this process and which of those I found in Lüneburg are also applicable where you live. So, my question to you is: Which ideas that save money and emissions make your day in Lüneburg or another city? Please comment below!

50 Shades of Green: Cultural Diversity in Sustainability Science

By Rebecca

I see neatly planted rows of flowers and colonies of bright garden gnomes, as we are walking along picturesque garden houses in the allotment garden colony in Lüneburg, Germany. Allotment gardens (called “Schrebergärten” in German) are little plots of land owned by people, who grow plants and flowers on them. Together with Hannah from the US and Markus from South Africa, I am on an experienced-based walking exercise: We are walking through Lüneburg, to document very sustainable or unsustainable areas. I know that in some allotment garden colonies, there are rules that regiment the percentage of flowers and the length of the grass. This is why, while walking through the area, I mainly think of the high use of pesticides like glyphosate and the “wasted” space, which displays garden gnome families, instead of vegetables (BUND 2015, p. 1).

Then Hannah suddenly says that we finally found a really green, sustainable area in Lüneburg. And Markus nods in agreement, telling us about his plans to rent an allotment garden near his apartment in Hamburg. I am puzzled: To me, allotment gardens are usually rented by an older generations that wants to impress their neighbors with spotless lawns, not with living in a “green”, environmentally friendly way. But are Hannah and Markus fans of garden gnomes and crocheted curtains? No way!

On our way through the gardens, we discuss our disagreement and how “sustainable” the area is. Hannah says that they are a great way to connect with nature, if you live in an urban area. I reply that if you really want to connect with nature, you don’t need pesticides and clean cut lawns, but maybe a tomato plant on your balcony and a walk through the forest every once in a while.

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Allotment Gardens in Lüneburg (Source: Markus Lilje)

Cultural Diversity is necessary, but also challenging!

In the discussion about garden gnomes and pesticides, I realize something more abstract: Our cultural backgrounds and where we grow up influence the way we see the world. I see the gardens as a symbol for smugness and the petty bourgeois. Hannah and Markus are not familiar with the allotment garden community in Germany and like the possibility have a garden, while living in an urban area. Consequently, we have different perceptions of how sustainable the gardens are. This makes me realize that there must be different perceptions about what is sustainable, whenever a diverse group of people comes together. Whether it is within the international group of students in the Global Sustainability Master or the community of scientists who strive for sustainable transformation, there are different “shades of green”. Or as scholars would put it: “The very nature of learning about and implementing sustainable development inevitably results in a diversity of perspectives” (van Dam-Mieras, 2008).

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Garden Gnomes in allotment Garden, Source: BIG-AL.photography (2013): Gartenzwerg Invasion, Flickr

Although it might seem trivial to talk about different perceptions of reality in the global world we live in today, it is highly relevant for the success of projects that aim at transforming the world into a more sustainable state. Problems like climate change, water-scarcity and overpopulation cannot be solved within the boundaries of single countries. As international cooperation is necessary, research groups will become more and more culturally diverse. This has advantages, as these different insights can be used to create successful solutions. But as I stand on the asphalt pathway in the garden community I realize: Diversity can also be challenging. I wonder how we can reach a solution, when our opinions differ heavily in the stage of problem analysis? And if our perceptions of reality and sustainability differ so heavily in the simple case of allotment gardens, how about big strategies for sustainability transformation?

What now? Let’s think across intercultural borders!

After the walking exercise, I am still wondering how we can overcome the barriers that come with cultural diversity. As I browse through different scholarly articles on the topic, I realize that we actually already made the first step for intercultural work: We acknowledged that being from the US, South Africa and Germany means that we perceive the world differently. Some articles suggest that we need to obtain intercultural competencies to perform in a culturally diverse setting. Scholars suggest that students of sustainability science need “to evaluate critically their own cultural parameters; and, in this way, […] overcome the limits of remaining within their own cultural perspectives” (ibid.).

