Recycling has been on my mind since last time my cousin (pictured above with her mother, now deceased) visited from Germany. She commented on what seemed to her an appalling American wastefulness, an obliviousness to the need to conserve resources, as if unaware—or unwilling to acknowledge—that resources are finite. Even human-made resources like plastics won’t be with us forever, since plastics are made from petroleum, and there’s only so much recoverable petroleum left in the earth. The plastic trash that accumulates in our streets, which eventually finds its way into the world’s oceans, has created “dead zones” that are anathema to marine wildlife, which often ingests bits of plastics in the erroneous belief that these are foodstuffs. Marine baby birds have been found dead of starvation because their parents feed them these bits.

The argument is often made that if the true costs of petroleum recovery were included in its price, Americans would be paying a lot more for their gasoline. They would also become mindful of the need to conserve. On a cold winter’s morning in Wyoming, dozens of trucks and cars warm up by the curb, sometimes for 20 minutes, before their owners hop in. In fifteen minutes, one-fourth of a gallon gas is wasted, idling a car. If the true costs of producing gasoline were factored in—for example, the damage from greenhouse gases occasioned by its extraction—we would pay at the pump like the Europeans do.

Everybody recycles everything in Germany, which is one of the reasons its streets remain free of litter. There are recycle bins for your fireplace ashes, for glass and plastic containers of every sort, for paper and paper-like products and cardboard. Last time I visited, I watched my cousin remove and recycle the plastic strips that seal, e.g., pill bottles or peanut butter jars. Large cities have their “garbage police” who make sure you put your recyclables into the appropriate containers and the specified days. Here in Wyoming I compost all left-over vegetable matter from my kitchen and veggie garden, along with the falling leaves of autumn. Composting require care and diligence just as recycling does.

On the other end of the spectrum, following Japan’s nuclear disaster in connection with its earthquake, Germany decided to phase out its nuclear plants and go with coal instead. Now, I have heard it said that German coal-fired power plants are cleaner than any other country’s, which is why the Chinese use German technology in their ever-increasing power-pant construction; still, I find it hard to believe that, in view of this development, Germany will be able to abide by its commitment to reduce CO2 emissions according to the Kyoto requirements. What’s more, France next door derives 80% of its electricity from nuclear power. Germany is less than twice the size of Wyoming.