The world of alternatives: eco-insights

By Polina Nezdiikovska and Liza Minchenkova

Any kind of “alternative” always exists in opposition to “normative”. Since norms differ quite much from country to country, from culture to culture, and even from person to person, “alternative living” turns out to be a vague concept. Here in Germany, there is a number of opportunities to explore the alternatives and to make a conclusion regarding its definition for yourself.

Apart from all the communal types of living we got a chance to see within two last weeks spent here, we were much interested in seeing the alternative eco-perspective of Berlin. Probably, for locals, German eco-initiatives are nothing but a comfort zone; however, for us coming from Ukraine and Russia they became an exciting research topic.

Among the alternative good eco-practices we looked at were:

  • Public gardens;
  • Green spaces;
  • Waste collection and recycling.

Public gardens: Vattenfall (x2) and Tempelhofer Feld

Vattenfall public gardens 

We visited two Vattenfall gardens in order to compare them and figure out the background of gardens creation.

The first Vattenfall garden was established in June 2016 in Köperniker Straße, directly in the heart of Berlin. Since then, this place is open for everyone. You can come here to relax and experience the close-to-nature feeling.

The ambition was to create one new garden every upcoming year, so now two of them exist in the city. 

There is a gardener in each of places, who takes care of plants and vegetables. Generally, they work 25 hours per week and are pleased to tell everything you want to know about the garden. We had a talk with the gardener Boris, who works in the garden located in Köpernicker Straße 60. We discovered that nobody owns these places: you don’t have to belong to any group to come here, so everyone can be involved in gardening and harvesting activities. Even poor or homeless people can take some vegetables for free.

Plants in these gardens are growing in containers, which protect them from acid components of the local soil and make them safe for eating. Gardeners don’t use any sprays but only organic nutrients. We decided to check the taste and take some herbs for making tee: mint and sage. They smell amazing!  

The neighborhood citizens like these places a lot: the garden in Köperniker Straße is more official, because it’s located next to the Vattenfall’s office, but the second one is surrounded by plenty of houses. Thus, many families come here in the free time. It’s a great opportunity for children to be acquainted with nature from their first years. 

The main point of these gardens’ presence at urban area is to unite citizens with a sense of social responsibility and remind them about the significance of natural surroundings in the city as vivid as Berlin is.

Tempelhofer Feld

Tempelhofer Feld is a former airport and a recreated public park. Many young Berliners as well as tourists enjoy spending their free time here, sitting on the grass and drinking beer, riding bikes, skating or having long walks. Tempelhof has so much free space that can fit hundreds of people! But what is even better – Tempelhof has a public garden, very similar to the ones opened by Vattenfall.

The principles of the garden are quite the same as well: everyone is welcome to join gardening and harvesting; people from the neighbourhood spend free evenings talking and laughing in the garden; plants are growing in containers to avoid the contaminated soils; rational use of resources is a must. And there is also a book shelve with free books! Take one – put one.

There is just one slight difference: Tempelhof public garden is purely based on the neighborhood initiative and efforts, whereas Vattenfall gardens are initiated and funded by the energy company Vattenfall. The result is amazing in both cases though.

We tend to believe that our countries lack this kind of public gardens where people could not only talk and have a drink together but also do something useful together. Planting is a practice that makes people closer; once you see how what you cherished grows, you also feel how the relationship with people around you starts blossoming as well.

Green spaces: Botanischer Volkspark Blankenfelde-Pankow

There are many beautiful green parks in Berlin: Mauerpark, Märchenpark, Tiergarten and so on. They are pretty much the same as Russian and Ukrainian ones. However, we’ve explored one unusual for us place – the Volkspark in Blankenfelde-Pankow.

This place can be called alternative because it combines so many different zones: beautiful greenhouses with exotic plants inside, a field with sheep, walking pathways with benches, green ponds, apiaries, forestlike shrubberies and gardening areas.

It was wonderful to see how all of this can coexist in one Volkspark and satisfy the needs of any kind of visitor.

The gardening zone is something we never saw in parks. It is actually owned by a local company that sells bio apples, potatoes and pumpkins but there are no fences or any kind of protection measures. Apples are falling from the trees and staying on the ground until someone picks them up as there are too many of them. Potatoes can be seen here and there; tens of pumpkins are laying on the ground just so.

If you want to get a pumpkin, just put 3 euro in the box and take it! The whole system is totally built on trust, which is something truly alternative for post-Soviet countries. We were pleasantly surprised and started making guesses how long those pumpkins would stay on the ground in our countries if there was no guard (joke but true).

Es ist wunderbar how such a close-to-nature area can take place in a crazy huge city of Berlin. Every person sometimes needs rest and silence. Botanischer Volkspark in Blankenfelde-Pankow is a perfect stop for “alternative” relaxation in the urban world that never sleeps.

Waste collection: Recyclingshof Pankow, Behmstrasse 74

Our initial idea was just to have a self-organized mini-tour at the station in Behmstraße 74 and take some pictures of this Recyclingshof, but everything went wrong one of the station employees noticed us roaming around and offered to accompany us. So instead of a lonely walk, we got a great introduction to waste collection in Germany and learned a lot about recycling.

First of all, it is crucial to highlight that Germans are extremely eco-conscious and try to reduce the eco footprint and recycle waste in order to get the maximum profit. People either come to the station on their own and bring whatever they want to give for recycling or the waste collection cars bring waste from all around Berlin to various stations (there are 15 of them nowadays). Recyclingshof Pankow is smaller than other stations and provides service to around 500 people per day, whereas other stations work with up to 1000 people.

Most of waste is received by station workers for free but some types are hard to recycle because of a complicated combo of components, thus, people who bring such waste have to pay according to standard fees mentioned in the price list. For example, old tires (Altreifen) are not accepted for free as they consist of rubber and metal and some other stuff; to give one tire for recycling costs 2.60 EUR.

As for the cars, every waste collection car is responsible just for one kind of trash: glass, plastic, metal, colors, medicine, paper or bio waste. There are tens of them on the streets of Berlin every day. They are literally heroes of the city! And wow, Sasha who was our tour guide even let us inside the car!

There are typically three workers inside the car: one is a driver and other two load trash from the containers inside the car. All cars work on gas instead of petrol that makes them eco-friendly (note: by “gas” we mean some specific gas produced at the Recyclingshof that is different from normal petrol people buy). Moreover, each car has a funny name on it: Mülltitalent, Nimmersatt, Tonnosaurus Rex etc. We assume that it shows that Germans don’t take waste collection and recycling as something dirty and disgusting but good for society and nature. We also got a feeling that people who work at the station are proud of their profession, and it is really amazing, considering how important waste management is.

After waste is received, separated and packed, different types of it go to different directions. For example, plastic is sent to the factories where new plastic packages are made out of it. Paper goes to Berlin paper factory and is transformed into new paper. Old medicines go to a factory where they are being burned – the energy received as a result of the burning process is used for heating and other purposes. Isn’t it cool?

Final thoughts

No doubts Europe is a thousand steps ahead of post-Soviet countries in terms of eco-friendly sustainable living. Developing countries such as Ukraine and Russia are now at the start of eco-path. Governments are slow in making eco-decisions, whereas citizens expect governments to act. Berlin experience proves that governmental decisions and actions are not always the moving force; social eco-activists and entrepreneurs can be the agents of change even if there are no proactive political eco-leaders. The process is, of course, slow and takes many efforts. But hopes are high and such projects enable us to bring fresh ideas back to home countries. Thanks Berlin for being innovative!