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Markus, Hannah and Me on our walk through rainy Lüneburg (Source: Markus)

At first glance this seems abstract, but then I start to think about why I think that allotment gardens are unsustainable. I immediately remember during my childhood days, my family and I used to visit distant relatives in their beloved “Schrebergarten”. Their stories of who won the prize for the tidiest garden and which neighbor killed a mole with a firecracker just don’t fit to my picture of sustainability. Markus on the other hand has apparently no intentions of putting up garden gnomes or killing moles with firecrackers. He grew up in South Africa and often ate relatively fresh, regional fruits and vegetables. Now he lives in the city of Hamburg and loves the idea of planting his own vegetables to eat.  Hannah says that to her allotment gardens are a great form for relaxation in urban areas. Where I see snail bait and glyphosate, they see a chance for people to connect with nature and even grow their own food. In addition to our cultural background, a variety of factors influence how we see the world, for example our education, personal history and social background. In the case of the allotment gardens, our different mindsets had definitely affected our judgement and perceptions of our surroundings.

My Pledge for Interculturality in Sustainability Science:

Finally, acknowledging how our cultural and social background has shaped our way of seeing the world, leads me to a more differentiated view on allotment gardens. Taking into account the point of view of Hannah and Markus, I suddenly start to see the possibilities of allotment gardens for sustainable development in urban areas. Therefore, thinking out of my culturally shaped mindset improved the results of the walking-experience. This is why sustainability science needs to be deliberately culturally diverse, meaning that different perceptions of sustainability need to be addressed in every research project, if on a university scale or on the large scale in the search for global transformation strategies.

Sources:

Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (editor): Information zum Unkraut/- Wildkrautvernichtungsmittel „Glyphosat“.

van Dam-Mieras, Rietje; Lansu, Angelique; Rieckmann, Marco; Michelsen, Gerd (2008): Development of an Interdisciplinary, Intercultural Master’s Program on Sustainability. Learning from the Richness of Diversity. In: Innov High Educ 32 (5), P. 251–264.

Paralysis by Analysis

By Anna

How to Change the World for Over-thinkers

Do you ever find yourself awake at 3 a.m. thinking about all the things you would like to change in the world? How come there are so many problems – social, environmental, and more? And how you are supposed to solve any of them? Of course you could only eat regional and seasonal produce, but aren’t there also people depending on you buying European produce, for example? Plastics are bad for sure, but are biodegradable plastics any better, if the current system is not attuned to them – not even considering the dilemma bio-based products offer? As many of you probably do, I see myself as an over-thinker, but at the same time I would say I am a problem-solver. This can definitely get difficult at times, if not impossible. I haven’t found the perfect solution for it yet, but I surely won’t stop looking.

This overthinking is not only a personal and individual problem some people face. The so-called paralysis by analysis is well spread in the sustainability community, with scientists’ oftentimes inflated preference to analyze problems just for the sake of analyzing. Accumulating and creating knowledge about incredibly wide-ranging, profound and frustratingly complex sustainability problems is what we do every day. We focus on collecting information about problems and when we consider solutions we tend to captiously overthink every aspect of them.

Highly complex sustainability problems make in-depth analysis undoubtedly necessary. Yet, these kinds of problems also call for immediate action. However, scientists sometimes seem rather discouraged to take action and implement what they preach. With the possibility of over-generalizing, I would assume one reason could be that this is somewhat related to science trying to be as objective and neutral as possible and fearing that taking action would be considered blunt activism or too unprofessional. That being said the reason could also be on a far more personal and individual level, sustainability scientists after all, are only human.

As far as I am concerned, I sometimes feel that we tend to transfer the excessive analysis of problems into our personal life, i.e. the sphere we can actually control a bit and be active in. This sometimes leaves me feeling paralyzed, and small, and insignificant. I start overthinking not only problems, but also solutions. Questioning how good, good really is. Every change for the better (obviously highly subjective) suddenly seems to have so many downsides, that sometimes doing nothing feels like the best option. The world is so complex that wanting to change it, wanting to actually leave a positive instead of a negative footprint, feels impossible.

So, I procrastinate. And put it off to change even smaller things. Change – real change – goes beyond simple everyday changes. It needs to reach so deep and far, that we would actually have to reconsider culture, tradition, and values. Realizing this often seems overwhelming and inconceivably daunting, not even as far as for society, but already for ourselves as individuals. And even if you start changing your way of life, the small world you have any power over, you soon realize that there is no end. There is no final stage, where suddenly every problem is solved, no goal that can be achieved. So if there is no point where you are finally doing everything right, why even bother at all?

