Sustainability in Europe By Karl Tear

Where to begin…

In the past three weeks I have learned one thing about sustainability in Europe: It is deeply ingrained in the culture, almost to the point where they do not know of any other way. It is a place where a move toward sustainability is not in order. They have already arrived.

In the States, we find ourselves wanting to move towards more sustainable practices. Many have ditched their gas-guzzlers for hybrids or have moved back to the city to reduce the morning commute. Some might bring their own bags to the grocery or change their light bulbs to fluorescent. Whatever the case may be, it is certain that sustainability is gaining popularity in the U.S. One day, I hope it rises to the level of European standards because here, things are much, much different.

Transportation is a big issue surrounding the ideas of sustainability and energy use. In Scotland and throughout Europe, getting around without a car is easy . In Amsterdam, more than a third of the city travels by bicycle. Imagine your morning commute across the city on the seat of a bike, riding next to the canals, sun and wind at your face. Romantic. Amsterdam may be an exception, as it is a very flat place. However, I have seen a hell of a lot more bikers here than in the States.

Another way of getting around with ease is public transportation. The bus system here in Edinburgh is unbelievable. You can get to any corner of the city by bus and having a bus pass is the best tool in terms of accessing all of what Edinburgh has to offer. The buses are prompt and the routes are logical. It can be said that Edinburgh would not operate efficiently without its fantastic public transportation (bus) system.

If you want to leave the city, you can always hop a train. The train system here is also fantastic. There are a number of rail systems (ScotRail is Scotland’s own system. BritRail is another) connecting the entire island. Basically, you can get anywhere in on the island in 5 hours or less. No cars, no gas stations. Just a few pounds and a ride through beautiful scenery. This is energy efficiency at its best.

However, if you really need to drive, you can always get a car. Good luck finding a pick-up truck or a giant SUV. The cars in Europe are tiny and only manual transmission. This means less gas, less money spent at the pump, and less harmful emissions in the air. Sure, you might have to sacrifice the feeling of riding in an armored tank, but at least your pockets won’t be hurting. What is really interesting about cars in Europe is that you will often see American cars (Fords, Chevys, etc.) that you have never seen in America. Take this Chevy for example:

Have you ever seen anything like that in the States? Its a Chevy! I bet that thing gets well over 40mpg. But why don’t we see more cars like this zipping around our streets? Is it the American mentality? Is bigger really better or are we just simply unexposed to the smaller option?

Another thing I’ve noticed in terms of energy use and sustainability is appliance size. My program director, Dr. Geoff Buckley, is staying with his wife and three children in a townhouse on the west side of the city. The group has been over a few times for dinner and I have always taken note at the size of the appliances in the house. The refrigerator is no bigger than what we would call a “mini-fridge”. The oven is the size of a microwave. The washer fits nice and eloquently under that counter in the kitchen as well. No dishwasher. No dryer. Small appliances.

Bathrooms are another interesting evidence of sustainability in Europe. The first one I used was in the University’s library. I was amazed by this:

Conservation and sustainability has even made its way into the bathroom. Unbelievable. The concept here is simple: if you think you need to fully flush the toilet, please do so. If not, simply press the small button and you are doing your part in saving the world. But I don’t think Europeans think that way. I think that it is a part of their culture to be sustainable and to use less energy. They don’t know any other way.

All of these examples boil down to one thing: conservation of energy. You don’t need to spend much time in Europe to understand that they take their energy use very seriously. Perhaps us Americans can adapt some of these techniques. Maybe then some of our energy problems will disappear.

It will require a paradigm shift, however. We live in a culture of consumption. Big Macs, big houses, big cars. But thats our culture. Europeans are opposite. Thats whats makes it their culture. Have I seen the light? Perhaps. I know that when I return home I will think of energy use much differently. It is frustrating, however, that it takes a trip to Europe to see the better way. It shouldn’t be that way.

One day, I think America will move to a more sustainable, energy efficient lifestyle. It may take drastic measures or (hopefully not) a catastrophic event to lead us in that direction, but I am confident that it can happen.


71 thoughts on “Sustainability in Europe By Karl Tear

  1. This is fascinating — I love the toilet flush options…nice… 🙂

    We in the States are way behind the curve, but I fear it’ll take at least another generation (maybe two) before big companies are forced to adopt greener measures, making them a part of our daily lives. It feels like the powerful lobbies and politics are preventing this transition more than anything else.

    I have a dear friend who is soon moving to France in part for these very reasons.

