Denmark shows the way
People from everywhere outside Scandinavia, please sit down and read. Denmark has a message: environmental friendliness actually makes sense. Just like learning foreign languages, it`s just a matter of mentality: not one of money, not one of time. Everybody can do something to make his or her country a cleaner and more pleasant place to live and it`s not all dependent on supporting systems by the state.
The streets in my home country The Netherlands are not as sterile as those in Finland, but clean enough to get me shocked at the sight of waste piles in Italy, plastic bags hanging in Bulgarian trees and washing machines lying around in Romanian rivers. As I was told sometime last March, the local Greek philosophy about waste compared to the following example: if you have an empty bottle and throw it out of the window, doing so solves the problem because the bottle is out of sight. That is not the Danish way.
`Chosing eco-friendly is becoming more and more affordable`
While Italy still processes waste in the medieval way of simply piling up whatever-the-contents-may-be into garbage graveyards, Denmark is slightly more advanced when it comes to waste processing. Recycling is popular and so is the practice of separating waste. Even people who at first claim not to separate left-over materials will still keep paper and glass separate from everything else. Then there`s real garbage separation, which implies that biological products and possibly plastic are also kept separate.
Maline (21) tells me that separating garbage is something Danish kids simply grow up with. `My parents did it and they always instructed me to do the same. It`s not really much work, just something that comes natural once you`re used to it. Collection stations are always near, especially in cities. For cans and bottles, we get money back if we hand them in. A few years ago, we didn`t even have cans in Denmark, but the EU imposed it on us. I don`t often bring back cans to the supermarket. They have to be in proper shape and people tend to crush them after finishing the drink. In the end, people throw them away with normal garbage. You can always see some old drunkards haunt around bins, trying to fish out the cans, bring them back to the supermarket and collect some petty money for it. Kids also do it, during street festivals.`
Maline thinks that festivals and parties are the occasions when many people are the least concerned about the waste they produce. `Look at Roskilde: everybody throwing everything on the floor. People do the same when they organise parties or simply go out. Fine, it`s cleaned during the same day, but the sight of waste being carelessly thrown onto the street is still annoying.`
The garbage crisis in Naples seems to have got only minor press coverage in Denmark. Maline thinks that is is similar to something that recently happened in Odense: `Our waste collecting company went on a one-week strike. They then collected all the waste and dumped it onto a big square in town. Just to show people how much waste they produce. If that was the reason why they did the same in Italy, I think it`s quite a good idea.` When I tell her about the real background of the waste problem in Italy, Malina is far less convinced that the Italians are on the right way. `I guess a lot of countries are lagging behind when it comes to this`, she says.
The Danish attitude towards cars is somewhat opposite to the Cypriot way. Hardly any member of the student population in Denmark has a car and many do not even want to have one. `Cars are very expensive in Denmark, possibly up to three times more expensive than they are in Germany`, Asger (19) says. `Apart from that, you don`t need cars in the city. Bikes are quicker, more practical, more relaxing and more environmentally friendly. I personally do not do much for the environment, so I prefer to do as little as possible to harm it.`
Denmark is a rather wet and windy country. Its flatness is the only natural reason why it`s suitable for cycling. `I don`t really care about the weather`, says Espen (23). If it`s hot, I will put on few clothes and just enjoy the wind as I peddle along. Rain and wind barely ever stop me from taking my bike either. I can put on a raincoat and I will still be fine. Many people cycle to work, no matter what kind of high-profile job they have. The only time when cycling is a reason to laugh at people is when they arrive somewhere and are completely soaked with rain. Danes see that as humourous.`
Espen thinks that cycling makes people happy and could be spread to many other places around Europe. `I went to Iceland once and can understand why nobody is cycling there in winter. But in summer, Reykjavik would be as good for cycling as Copenhagen is. If people then still take cars, I can`t help thinking of them as lazy bums. When I think of Berlin, maybe that`s too big a city to be really suitable for cycling.` Christine (21) was shocked when she once passed the border with Germany. `I was in Hamburg and Flensburg: nobody was cycling there. I really couldn`t figure out why.`