This leads to the question of how to actually achieve change. How can we as individuals implement change on a personal level and thereby maybe trigger change and transformation? I think the first step should be to accept the complexity of sustainability problems and, instead of being completely overwhelmed, actually embrace it and see that as a chance. The fact that there are endless factors that are relevant in the big picture also means that there are endless ways for transformation. Some of them might be big and others rather small. All of them are certainly important and valuable. Pragmatism is not always the best option, but I know from my own experience that it certainly cannot be the worst.

Does that mean we should stop questioning the different possibilities for change? Certainly not! We could however stop making each other feel bad about the choices we make. I am not saying we should stop critically researching them or stop having passionate discussions about them; but maybe we could also start celebrating, or at least appreciating the fact that some people are brave enough to make a change.

By now you probably realized that this text is not going to give you THE answer on how to change the world. However, I hope it helps in giving you some perspective in case you find yourself in the same dilemma from time to time. After all, we are in this together. Sometimes we struggle together and forget the benefits of having a community, but sharing struggles also means we get to succeed together – but only if we allow opportunities for it.

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The thing is, you will never find the perfect solution for a problem. Collecting more information and data only helps so far, because you can never know it all. There simply will always be more to know. So why not give yourself a break and just do something instead of overthinking it – don’t let yourself become paralyzed by analyzing. The fact that there is no one prefect solution, after all could mean that there are many!

Intersections and Intercourse

By Leo

A story of condoms, cultures and sustainability

One of the intricacies of intercultural communication is that puns can hardly ever be translated, but I will try. When a young and slightly immature student comes across urban studies in Germany, there are often giggles when the topic of the lecture is Verkehr, or (even funnier in the mind of twenty-somethings) Öffentlicher Nahverkehr. Why is this funny, one might wonder? In German, Verkehr (pronounced “fair care”) means transportation and mobility, as well as intercourse; giving Öffentlicher Nahverkehr (public short-distance transportation) a whole new spin.

Now you might be wondering why I chose puns on transportation and sexuality as an introduction to a post in a sustainability blog. Both are integral parts of (urban) societies, usually the first is more public while the latter is more private. Yet, often the two spheres meet. This happens when sexuality becomes public, be it through the offering of contraception at vending machines or through open prostitution. And this is a sustainability issue right there. In Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN proclaimed among others the goals of good health and well-being (goal 3), gender equality (goal 5) and decent work and economic growth (goal 8) which in turn are linked to the availability of contraception and to prostitution (working conditions!).

Let me describe how I encountered condom vending machines and prostitution in Lüneburg, a small city in Germany. Tatjana, Ariel and I walked through the city and looked for sustainability problems, and the instances of public sexuality sparked our interest. Ariel wrote an excellent piece (“Let’s talk about sex! ”) where she analyzed how the issue is handled differently across the Atlantic, so feel free to read hers after you are done here. Or do it now. The internet is a free place, I cannot make you stay. But here it will be interesting. And in the end, there will be cookies. I will tell you now about how we found two condom vending machines, a small red-light district in the small city of Lüneburg.

Get some groceries, get some bread, get some condoms

The first condom automat (see photo 1) is located at the southeastern border in the city of Lüneburg. It is set in a commercial area with two residential neighborhoods nearby. One could say it is a well-developed suburban area for the middle-class. And right at the central roundabout of the commercial area is a condom automat. It obviously is in good condition and offers a variety of products for the price of three Euros each.


Photo 1: A condom automat at Bülows Kamp, Lüneburg. Picture taken by Ariel.

It’s not as if contraception, and other products to enhance one’s sexual health are hard to come by in Germany. At that same location, consumers could just cross the street and acquire some in the supermarket. This is certainly cheaper and might appear somewhat less dubious, but it has two clear disadvantages: it has limited accessibility determined by the opening hours (in Germany, stores actually close at night and on Sundays), and it requires human interaction which can be perceived as a barrier for people who do not want their sexual life on public display.

Walking past the automat was intriguing, sparking curiosity as to who would use the machine in which scenario. I felt as though I should feel weird in some way, but weirdly, I did not. I grew up with those kinds of automats always in some proximity to me and thus this one did not appear out of place. It is clean, functioning and just a part of urban life, it’s as simple as that. And as people, very generally speaking, will have some intercourse in their life, it is for the sake of health and well-being better to wrap it, rather than to regret it.

In conclusion, this condom automat seems like the perfect example of how to make contraception accessible and available in a non-hysterical, natural and mature manner. Everyone who does not want to or is unable to purchase condoms in a store can just walk up to the automat and do it.

