Saturday, April 27, 2013

On Being Green

    I am not in the vanguard of the green revolution, dear reader.  Rather, I am hustling along in the dust kicked up by the environmental movement, trying to keep up.  I am persuaded by most of the environmentalist arguments I've heard.  I own a spectacular set of re-usable grocery bags, which I use all the time.  I am careful about how much electricity and gasoline I use.  I avoid styrofoam.  Still, there is much I could do yet.  (Perhaps I could invest in some red worms?  My family is not on board yet.) 
    I would say that Hungary is not in the vanguard of the green revolution either, but there is an important difference between the green revolutions in the U.S.A. and Hungary.  The difference is that Hungary does not need as much of a revolution, I think.  To put it another way: many of the environmentally-conscious practices that Americans have increasingly turned to in the past couple of decades were already done in Hungary.  Reuse, reduce, recycle, you say?  It seems to me that Hungarians never stopped reusing, and already used less.  Recycling is a different, and interesting, story, but I'll get to that later.
Are they not beautiful?

    At my local supermarket in Oshkosh I often feel very special toting my re-usable grocery bags.  People frequently comment on how pretty they are, and few others seem to be re-using bags.  I get only 5 cents rebate for them, granted, but each week there are that many fewer plastic bags needed and they don't accumulate in my house or in the dump or the streets.  In Pécs, by contrast, I do not feel so special.  Almost everyone brings bags to the supermarket, and no one has yet complimented me on mine.  If they don't bring bags to the supermarket, Hungarians usually have to pay for the bags, ranging from about ten cents to a couple dollars depending on the size and quality of the bag.  
Carte Dor jégkrém Créme caramel 900 ml
Not Frozen Custard, but will do in a pinch

      Hungarians also seem to constantly use plastic containers to carry meals in ways that Americans rarely do.  First, it is not necessary to actually buy a plastic container.  Buy one carton of Carte D'Or ice cream and you will not have particularly good ice cream.  (Forgive me, is that my streak of ice cream snobbery showing?)  You will, however, have a durable carton, the ideal size for a large meal, that will last you for decades.  Moreover, Hungarians use plastic containers in ways I've never noticed Americans doing.  My favorite restaurant in Pécs is actually a cafeteria, though the nicest-looking, most delicious cafeteria I have yet encountered, and it's cheap too.  It's called Xavér Etterem and it is so popular that people line up to wait for it to open for lunch at 11:15.  If you join the line, you'll notice not only the mix between pensioners, lunch-breakers, and students ranging from middle school to university.  You'll also notice that a large chunk of them are carrying plastic containers.  People usually bring store-bought containers, not Carte D'Or cartons, but they are old and battered and have clearly seen a lot of use.  Almost none of the take-out customers pay the 25 cents for a take-away box.  
    Re-use is noticeable in bigger ways too.  In Budapest, I happened upon a designated day in which everyone who wants to get rid of something puts it out on the street, and crowds of people rummage through it, taking home old computers, old furniture, old clothes, or what have you.  In smaller towns and in Serbia, one can see young men with horse-drawn carts scouring the streets for old appliances.  Sometimes one encounters a slow-moving truck with a loudspeaker attached, repeating its pitch to take your old stuff for free.  Partly, I think, from poverty and partly from habit, there are a lot of people willing to take and reuse old things.  Similarly, I'm not sure I've made a single trip to work and back in Pécs without seeing someone searching through the dumpsters for recyclables.  Loaded down with bags full of cans, each one of these men and women recycles hundreds of recyclables, I would estimate, each week.  Oshkosh makes it easier to recycle, with a truck coming by one's house every other week, and not requiring the householder to separate different kinds of recyclables.  By contrast, in Pécs one must separate recyclables and carry them to a neighborhood bin.  Many recyclables are thrown in the trash, where they are rescued by these poor and industrious women and men.  
    That much of the work of re-using and recycling is done by poor men and women is telling, I think.  Despite the good environmental work they do, I want better opportunities for these women and men. What I think this work demonstrates, though, is one of the reasons that Hungary needs less of green revolution than the U.S.A.  The reason is that many Hungarian families kept habits of coping with scarcity that Americans discarded in the post-World War II boom decades.  Re-using and reducing never went out of style.  These environmentally-friendly habits, combined with the walking culture and ubiquity of mini-marts and supermarkets discussed in a previous post, as well as the high price of gasoline, make Hungary a very green place indeed.  While I have no doubt there are important improvements to be made in terms of the environment in Hungary, there are many practice that were already quite green.

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