Morten (23) does not have a car, but counts on buying one when he has a family. `Getting a job does not necessarily mean you need a car, especially if you live in a city. Transporting young children is easier by car and many couples move away from cycling when kids are born. By the time the children grow older, they will be taught how to cycle so they can make their own way to school. Almost every single Danish school kid cycles to school. Some may take school buses, but delivering kids to school by car is not really well-perceived. Cycling comes natural to us. I don`t think I know anybody in Denmark who cannot cycle. That`s something you can only get away with if health problems or balance disorders prevent you from staying upright.`
Stinne (21, photo) tells me that Odense is one of Denmark`s most bike-friendly cities: `We have the wide bicycle lanes all over, we have a stretch of road with 22 kilometres of `green wave` for cyclists, meaning that they won`t face any red lights during that entire distance. We have service stations where people can inflate their tyres. The centre of Odense also has a `bike passage counter` which counts every single bike that passes. We all owe that to a previous major who always cycled to work and did everything to promote cycling in Odense. I myself also cycle a lot. Why wouldn`t I? It makes no sense for students to have cars in the city. They are not even faster and cycling at least keeps you healthy.`
Recent food crises in Europe may have had more impact in Denmark than in most other countries. The news of Salmonella-infected chicken in Danish supermarkets will push yet another couple of Danes into a vegetarian lifestyle. While the Czechs almost unanimously told me that they wondered at the mental well-being of vegetarians, Danes actually tend to find it fashionable to be vegetarian. `Denmark has quite some vegetarian restaurants, and pretty much every restaurant will have some meatless meal on their menus. Hardly anybody will look at you in a strange way when you say you`re vegetarian. My parents` generations needed to defend themselves when they were my age, but those days are over now`, Stinne says.
Stinne is happy to see that the offer of organic food keeps growing: `A few years ago, all of the organic food that was available for sale was beans and fruit, but the range is now extending to clothes. People look at energy labels when they buy fridges or washing machines. Thanks to the popularity of eco-friendly solutions, prices have come down and it`s no longer much more expensive to opt for sensible investments. Solar cells on rooftops are still expensive but they are starting to become affordable. Some people even like to show off their eco-friendliness. Organic lunchrooms have become quite popular and so are bars selling fruitshakes instead of fatty and sugary trash. Even McDonalds has a lot of reasonably healthy stuff in offer in Denmark.`
The Italians don`t separate garbage because there is neither system nor infrastructure to support their initiative. Many other Europeans don`t do it because they think that their waste will still end up on the same one big pile. Britons don`t do it because they can`t be bothered carrying waste to central collection points. All over Europe, people think that separating waste is making an effort. It`s not. It doesn`t cost more time, it doesn`t cost more energy and it does make a difference. Denmark has shown that if people take the initiative to be conscious about what they do, the system will follow. Sitting and waiting is not the way if you don`t eventually want to end up covered with garbage.
Inhabitants of most European countries wouldn`t even think of leaving the car at home when they go to work. For rural areas, such decisions make sense. For people living in any self-respecting city in Europe, it`s unnecessary. Their reasons are plentiful: `We don`t have bicycle lanes, cycling is too dangerous in our area, the streets are not flat like they are in Denmark, the distances shorter in Denmark, bikes are expensive.` But really: during the past 50 weeks of travelling Europe, I have not seen one single city that is truly unsuitable for cycling. If it`s possible in Paris, it`s possible in any city of Europe. And it has become possible in Paris, so it shall be possible in cities all over Europe.
Here`s the good side of the upcoming oil crisis: it will make cycling a more logical choice, it will make locally grown food cheaper than imported food, and it will make renewable energy and sustainable development more attractive and it will promote world peace by disqualifying oil as something worth fighting over.
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