So, there should be more of those, right? Let’s reconsider after the next section.

Go to school, go to church, demolish some public property, and maybe get a condom?

Continuing to the second automat found, a different picture unfolds. Although the photograph shows residential buildings in the background (photo 2), non-residential buildings mostly dominate the area. There are two vocational schools right next to the automat a church is in the immediate vicinity. The automat offers less products than the other, is more expensive at four Euros each and in obvious poor condition. It has been vandalized by “regular” graffiti as well as by a swastika and the xenophobic exclamation Ausländer raus (“Foreigners out”).


Photo 2: A condom automat near the train station in Lüneburg. Picture taken by Ariel.

Due to the location, it can be assumed that those who mostly frequent the automat are the students at the vocational schools. It appears like the automat is not used for its genuine purpose, but rather seen as an opportunity for some rebels to disobey the law. Given the general ubiquity of graffiti in the area though, maybe vandalism is not directed at the condom automat as a dispenser of contraception and any object in that place would be targeted in similar ways.

I was genuinely angry at this automat. Not for it being close to teenagers, giving them easy access to contraception. That’s great. But seeing what was made of the automat, presumably by the very target group it was intended for, showing a high degree of disrespect to fellow citizens and to public property. Sometimes my friends joke that I am an angry old man trapped in the body of a young person, and as they could reasonably call me the bicycle vigilante, complete with cape and cowl, they might be right. But this case of vandalism rather perpetuates my angriness.

One way to mitigate my anger could be to get rid of the machine entirely, as it seemingly is not highly valued in the neighborhood. This would require more extensive sexual education at school and maybe even a free condom dispenser inside. This way the quality would be more assured and students would still have access to contraception for their early adventures. This solution would, however, curb the general accessibility for the public. But maybe that is a thing that just needs to be accepted.

Mommy, why is there an almost naked woman sitting in a window?

The most public display of sexuality that can be found in Lüneburg is the small red-light district, with three brothels along one street (see photo 3). The pictured corner house with the pink pillars and windows is an obvious location for prostitution. In the brothels, the prostitutes sit in the windows on display in such a way as to allow clients to analyze the market and choose if and whom to go to. The location is very … peculiar. It is situated in a residential area, close to a student dorm where I used to live. It is also on the way to a natural and recreational area. And it is surrounded by children’s day-care centers.


Photo 3: The red-light district in Lüneburg. Picture taken by Leo.

This location directly leads to the scenario that young children, either on their way to and from the kindergarten or in company with the parents when accessing the park pass by the brothels and are thus confronted with prostitution. “Mommy, why is there an almost naked woman sitting in a window?” is a foreseeable question that requires answers from the parents. Another consideration is whether the parents, and in that regard also students and other residents, feel comfortable with clients roaming the neighborhood seeking intercourse.

Personally, I always felt uncomfortable passing the street when I went to read in the nearby park. I desperately concentrated on the thorns of the blackberry bushes on the left side of the road just to avoid looking at the women. Bear in mind that I am – supposedly – an old man, so how would young children feel? What would they understand and take home from the situation?

Considering this blog’s title Thoughts for Change, I have difficulties in reaching a conclusion. On the one hand, I think prostitution should be available in a legal manner under public oversight to ensure safe and fair working conditions for the prostitutes. Then again, the location close to kindergartens and a recreational area is difficult. I would argue for relocating the brothels to a location that is less frequented by children and families, without expelling it to the small towns outside of Lüneburg where similar establishments do exist. Ideally, there is an industrial or commercial area in the city where it could be moved to, to ensure that children are not exposed to it too early, but to also ensure public oversight. On the other hand, relocating might imply seclusion and following an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality lead to social segregation between those frequenting a red-light district and the rest of the town. But from what I have heard, there is not really a “rest of the town”, as people (mostly men) from all ages and classes seek those services. Thus, seclusion would imply the societal self-deception that prostitution is only an issue for “the others”.

So how is your öffentlicher Verkehr?

With this post, I wanted to show you how in a small German city, sexuality is visible and thus discussed in the public. There are instances like the condom vending machines that I would generally approve of in the sense of sustainability, as they promote health and well-being (SDG 3), and gender equality (SDG 5). However, they have to be maintained and the general rules of a society should generally be enforced. Prostitution has happened for millennia and will persist. Therefore, it is important to regulate and have it visible for the sake of labor conditions for the prostitutes (SDG 8). But is it sustainable to have children potentially influenced by prostitution at an early age?

