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Global Ideas

Berlin environment blog: Going abroad, going green

Our reporter Bormey Chy came to Berlin from Cambodia to work at DW and explore an exciting city. But she also discovered a greener, more sustainable lifestyle.

Aldi-Tüte in Rucksack (DW/B. Chy)

When you go shopping in Germany, it's wise to bring your own shopping bag.

When I came to Berlin for my two month internship, I expected to learn about the city's culture, people and history, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall; and to get more experience working in journalism. But another thing happened that I didn't expect: The people I have been interacting with during my day-to-day activities have all been teaching me something without even knowing it: a greener lifestyle. How did this happen?

During my time in Berlin, I am staying with a German family. This has allowed me to closely observe their daily activities. I was stunned when I realized that they use less plastic products in a whole week than I use in a single day back home in Cambodia. The reason for this huge difference lies in both the habits of us as individuals, as well as the two countries' policies on plastic bag distribution.

Back home, my family has a large cardboard box full of plastic bags of various kinds and sizes, left from our shopping. I guess at least we are contributing to one of the 3Rs - reuse - but sadly not the other two (reduce and recycle).  When we go shopping in Cambodia, we can ask for as many plastic bags as we like. The vendors will even give us smaller bags to separate the food and other products in our bigger bags.

Indonesien Plastiktüten in einem Supermarkt in Jakarta (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Dirham)

Scenes like this one in a supermarket in Indonesia are still quite common in many parts of the world.

And Cambodia is not the only country in the region that has a lenient policy on plastic bags - or no policy at all. This time last year, I took part in a semester exchange program in Singapore, and it was the same there: Every time I bought something I was always given one or more plastic bags, depending on how much I bought. I did a lot of grocery shopping so in the end, there were plastic bags all over my dorm room.

When I arrived in Berlin, I quickly realized things are quite different here. As I was getting ready to go grocery shopping at our local ALDI supermarket for the first time, my host family gave me a plastic tote bag and told me that German stores don't give out any free plastic bags. And it's true, I hardly see anyone carrying one. And I never see used plastic bags flying around in the streets.

The next time I went to ALDI, I forgot to bring the tote bag, so I paid 10 euro cents for a plastic bag. Later I went shopping for clothes at H&M and, once again, I had to pay for a plastic bag and even more this time: 50 cents. At this point, I started to ask myself why I was paying to bring this plastic trash home, burdening the environment in doing so?

The fact that the policy of charging for plastic bags has made me rethink my actions is an indicator of how powerful an approach it is.

However, old habits die hard. A few days later, I forgot to bring a bag to the supermarket again. But I realized when I was halfway there, and walked back to my apartment to pick up the one I had already purchased. And it did make me feel good about myself. So now, whenever I go out, I always bring a plastic bag in my backpack. And if I forget, I just carry my purchases directly in my backpack.

It is really the herd instinct at work. Sometimes I feel almost ashamed to be carrying a plastic bag around when others are using their tote bag or other bags made from eco-friendly materials.

Deutschland, Symbolbild Mülltrennung (picture alliance/dpa Themendienst/A. Warnecke)

Sorting garbage is not unusual in Cambodia. That people in Germany do it themselves at home was a surprise though.

Aside from avoiding plastic bags, I have also noticed the way my German host family sorts its household garbage into different trash bins. In Cambodia we have recycling bins in public areas, at tourist sites and in schools, but to my knowledge, never at home.

I remember how I threw everything into a single bin at home and let the sanitation workers do the separating. Thinking about it now makes me feel guilty, and I just want to go back in time to sort the garbage. But we can't change the past, can we? So separating my household trash is what I will do when I go back.

This is only my first week here in Berlin, so there is still a lot more time for me to explore the environmental aspects of this big but somehow tidy city. How much will Berlin change me in the next seven weeks? Will I get rid of plastic products altogether? I will keep you posted.