Guest Commentary: What are Communities Around the World Doing for the Environment?

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September 3, 2015

| by Bhava Reddy|

I recently returned from spending seven months living and working in a town in France with about 25,000 people (a little more than Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow combined). It was interesting to see how a community of a similar size to ours incorporated environmentalism into daily life. For instance, I got used to using a drying rack instead of a clothes dryer and to being able to walk to almost everything I needed. When necessary, public transportation was also quite affordable, especially with youth discounts; my monthly bus pass, for instance, cost 5 euros per month. Those who did drive tended to have smaller cars.

Another habit that was quite noticeable was taking reusable bags to the grocery store; it took me weeks to realize that I could even get plastic bags there since they were hidden by the cashier, and I didn’t see anyone else getting one. I’d often see people who’d forgotten to bring bags with them carrying an armload of food out of the store instead of paying for a bag. In some personal conversations I had, however, people suggested that this was due to the cost-effectiveness of these practices, not solely due to the environmental benefits.

I was also able to see firsthand the landscape of a country incorporating more renewable energy. On one train ride, I saw nuclear power plants surrounded by wind turbines as France starts to phase out the nuclear energy that currently provides the bulk of its power. In addition, I was able to experience how relics of a carbon-intensive past were incorporated into local history; the area that I was living in was a former coal-mining area, and the most striking features of the otherwise flat landscape were the largest mountains of waste from coal mining in Europe, known as terrils, or “spoil tips.” Currently, there are tours by former coal miners, and some of these waste mountains are even used for hiking and skiing.

In addition to seeing what was happening in and around the community where I was living, I also learned about what other cities were up to. Nearby, there was an organization that would hold a monthly “repair café,” where volunteers would repair appliances that local residents brought in. They also had a library with environmental media, DIY workshops for making things like homemade detergent, and themed nature walks throughout the region. In addition, they participated in an event known as Park(ing) Day, in which they would pay for a metered parking spot for a day and create a small park.

Many cities were easy to walk around and had roundabouts and extensive networks of bike lanes; there were also options for less carbon-intensive transport between cities, like high-speed trains, buses, and long-distance carpooling. There were important changes happening at the national level; for instance, a law was passed requiring commercial buildings to have either solar panels or plants on their roofs. I was able to see some examples of green roofs in Strasbourg, a city that also banned pesticides, planted native plants, established beehives, and allowed weeds to grow like other plants.

Of course, it wasn’t all perfect; for instance, I would hear reports on the radio about extensive problems with smog in Paris. However, it was still interesting to not only learn about more environmentally friendly practices, but to also live with them on a daily basis in a community not that different from ours.

Some simple ways to be inspired by this right now? According to the Sightline Institute, we live in an area of the country without clothesline bans, allowing us to save money on electric bills by hanging clothes to dry (clothes dryers tend to use more energy than any other home appliance, including refrigerators!). There are also grocery stores in our villages that offer discounts for bringing in your own bag; even a reused plastic bag will do. And keep an eye out for a pop-up repair cafe at an environmentally-themed day at the Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow farmers’ market in the next few months.

Bhava Reddy grew up in Sleepy Hollow and is a member of the Tarrytown Environmental Advisory Council

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