As I am torn between approval and condemnation, I am interested to hear your opinions. Do you have experience with publicly available contraception and prostitution where you live? What solution would you suggest? Please comment below. And to avoid you calling me a liar: here, have some cookies.

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CC0 licensed picture taken from pixabay.com.

How do YOU dry your clothes?

By Hannah

This may sound like a silly question, but there are in fact several ways to do it, right? Or, wait; have you been under the impression that the way you dry your clothes is the way everyone else in the entire world dries their clothes? Does the idea of drying clothes in different ways than what you’re used to shake your core beliefs? I know, people. It’s tough. But you need to know the truth. There ARE actually different ways to dry clothes. Has your jaw just dropped? I didn’t believe it at first either.

What am I really talking about? I invite you to follow me in the experiences I describe below. Please, also read what I am about to tell you with a sustainability lens in your mind reflecting on natural resource use and its impact on the long-term vitality of our planet. Transport yourself to the U.S. for a moment, then on to Germany, and finally to Zambia. Safe travels.

Battle Ground, WA, USA

“Beeeep…..beeep!” “The clothes are dry!” my sister yells to me from the kitchen.

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Pic 1: Battle Ground, Washington State

“Thanks!” I holler back as I continue focusing all my attention on a riveting and dramatic episode of Friends. I force myself off the comfy couch, and walk to the laundry room where I quickly open the dryer only to find that my clothes are not yet dry. “Ugh! I will be late to

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Pic 2: Washer and dryer at home growing up

basketball practice!” I complain to the empty air around me. I set the timer for an extra five minutes and run to the kitchen to grab a quick snack. “Beep! Beep!” I quickly run to the dryer again and sort through the clothes to find what I need. The warmth and pleasant scent from the dryer sheets reminds me of when I was a child. It reminds me of when my mom would bring me fresh, clean clothes for the next school day.

“Hurry up!” my sister nags at me and my thoughts shift from childhood memories to how I am already late.

I rip the clothes from the dryer, hop in my car and speed off down the neighborhood road, passing my neighbor who is also off to the same basketball practice. “Why don’t we ride in the same car together?” I ponder. The thought rapidly flows into my head and drifts away even faster, far away from my brain as I drive, encircled by the pounding sound of the stereo on high.

St. Georg, Hamburg, Germany

It’s Sunday afternoon, which means only one thing. No, I’m not talking about attending

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Pic 3: Hamburg, Germany

church. I’m talking about good ol’ laundry time. As the clock strikes 2pm, I start separating my white clothes from colors and carry two full baskets into the basement of the apartment building. I set the washer to the “eco-friendly” mode and watch as 30 minutes are added to the screen. I walk back upstairs, take out my IPhone and start searching for buses and trains that can take me to university the next day, settling on the 10am train. I spend the next block of time organizing my finances and planning for the next few months.

Two hours pass. “Ring, ring!”

My phone alarm reminds me to remove my clothes from the washer. I quickly run down to the basement in order to lower any chance the neighbors may be annoyed with my washer screaming in the basement. In the basement, I am greeted by a neighbor who suggests we start a laundry schedule because “things are getting crowded in the clothes drying room.” I forcefully hold back my laugh as I look around and see endless space to dry clothes. I suggest to the neighbor that we speak about it later over some coffee. I remove my clothes from the washer and proceed to hang them on the provided lines in the basement while thinking, “people are so interesting.” I set a reminder on my phone to collect the clothes in two days – during the middle of the day with the hope that I won’t encounter the same neighbor.

Kasiya, Zambia, Africa

As I scrub my dirty clothes between my hands, I begin to notice flesh slowly peeling away

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Pic 6: Zambia, Africa

from my fingers. “HOW on earth do people do this all the time? I miss washers and dryers,” I think to myself. As the intense and vibrant sun beats down on my already burned red shoulders, I daydream of comfortable hot summer days in the US filled with air conditioning and running toilets.

Having distracted myself, I return to the task at hand. Place clothes in bucket; apply water, soap, scrub, rinse and repeat.

