Before I left the United States for a semester in Belgium, I was just beginning to explore sustainability—both what it is, and what it means to apply it in my own life. I had started making small decisions like opting out of straws when I got a milkshake, and I did not expect my arrival in Europe to shift my perspective at all.
Travel always has a way of surprising you. That said, my top takeaways on European sustainability:
1. Europe leverages convenience in unexpected ways
One of the first topics covered in orientation was the detailed Belgian recycling system. The government sets the price of various colored bags, each of which correspond to a type of waste. The result? You will spend three times as much on a bag for “general waste” as you will for a bag of recyclable paper. While it might not seem like much, the next time you spend 40-50 euros for a box of brown bags, you might be ready to embrace sustainability a bit more. Often, we don’t embrace sustainability in the States because it isn’t convenient; that’s why the Belgian government makes it convenient.
In fact, we were warned that should we accidentally put the wrong item in the wrong colored bag, trash collectors would just leave it on the curb with a sticker. In other words, they are so serious about recycling that they will let you dig through your trash rather than be a lazy global citizen.
2. These things are everywhere
Though I don’t like the idea of forests burned down for my convenience, I also avoid hand dryers due to the number of bacteria and my own germaphobia. This dilemma often results in me wiping my hands on my jeans after I finish washing my hands. But in Europe, I’ve seen these reusable towels everywhere. Yes, I am a fan.
3. The zero waste movement
I learned about the zero waste movement on my very first night in Brussels, when I stayed up late talking with a local family. The zero waste movement encourages families to take their own reusable containers and grocery bags to the store, as well as to slowly eliminate as much plastic and packaging as possible. In fact, Belgium’s first zero waste store (Robuust) opened back in 2014, selling goods without any packaging whatsoever by requiring its customers to bring their own containers. Now, there are 3 zero-waste stores in Brussels alone. A little out there? Yeah. Effective? Definitely.
It’s easy to prioritize convenience in lou of sustainability and to shove the consequences down the road. Fortunately, Belgium has done a great job of making the right choice the convenient one.
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