7 Environmental Lessons from Living in Europe

I have lived in Europe on two occasions now — for five months in the Netherlands (two years ago) and for ten months in Poland (currently). I have been green-minded since I was a young child, and knew that Europe did better on many green issues. Nonetheless, to come here and live here has given me more insight on the perspectives of the people and more of a practical understanding of why Europe fairs so much better than the US on many environmental issues.

Recently, I came up with a list of seven things that really stand out to me as good environmental practices in Europe that could be transferred to the US. These could all be adopted in the US, but some are more personal in nature and some are more systematic. Furthermore, some of the personal ones regard large, life decisions, and some are much simpler in nature and easier to implement into your life now.


Of course, Europe is not one country and things vary from country to country. Nonetheless, there are also several similarities across borders. I have friends in other countries and have traveled a bit as well, so I hope to be sharing the best of the best.

Here’s the list!

1) Live within a pleasant walk or bike ride from where you shop or work (or both), and use these modes of transport! A large percentage of people walk or bike to get groceries or to go to work in Europe. Parking lots at supermarkets and malls are miniature compared to parking lots in the States. A pleasant walk or ride (not just proximity) to your destinations is an important factor — if it isn’t pleasant, it is unlikely your environmental ethic will be stronger than your desire for a comfortable trip. My master’s thesis on bicycling in the United States and the Netherlands confirmed this theory. Of course, there are many hurdles in the system of US cities and how they were built that makes this harder in the US (i.e. it can be hard to find an affordable place in such a location, and it can be hard to find a good route anywhere because of the way we’ve planned around cars), but there are also many opportunities. Often, you can find a back-route and 40% of trips in metropolitan areas in the US are two miles or less, ideal distances for bicycling. For more information on transportation’s environmental importance, read “The Hidden Giant #2: Transportation”.

2) Put a basket on your bike, or buy a bike with a basket! This is common practice in Europe and hardly seen in the US. Although, city bikes, practical cruisers and Dutch-style bikes are becoming more and more popular in the US (read this New York Times article). This may seem like a superficial, aesthetic issue, but I think it is paramount to using the bike for transportation purposes. With a basket on your bike, you can easily go shopping on your bike and it becomes a fun, attractive thing to do.

3) Make recycling visible! This is an interesting one for me, a new one. In Poland, recycling bins are not hidden (like the trash bins are). They are generally very visible and accessible, and they are frequent in many cities and even small villages. Plastic bins are the most prominent. They are large cages and you can see all the plastic that is in them. In a traditional society like Poland, but even in the US, social norms can drive environmental action. When you see a big cage full of plastic, you think, “Hmm,.. it is normal to recycle and I should be sure I am doing it as well.” Social norms and social pressure can be created by simple means such as this.

4) Live in a smaller space. Well, this is a hard one to convince people of, but it is also a big one. Even if you “green” everything in your home, if you live in a big home it can often be more environmentally unfriendly than a smaller home. Live in enough space for your needs, but don’t just have a big home to have a big home. Many of the people in Europe who live in small apartments or townhouses would opt for a big home if they had more choice. I’ve heard this in the Netherlands and Poland repeatedly. Due to governmental policies, an older history, and economical reasons, more people live in smaller homes. Nonetheless, this is a big reason why Europe is more green. People have learned to live in smaller spaces and are very creative and efficient with the use of their space. One example is that people often sleep on fold-out couches (slightly different from the ones in the US), so that your living room turns into a bedroom at night. This works very well, it seems, and is a big space saver.

5) Protect the countryside. Many countries in Europe have strong protection of the countryside around and between cities and towns. This is often governmental, so it is a systematic issue. There is a lot of push to do this more in the US, but it is a struggle and requires citizen support in many cases. If you get involved in the situation where you live, however, planners and government officials are often on your side and just need more citizen demand to make this happen. Protection of greenspace is a common ideal in related government fields these days, and especially in the field of city and regional planning. Make it happen!

6) Use the train or bus for long-distance travel. Common practice in Europe, and several times more efficient that driving or flying (see this graph), traveling by train or bus is an option in the US and you can look into it for your next trip. Greyhound is introducing new buses that include wireless internet access and electrical sockets. They will also give more legroom for passengers. Step outside of the automatic key-in-the-ignition or get-on-a-plane policy and try going by train or bus to your next destination.

7) BYOB: Bring Your Own Bag. Here’s a simple one to end the list. Many people here in Europe bring a reusable bag to do their shopping. I’m not sure how this process became so popular, as many people do not actually have any special care for the environment or see themselves as environmentalists, but it is a common practice. Perhaps, because it is easier — bags are easier to carry and unlikely to break — or because some shops charge for a bag (very few do this, though). Perhaps, it is a habit from the past that was never broken. Whatever the reason, it is easy to do and still has a huge impact — try to count how many plastic bags you use in a year! In the US, Whole Foods Market has banned plastic bags from their stores (pushing reusable bags as much as possible, but still providing paper if needed). Get into the habit and you will find it makes your life easier!

Lessons from Europe. Implement some in your life.

Image credit: Zachary Shahan

  1. Bobby B.

    @Susan: The Framers of the United States Constitution set up the super majorities and the co-equal branches to protect the country from the dangers of pure democracy. Doing so was not a “mistake”. The US remains – for the time being – a representative republic. Pure democracies equate to mob rule, which allow societies and their leaders to thumb their noses at the law. Consider how the tax code penalizes – and seeks to penalize further – anyone who earns a decent living. The “Robin Hood” tax code is one of the surest signs that the republic is giving way to the tyranny of the social democracy. Why not tax everyone equally at a lesser rate? Sure seems that five or ten percent from all 300 million of us would generate more revenue than the current system that forces 5% of the population to pay 50% of the bills.