I finally finish by hanging my clothes on a line stretched between one tree that has recently been infested by a type of insect I don’t know the name of and a large stick I’ve jammed into the ground. The sun is about to set, which means I have about 30 minutes before I become blind by the night sky. I quickly finish hanging my clothes and head inside my hut to bed. I fall asleep to the distant jangling of farm animals conversing with one another in a nearby field.

Perspective

What is the point of all this personal experience hoo-ha, anyway? Are we really still talking about the way people in different countries dry their clothes?

No.

It’s bigger than that. It represents something profoundly important. That profoundly important thing is perspective.

After reading each of these perspectives can you tell me which way of life, or “drying clothes,” is the “right” way? Or which country lives more sustainably? These are loaded questions that would most likely be answered differently depending on who you ask.

Who we are stems from our experiences. And the context (or environment) we reside in influences critical decisions. These decisions are far reaching. They extend into our relationships, our jobs and careers, our education, our perspective on the world and what kind of sustainable (or unsustainable) actions we take to preserve it. If we have never seen a washer and dryer our entire life, then hand washing clothes will seem like no tremendous obstacle. Likewise, if we have always used a train to travel from home to basketball practice, we may not understand the need for a car. And while possessing a certain perspective may not be necessarily “bad,” there may also be danger in viewing a problem from only one perspective.

In the brilliant TED talk The danger of a single story Chimamamba Adichie states, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. It makes our recognition of equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar.” I appreciate the message of these statements for several reasons. One reason is that the message alludes to the possibility of solutions in the face of conflicting perspectives. If we can learn to acknowledge and attempt to take in other perspectives, perhaps we can move toward a set of shared solutions. Maybe we can reach agreements on critical questions regarding politics or laws. Or even which form of washing and drying clothes is best for our planet.

I grew up believing everyone in the world used a dryer to dry their clothes. As a volunteer in Zambia, I was intrigued by the concept of “do it yourself” hand washing and drying and gave it a try. In Germany, I learned that hanging clothes to dry not only makes your clothes last longer (money saved – wahoo!), but actually decreases energy used and may be more sustainable in the long run. All of these experiences have made me who I am today. They have shaped my perspective and understanding of sustainability within different contexts, countries and cultures. If I know that MY perspectives shape my actions in regard to my sustainable (or unsustainable) actions, then it becomes more comprehensible that people act in such different ways regarding sustainability.

While this “put yourself in other people’s shoes” (or rather, “dry clothes” in this context) idea sounds great in theory, how can we actually achieve this?

A few thoughts for change:

  • Share and discuss your ideas and perspectives with family and friends: Challenge yourself to have open and honest conversations about important (sometimes uncomfortable) topics. You may not agree with one another, but it may help in understanding a different perspective. Check out Hofstede’s Six Dimensions of Culture to better understand cultural differences.
  • Practice an attitude of curiosity and openness: If something is different from you, take an approach of “it’s not wrong, it’s just different.” Seek to understand before you seek to be understood. Ask questions.
  • Practice bridging your intentions with actions: If you intend to lessen your carbon footprint then act. Consider taking the bus or train 1 day per week rather than driving. Carpool. Hang dry your clothes once per month. Check out my colleague Tatjana’s blog on intention-action gap within sustainability.

Perhaps, by following these small practices we can all start thinking of our everyday actions from different perspectives in a more holistic way. Perhaps this is the way to find common ground among people in order to progress toward sustainable solutions.

And maybe, just maybe; for the sake of transferability and understanding, we can even start by thinking about how other people dry their clothes. After all, there are different ways, right?

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Fig 1: Gaining new perspectives

Picture References
Pic 1 – Link
Pic 2 – Photo by Hannah Trigg
Pic 3 – Link
Pic 4 – Photo by Hannah Trigg
Pic 5 – Photo by Hannah Trigg
Pic 6 – Link
Fig 1 – Depiction by Hannah Trigg: photo taken by host father Mr. Greenwell, additional sources from Link and Link

Mind the Gap!

By Tatjana

A Real-World Reflection of Sustainability in Everyday Life

Sustainability. A word that has become highly meaningful in the twenty-first century. Nations worldwide join together to develop common goals for a more sustainable life on planet Earth; single governments work out strategies to reach defined goals within their countries; and institutions and firms establish the idea of a sustainable future in the private sector.  However, the concept of sustainability is not only a major issue on global, national and local scales. It has also spread into the everyday language of civil society – to you and to me, to our families, our friends, our neighbours and colleagues. But how sustainable does a single individual in our society behave in this changing world?

