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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Column: Eco-what?

I never feel more American than when I’m drinking water.

Here’s some context: Before leaving for Brussels, I was handed multiple orientation packets and books to help me mentally adjust to life abroad. In these packets and books, I learned to expect that Brussels is a very eco-friendly city, and that Belgians are miles ahead of Americans in terms of sustainability.

Thus, when I took out my Klean Kanteen in class for the first time, I was stunned to see plastic all around me. Europeans are always drinking water, but it’s always out of a recently purchased bottle, and it’s always thrown out after.

I asked a Belgian classmate about this the other day. If Belgians are so environmentally conscious, why don’t you start using reusable water bottles?

He smiled, bemused.

“I don’t know. We just don’t. Is that big in the States or something?”

I explained the silliness I was seeing. Since you can’t get free tap water at restaurants, you often have to decide between ordering bottled water for 4 euros or beer for 3 euros. You order beer because it’s the most economical decision, and then you get further dehydrated. Then you need water.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a reusable water bottle with you? And not have to buy water at the nearest express mart? And, you know, not expel more waste than necessary?

He said Belgians recycle, though, and that alone makes all the difference. Every household has three colored bags of blue, yellow and white to separate their recyclables, and everyone expectedly does so.

Perhaps that’s true for homeowners, but in the public sphere, it’s not so simple. Walking through my college campus, there isn’t a single recycling bin to be found. Students throw their soda cans into trash bins like it’s nothing, but I can’t blame them when there’s no convenient alternative.

After my communication class last week, I babbled to a classmate from Poland about the odd paradox I was seeing. Having lived in Brussels for a few years already, he bragged about the intensity of the city’s trifecta of recycling bags. I asked if there was anywhere to recycle a can on campus, and he said he had no idea. He’d never even thought about it.

Downtown Brussels is worse. Even though there is the occasional bulky recycling center in the middle of a square, it’s not exactly practical for the casual stroller. In turn, garbage and recyclables alike overflow onto the streets.

This is compounded in the evenings. Partygoers, students, homeless people, and all of Brussels in general, consume tall cans of beer before hitting the town. Liquid courage is often finished off in metros where there is nowhere to recycle those empty vessels. Instead, countless cans and bottles lie in disarray by metro entrances. Broken glass glistens against cobblestones. At 5 a.m. on a Saturday, the whole city looks like a frat house post-rager.

Somehow Brussels manages to look a bit more presentable by the time tourists arrive for weekend sightseeing.

Coming from UC Davis and a Bay Area home that collects food scraps, this simple water bottle thing baffles me. Compost bins? Compostable spoons? Forget about it. Ice cream cups are plastic, as are to-go boxes for fries, as are to-go boxes for everything.

These seem like simple things to change. Say, as simple as banning plastic bags, right?

Okay, easier said than done.

Of course, Brussels totally owns most American cities in most environmental endeavors. Plastic bags, for instance, are a rare sight. Grocery stores charge for bags – usually around 50 cents – so Belgians always know to bring their own.

The city’s public transportation is fantastic, with subway, tram, bus and bike sharing systems. Short showers and general water conservation is the norm. Toilets usually have two buttons, depending on how much water you need. The city finds intriguingly simple ways to save energy, too. The escalators going down to every metro station, for example, only start moving when someone steps onto them.

As a nation, Belgium is certainly impressive in their eco-friendly endeavors. But as individuals, it seems like they aren’t much further along than many Americans. They don’t care about the greater implications of bringing a bag to the supermarket or recycling something – they do what’s necessary or what’s easiest. They’re just following along like everyone else.

JANELLE BITKER doesn’t mind looking American if it means avoiding bottled water all year. Tell her she’s over generalizing at jlbitker@ucdavis.edu.



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