Germany can show NZ a thing or two about environmental stewardship

by Cathrin Schaer / 27 November, 2017
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A woman fills shampoo in a plastic bottle at the 'Original Unverpackt' ('Originally Unpacked') supermarket. The store offers 350 different kinds of foods and household goods - all without packaging. Photo / Getty Images You can tell a lot about a country from their supermarkets. 

Believe it or not, supermarkets are excellent destinations for the casual tourist. As any frequent traveller will tell you, there are hidden messages about local culture, gastronomy and economy in every aisle: tins, packets and posters that will tell you more about staple diets, attitudes towards alcohol and feminine beauty and the impact of globalisation than any guide book ever could.

This is also true of New Zealand, where supermarkets tell a tale of a culture dominated by the UK and US, epicurean snobbery, coconut sugar and lashings of dairy. But there is also something deep within the average New Zealand grocery store that chronicles another, more horrifying story. It involves plastic bags. Up to 1.6 billion of them, if we are to believe Greenpeace’s figures on how many single-use bags Kiwis use in a year.

Here in Germany, shoppers must pay for a bag or box at the checkout. They get a choice between paper, cloth or thick plastic, all of them recyclable, degradable or reusable. After you’re finished with said receptacle, you virtuously place it in the correct colour-coded rubbish bin, be that for plastic wrappers, paper or salad scraps. And woe betide you if you get that wrong. Germans are serious about separating and recycling their garbage.

That’s why, for the average German lurking in a New Zealand supermarket, it’s gruesome to see all that plastic. It’s a dark sign of New Zealand’s hypocrisy when it comes to the country’s “clean, green” image. Tell a German you come from New Zealand and, more often than not, they’ll tell you how they’ve always wanted to visit. They are dazzled by the dream destination, a Lord of the Rings landscape far from the overcrowded, industrial cesspits of Europe.

But, as it turns out, some of those industrial cesspits are far better at protecting the environment than New Zealand is. There are plenty of examples, but let’s just take an obvious one: greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2014, per capita European Union CO2 emissions were about 6.4 tonnes, versus almost 7.7 tonnes in New Zealand. But Germans topped that at about 8.9 tonnes. However, German output per head had been cut by almost a quarter since 1991, whereas New Zealand’s rose 11.5%.

There are plenty more damning statistics, including a 2017 OECD report that found that the country that markets itself as 100% pure is killing off its native species and polluting waterways and soil faster than many others.

Of course, Germany is far from perfect. In fact, the most recent report card on this heavily industrialised country’s ambitious attempts to switch to renewable energies gave several aspects a failing grade. But heck, at least it’s trying.

From this side of the world, New Zealand’s complacency looks like a massive waste of national potential. It’s much harder for Germany to do this: it has many more people – 81 million – and fewer natural resources. But somehow it’s doing better.

Now that Jacinda Ardern is Prime Minister, and before New Zealander of the Year Taika Waititi is called out for treason again, it’s time to ask why. Oh, and probably also to join the rest of the world and ban plastic bags.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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