If you try to answer that question for yourself, you will – at some stage –come to the point where you realize that your intentions and your actions are not always aligned. Maybe, the beloved chocolate spread Nutella is a basic item on your breakfast table, even though you clearly don’t want to support deforestation of our rain-forest for the production of palm oil? Sometimes there is a gap between our sustainability values and the way we behave, consume or act. Yet, in many cases, it does not take a lot to fill these gaps. The most important step is to become aware of them and the easiest approach to do so is through reflection. Reflect on your everyday habits, reflect on your experiences, and reflect on your observations – I’m sure you will find some gaps.

One thing I observed is that often people simply behave out of habit or they adopt specific behaviors from their surroundings without really being aware of it. When I studied at the University of Bremen, for example, everyone who wanted to take a coffee to the lectures would generally get a to-go cup from the café on campus. Coming to the Leuphana University Lüneburg, by contrast, I eventually observed a different student’s behavior.  Here, the majority of students – no matter where they come from – either take private thermos cups to university which they refill at the café or they get reusable porcelain cups which they return to the café after their lectures. It only took me a few weeks of studying at Leuphana until I, too, bought a reusable thermos cup, which I now never leave at home anymore. Avoiding to-go coffee cups seems to be an unspoken social norm at this university – a highly justified social norm in regard to sustainability. In Germany, about 130,000 of the non-recyclable plastic-coated paper cups land in the garbage every hour, causing harm to the environment through their production and through their disposal. However, I don’t think students in Bremen generally care less about the environment and the amount of trash they produce. There, it is just a general habit to use to-go cups, something usual and ordinary, something everybody does. This observation brought up to me the importance of questioning everyday habits and it shows to me how the environment people live in influence their general behavior – often unconsciously.

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Reflect on your own habits! Are they sustainable? May there be sustainable alternatives? In Germany, 130,000 to-go cups are thrown in the garbage every hour; many people use them without considering the resulting consequences; however, using reusable thermos cups can be a considerable sustainable alternative. Reflection can often be the tipping point in the transition to a more sustainable lifestyle. (Photos taken by T. Allers)

However, not every action people take happens unconsciously. Sometimes, we are well aware of the negative consequences of our behavior and still don’t change it because we somehow benefit from it. One example for this conscious unsustainable behavior is the usage of private motorized vehicles. I myself know this inner conflict very well. Driving the car to the university saves me at least three times as much time as taking the bus. On the other hand, I know about the negative impacts of the pollution it causes to our climate and to our health. If I decide to take the car anyhow, my behavior can be referred to as the so called ‘intention-action gap’ or the ‘value-action gap’ (Wiek, 2015). My intention is to behave environmentally friendly, but I do not act according to my values when I drive the car, because the convenience and the time saving of driving the car has, in this case, a higher priority for me than my worry about climate and health.

Convenience-based intention-action gaps are, however, not the only obstacles that we have to handle when we intend to live sustainably. Sometimes, certain restrictions can make such a lifestyle very difficult, leading to more value-action gaps. The supermarket, for example, holds quite a few sustainability traps. Just a few weeks ago I was standing in the fresh food department of a supermarket – feeling completely clueless. I wanted to buy some apples, but after comparing the selection I realized that I had the choice between imported loose apples from New Zealand and plastic-wrapped apples from the region. Which ones to take? The apples from New Zealand had been transported half way around the world. Thereby, they contributed to the enormously high amount of carbon emissions by aviation (in Germany, carbon emissions by aviation make up a total amount of 15% among all modes of transport!). Plastic, on the other side, such as the one wrapped around the regional apples, has become one of the major environmental problems because it does not biodegrade and especially harms our oceans in the form of micro plastic.

Actually, I only had one choice if I wanted to circumvent this inner conflict: don’t buy apples from the supermarket and go to the farmers market in town. However, even if the market had been open, it would have taken much more time than simply buying the apples from the supermarket and probably it would have been more expensive, too. So, the circumstances in the supermarket led to another intention-action gap. Thoughts of money and time saving were in conflict with my general intention of buying sustainable products when I bought the apples from the supermarket anyways. By the way, I chose the plastic wrapped apples from the region. Don’t ask me, though, whether this was the most sustainable decision.

