WHITE BEAR LAKE — Paper or plastic? Germans will not choose plastic.
That was just one observation by White Bear Lake delegates who traveled to Germany in September as part of the Climate Smart Municipalities Exchange program.
In a short PowerPoint presentation to City Council Dec. 10, Mayor Jo Emerson, councilmen Doug Biehn and Kevin Edberg and City Manager Ellen Hiniker talked about takeaways from their travels to Ludenscheid, Germany, as part of the University of Minnesota exchange program. Six Minnesota cities are partnered with German counterparts in the program to accelerate progress toward a cleaner and more efficient energy footprint.
One prominent takeaway, the delegates said, was Germany's waste reduction culture.
Mayor Emerson observed that Styrofoam cups, paper plates and plastic forks were absent at their meetings. Coffee and water came in glass. There are no plastic bags for purchases when you shop or plastic water bottles. And recyclables have very specific sorting containers to keep them pure and marketable.
The White Bear group also visited Saerbeck, where they toured an old army munitions plant that was converted into a bioenergy park. Citizens and businesses invested in the park to sell energy to the grid. “The takeaway here is how private citizen action matters,” Edberg said. “The energy park is privately owned. They invested in solar and wind towers and a recycling center.”
A comment the delegation heard more than once was how lucky they were to live in Minnesota. The state is geographically suited for solar and wind power, Emerson said, more so than Germany.
Edberg added that young people are key to reducing energy use. He happened to be in Bonn during a Fridays for Future rally, a middle-school-age movement of youth pushing for change. They also met members of a high school meteorology club in Ludenscheid that monitors a weather station. There may be opportunity for White Bear Lake high school students to collaborate on a project with the club or be part of an exchange program.
They also heard a fascinating presentation by Gerard Reid of Alexa Capital, currently a fellow at the U of M. Edberg would like to set up a presentation by Reid for community leaders.
Regardless of one's opinion on the consequences of human-caused climate change, the economic case is what's important, added Biehn. “The rest of the world believes this and is going with energy conservation and renewables,” he said. “They are making big business out of this. We need to get with the program or get out of the way. Shell Oil wants to be largest solar producer in the world. I found the business/economic aspect of this amazing.”
Ludenscheid has a 50-member city council that unanimously voted on a climate action plan. Among its 59 actions: a car-free city center by 2030, abandonment of single-use containers, new construction that requires solar and green roof and facades and 20% of city budget surpluses dedicated to environmental projects.
Hiniker said White Bear plans to put together a list of suggestions the city can use to support climate change initiatives, with input from a steering committee. Five other cities are involved in the Climate Smart program as well, so White Bear will look at things those cities are doing in their communities. Hiniker said Trane company also offered to do an extensive review of city facilities to look for energy inefficiencies.
Councilman Dan Jones pointed out that the name Climate Smart says a lot. “The name avoids controversy. But I would warn us to go at a pace of residents' acceptance. I learned that trying to clean up a lake (Goose Lake). The neighbors won't support it; neither will we or the DNR. We can't even clean up our own backyard. Let’s do that before we tell neighbors what to do.”