    Even the divison of powers between the three branches of government have been affected by the erosion of the republic. It is arguable that the judicial branch has surpassed its constitutional mandate of interpreting the law, and has assumed the legislative’s mandates of making law and setting policy. It is also arguable that the executive branch has exercised greater power because the legislative branch refuses to accept its mandate in times of turmoil. Consider how many undeclared wars the US has entered with the support of the Congress, but not a formal declaration of war. This new, non-consitutional policy sure makes waffling easy for those who change their minds and hangs the commander in chief when public opinion wavers. Remember how all those patriotic congressmen who sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps after 9/11 turned against the president just a few months later. Funny that these are the same folks cramming cap-and-trade and socialized medicine down our throats today. When these policies go horribly wrong, Obama will get the blame and the legislators will get re-elected once again. It’s way past time for congressional term limits.

    Saying that “we trail the world” in any regard is blatantly false. Consider the environmental and humanitarian records of your favorite communist nation, or your favorite third-world country. Just because we like to shop at superstores and drive cars doesn’t make us less advanced.

  2. Ms Alex


    Proof that all those things listed above are common across most of Europe, I’m in the UK and I just read the list and my first thought was, ‘Woah, people somewhere on earth *don’t* do these things?’

  3. Mark

    “Due to governmental policies, an older history, and economical reasons, more people live in smaller homes.”

    Actually the main reason is that Europe is just smaller and more densely populated in parts than the US.

    However, the important philosophical difference is that in Europe we realize that bigger does not always = better. Quite the opposite actually – in most cases we would regard American excess as simply vulgar.

  4. Lisa

    I have lived in Europe most of my life and I think we are so privileged! One way to pay it back is to share good practice on green issues. You say we should make recycling visible, well, here is an example of some people who do:
    Just a small group of friends, influenced by Garbage Warrior, and creating a special place in the city from recycled materials.

  5. kiran Chincholikar

    Lessons from Europe quite good. Most of the third world countries are already following this because of poverty & other economical issues. However one more thing is possible i.e. possibility of living in joint families. This would difinitely not only reduce consumption of non renewable resources but also reduce
    growing need of houses for every two persons.Bio Disel any way is making Europe more greener but at the same time depriving third world from important edible vegetation .Electric & solar bikes are better options in the context of making whole world green & clean place to live.

  6. cynthia irene

    This article is direct, simple, do able, and basic. This is the best information one can get from a green article. Something usable. Simplicity and pragmatic thought indicating right action in life practices.

  7. memory foam

    Good analysis. I too lived in the Netherlands recently (for a year) and all of what you said is true there. The common use of bicycles is great (of course it also has many health benefits) and bring your own bag philosophy was everywhere. That is one that could be adopted quickly and easily in the US.

  8. KT

    Just a helpful note…your master thesis offers evidence to _support_ the theory about environmental ethics. You cannot “confirm” anything with research, only add to supporting evidence. It is a small but meaningful detail and your choice of words will be noticed by other scientists either gaining respect (support) or smirks (confirm).

  9. Peter

    You’ve forgotten – don’t preach but practise, practise, practise. Leave those silly americans alone with their money obsessions.. one day they’ll grow out of it.

  10. Mikeeee

    Zachary, Here in the Netherlands the situation regarding living spaces is absolutely insane.
    The gov’t acts in collusion with actors in the real estate industry (“vastgoedmaffia” we call them) to KEEP prices astronomical. Why? Because an expensive house brings in higher taxes every year on your residence.

    Last I heard, the AVERAGE price for a house is about €230k and that’s on a plot of land of about 45m^2 (484 ft^2) depending on location (hence our “love” for multiple storeys and cramped stairs. Only millionaires can afford 1-floor houses.)

    This is a small country with very limited space and even more severely limited artificially by the gov’t. The R/E people buy whatever piece of land they can find from retiring farmers at rock-bottom prices in the certainty that that land will eventually be repurposed for housing. The local councils make sure of that because they get their taxes this way and a piece of the sale price from the R/E business.
    When all is said and done, the bare, ready-to-build-on land is going for insane prices. This country has an extreme shortage of housing for lower and middle income families because there’s no incentive to build cheaper houses. The ROI on those is nil.

    And because of the ludicrous amount of regulations in the laws concerning building anything, you’re forced to be content with high-priced cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all boxes.

  11. Uncle B

    Canada: caught in the shear zone between American life-styles and European ones! We for the bigger part follow European flow, but due to climatic difficulties bike less!( Bombardier Ski-Doo’s are big here, we make em!) We recognize the folly of the American, with all that beautiful pavement, and wonderful weather, sitting in an air-conditioned car, smoking cigarettes! We certainly cannot afford his lifestyle, after all we have socialized car insurance and medicine eating at our paychecks! BUT: Honda and Toyota like it here in the cold clean North, and we do have jobs, building their cars! Soon to follow? Probably Hyundai, Volkswagen, Fiat, Mercedes, and someone from China, BYD?

  12. Waldo

    One small remark: the bags for plastic bottles are transparant so regulators can control what’s in it very easily (and fine when necessary). At least, that is the case for Flanders (in Belgium)

    Very good post btw! I am born and still living in Belgium up to this day.

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