by Ulli Klein, Second Nature’s Director of Operations & Communication

“Where does this one go?”

That was probably one of the most common question I heard my father ask. It was the mid 80s. Germany had just started a nation-wide recycling program and, like with many things German, the program was strictly enforced including “Trash cops” checking residents compliance by going through their trash.

Here was my 63 year old father, standing in the kitchen with the aluminum lid of a yogurt container in one hand and the container itself in the other hand staring at the three different colored trash cans.

“Where do I put this,” he would ask again and if no one was there to answer, he would quietly place container and lid on the counter and scurry out of the kitchen in hopes my mother would take care of it.

I was convinced there was no way to retrain his old mind.

There are still days where I feel that the United States, my adopted home country,  is a lot like my father was 20+ years ago: Willing and able but confused about living a sustainable life – and I say that with a lot of affection for both, the United States and my father.

People not recycling in Boston

We only have one planet. And we act as if there are about 10 more replacement planets.  We live in the “now” and we seem to forget that our children and their children, the future, need a planet as well. We live in an instant gratification, instant access, instant pleasure society, where everything can be found cheaper, faster, better somewhere else. We throw away rather than fix and mend things, we buy new instead of reusing things. I look at my now 86 year old father and my almost 70 year old mother and think how they grew up to be “naturals” at living a more sustainable life.

Just like many “elders” in our society, they grew up during a time of war, where everything was reused, fixed and nothing was thrown away. My mom has a drawer full of plastic bags that she reuses over and over. We always had our own vegetable garden, she still mends socks if they have a hole! That’s just second nature to her and that’s how I grew up. In Germany,  people pay for plastic bags in grocery stores, farmers markets aren’t “hip” but the place to go to get your fruit, veggies and meat, many people take great pride in how little gas their car uses and people, begrudgingly, accept new building standards that increase the cost of every new house built because it has to be alternative energy ready (but then show off those houses rather proudly).

What a transition it must have been for my parents to see our society move to levels of consumerism where things are built knowing full well they won’t last more than a few years. And that’s the society I grew up in. The lifestyle I know.

Granted, there comes a lot of good with change. I certainly wouldn’t want and 80s style cell phone that I need to carry around in a suitcase. I certainly enjoy being able to buy a ticket to Europe or other places I might want to go and see and I certainly also part of the consuming crowd.  I take it as a great compliment when people call me a “Treehugger” because I recycle, reuse, try to produce less trash, try to live with less and try to make better choices about how I life, what I eat and where I decide to spend my consumer dollars.

First of all, I don’t find the term offensive, but secondly, this really is second nature to me and thousands of other people.  Re-use, try to eat local food, buy quality products even if they are pricier. It’s not really about a few people making extreme and drastic changes a la “No Impact Man”, it’s about many of us making small changes in many areas where we can actually pack a punch. It’s about us, the people, as a collective, coming together and act wiser, smarter, more sustainable in how we make decisions and how we live our lives. And it is happening all over the western world.

In California

I am inspired when I see the power behind the ACUPCC, a program Second Nature supports. A collective of colleges and universities that have committed to becoming carbon-neutral, to living more sustainably, to setting new standards and probably most importantly, to sending graduates into the world who will approach life armed with the knowledge that living sustainably can be second nature to them as well.

It’s when I think about the work we do here at Second Nature that I am reminded about the tremendous changes I have been witnessing in the USA in the past 10-15 years.  Awareness has increased and I see friends, communities, cities, campuses making changes. I see people making decisions on what they drive, where they shop, who they support, what they buy and what they eat based on different standards, “greener” standards, more sustainable standards. And I really love seeing change happening in front of me every day.

And my father? He’s 86 years old and recycles his yogurt containers every day. So there is hope for everyone!