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What restricts YOU from behaving sustainable? Plastic wrapped apples from the region or loose apples that have been transported from half-way around the world…?! Sometimes, certain restrictions keep us from acting sustainably. (Photos taken by T. Allers)

Reflection as Foundation for Change

I could name many more examples that influence our everyday sustainability foot-print, like the clothes we wear, the smartphones most of us own, the energy we spend day after day in different ways, the heating that keeps us warm or the waste that many of us separate at home but do not separate in public. However, as I don’t have the space and you might not have the time, I would like to draw your attention towards a slightly different direction:

While writing this blog entry, one highly inspiring TED talk came into my mind. The talk is given by Ms. Taiye Selasi (Oct. 2014) who addresses the matter of personal identity. She therein criticizes the common question – where are you from? – and emphasizes that ‘[your] experience is where [you] come from’. To answer the question in the future, she recommends to think about ‘the [following] 3 R’s’– restrictions, relationships and rituals – as they are all part of our experiences which in turn shape our identity. The reason why this talk suddenly came into my mind is probably because not only experiences in life are very closely connected to restrictions, relationships and rituals, but, as my examples from above show, also people’s behaviors and habits are influenced by them – consciously or unconsciously.

The 3 R’s introduced by Selasi can therefore also help us to analyse our sustainability behavior in everyday life:

  • Restrictions, such as insufficient opportunities of public transport or poor access to sustainably produced products often influence our actions in everyday life and may even lead to intention-action gaps in regard to a sustainable lifestyle.
  • Relationships, or rather the general surrounding, are another important factor that controls our everyday behavior. Often, we adopt certain habits from our environment. Remember my observation of coffee cups within two different universities? – That is a good example how our surrounding influences our behavior. This can have different reasons, like varying social norms, differing values or diverse cultures.
  • Rituals, often in the form of daily habits, play another important role in the sustainability balance of our lifestyle. Often, we are not aware of potential consequences caused by our routines as we act unconsciously and hardly ever question certain actions.

For the intention of adopting a sustainable lifestyle it is therefore very important to reflect on the everyday actions we take and to differentiate between unconscious and conscious behaviors. Unconscious behaviors are often times much easier to change as they are not based on deliberate intention-action gaps. However, first we must become aware of them and of their consequences to be able to find a sustainable alternative.

So, in regards to finding an answer to the question ‘how sustainable do you live?’ I would like to add a fourth R, a fourth R that builds the basis for Selasi’s remaining 3 R’s. This fourth R is Reflection. Reflection on one’s own lifestyle must always be the first step to becoming aware of certain unsustainable habits. If we reflect on our daily restrictions, on our relationships and on our routines we will get a very clear view of the sustainability of our own lifestyle.

So, according to my own reflection on the sustainability (goals, initiatives, actions) in my life I have to admit that no, I do not always act according to my sustainability intention. Sometimes I have a bad conscience, because in some cases I don’t mind the gap emerging between intention and action. Probably, there will always be some unintentional unsustainable habits in my everyday life, as my life isn’t a stable state, but will constantly changes with new routines, new restrictions and new relationships. However, since I started to put on the glasses of sustainability and as I started to reflect on my own (un-)sustainable behavior, I already changed certain habits in my life and step by step little changes like that, little changes within the sustainability actions of the civil society, will make (and already do make) a major change on our way to a more sustainable future.

References cited in my blog entry

Fischer, T.: Problem Kaffeebecher. Retrieved from: Deutsche Umwelthilfe e.V., URL: http://www.duh.de/becherheld_problem/ (as consulted online on January 15th 2017)

Hockenos, P. (2016): Car giant Germany struggles to ignite Energiewende in transportation. Retrieved from:Clean Energy Wire, URL:  https://www.cleanenergywire.org/dossiers/energy-transition-and-germanys-transport-sector (as consulted online on January 25. 2017)

Selasi, T. (2014): Don’t ask me where I come from, ask me where I’m a local. Retrieved from: TED Ideas worth spreading, URL: https://www.ted.com/talks/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m_from-_ask_where_i_m_a_local (as consulted online on January 15th 2017)

Wiek, A. (2015): Solving Sustainability Problems. Tools for a New Generation of Profssionals. Tempe, AZ, USA