GOTTINGEN, GERMANY — At 4 o'clock on an autumn afternoon, cashiers at a busy supermarket face a steady stream of customers. As shoppers pass through the checkout counter, the scene resembles that of any American supermarket. Yet one big difference exists: Never does a cashier ask the standard American question: "Paper or plastic?" Not once in 15 minutes, in fact, does any shopper ever ask for a bag. Instead, customers use string bags, cloth totes, and baskets. Those who came empty-handed patiently load loose groceries back into their carts and wheel them to their cars.
To an American, this bagless shopping is cause for amazement. To Germans, it's an unremarkable way of life. As one man says, "Why should I pay 10 pfennig [almost 7 cents] for a bag when I can bring my own?"
That attitude would warm the environment-friendly heart of Bob Lilienfeld, who edits an American newsletter called The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report. Convinced that recycling is not enough, Mr. Lilienfeld advocates conserving resources and reducing waste by using less. "Source reduction," he calls it.
Explaining the problem, he says, "There's a psychic reward when you put your recyclables out at the curb. It's sort of perverse. The more we recycle, the better we feel. But what we should really feel good about is an empty recycling bin, because that means we used fewer resources in the first place."
Europeans, he adds, have done a far better job of making consumers realize that they pay for everything, including bags. Saving bags, of course, represents only a small part of any solution. As Lilienfeld says, "The problem isn't that you went home with six paper bags. It's that you went home with six paper bags filled with stuff."
To encourage Americans to cut back, publishers of his newsletter, a group called Partners for Environmental Progress in Ann Arbor, Mich., have designated Nov. 21 as the second annual Use Less Stuff Day. November, Lilienfeld notes, marks the beginning of the "high-waste season," when the nation's trash increases by 1 million tons per week between Thanksgiving and New Year's.
This year, ULS Day includes 85 participants, among them the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and various local government groups.
It is the kind of event Germans might find unnecessary. Three hundred miles south of Gttingen, in Ulm, a family of four typifies the German approach to resources. Food waste is composted in the garden, while yogurt cartons and similar containers are recycled. In the bathrooms, small purse-packs of Kleenex replace big boxes - a minimalist approach that makes a houseguest think twice before using. No wonder this family needs trash pickups only once a month!
Similar economies prevail with electricity and gasoline. Lights in hallways go off automatically. An infrared signal on the driveway switches on a light only when someone leaves the house or approaches from the street. Weather permitting, the husband rides a bicycle to work, five miles away. His wife commutes by bus across town to her job at the university. She also bicycles to shops and to church.
What would it take to get Americans to adopt this kind of European attitude toward conserving resources? In Lilienfeld's view, "The most critical thing to do would be to raise the price of energy. If we paid $3 to $4 for a gallon of gasoline, we would think a lot more about whether we wanted to walk or take the car." We would understand that even seemingly limitless resources come with hefty price tags attached.
Any American who has ever watched a German friend pump $56 worth of gas into the car to fill the tank would like to think there's an easier way to change patterns of consumption. Maybe there is, maybe not. But either way, in a world where half the population has to do without, the adage "Waste not, want not" remains timeless advice for the half of the world that uses too much.