    Thanks for sharing this — very enlightening (and a little depressing as a reflection of our culture…).

  2. I think this kind of attitude has also become a factor on the economic success of European countries. As an Asian, I admire their kind of discipline and concern for nature. How I wish our society would also be like theirs someday

  3. I noticed many of these things when I visited my friend in London many years ago….
    He didn’t own a car, although others did drive. And it surprised me to realize that he didn’t need one, as buses and subways were so easily accessible. We don’t have a subway system in my town, and public buses are few and far between… only taking people to and from major shopping centers, hospitals, retirement homes, etc. (I haven’t seen a bus stop near my house).

    I also noticed the effinciency of their tiny townhouses – like you mentioned, with the washer under the kitchen counter. I almost gagged at the lack of “storage space” … but they find creative ways to store items, like hanging pots and utensils from the ceiling. I still can’t imagine doing my laundry and cooking simultaneously! Would the clothes come out smelling like dinner? 😉

    I think Americans have been spoiled since the very beginning, when the settlers landed on this plod of earth and began dreaming of “expansion”… it was such a vast, unexplored continent. Europe in contrast is very small, and densely populated. (Another reason why bike riding is feasible there… as they aren’t commuting 80-100 miles to their jobs on a bicycle).
    My English friend was shocked to visit the states, and take a midwestern road trip across hundreds of miles of undeveloped land… “in the middle of nowhere”.

    We take all this extra space for granted, except perhaps in New York City (which reminded me of London). But we’ve been fortunate so far.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with some of your comments! Why we don’t have smaller, more fuel efficient cars in North America is beyond me. Same with the small flush/big flush toilets.

    I think part of the reason that public transit hasn’t taken off the same way in North America is because of population densities – cities like Houston (and Calgary, AB) are so huge, it ends up costing huge amounts to run rail lines or bus routes for such little amounts of the population.

    I think North America really does need an attitude adjustment with regards to efficiency, otherwise we will end up paying through the nose in the long run – in both economic terms and environmental terms.

  5. The car mentioned there is Chevy Beat..I’m sure most of you would have seen the movie Transformers 2.
    I’m from India, and small cars are considered a BIG thing here. In fact hatchbacks sell more than the sedans here.

  6. Over the past few months, my co-workers and I have discussed the reasoning behind North America’s need for bigger cars that are so inefficient, and we just get more and more frustrated. For some reason, we have a desire to be “bigger and better” than anyone else in the world and that desire parlays into our transportation needs as well. In Europe, there are so many car models that are fuel efficient, small, and convenient, and yet they are never available in North America! Why is that??

    It’s ridiculous.

    I hope that, in the future,become a little more like the Europeans. Fantastic post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed! 🙂

  7. The comparison between the mentalities of the two countries is needed. Sustainability and efficiency rather than larger portions or sizes. Our large thinking has done a great deal of harm to our country and the earth. Harmful emitions from harger more powerful vehicles, unhealthy and overweight people, resourse depletion etc. Its time we model our country after the one’s that have generally exceeded ours!

  8. I ride my bike all over Fort Worth and I am not alone, but damn near. I miss Europe for the walking and the biking that everyone does there. Austin is a biker’s town is it because of UT Austin though? Biking is the wave of the future. I don’t feel like the odd man out once the gas hit the WTF range a few years ago, Since then everybody owns a scooter, bike or motorcycle or compact car.


    1. I am from Austin and going up to DFW area is always a shock – I do like that they are much further along than we are with the metrorail system going into place and being built – out of curiosity do people use it? When I visited my cousin in DFW in June, she didn’t even know it existed!

  9. What a great post! Well done for pointing out some simple things things we do here in Europe that do make a difference to sustainability. That said, I still think there is huge room for improvement even here. It is only through continuing to innovate that we can reduce the damaging impact we have on our amazing planet.

  10. I drove all over Ireland and Britain, and really admired the tiny cars – and yes, tiny Fords, Chevys and even Mercedes – and the roads. Roundabouts make SO MUCH more sense than cloverleafs and LIGHTS LIGHTS EVERYWHERE! Sitting at lights burning gas, stupid on-ramp lights that don’t allow drivers to get up to freeway speed and merge safely. The public transportation in London, Paris and Munich was fantastic, clean, and it goes where you need to go. And of course homeowners associations, covenants, and even local laws that don’t allow hanging clothes out to dry, and require homes to be surrounded by green, thirsty lawns instead of natural landscaping more suited to the area. This country needs some serious attitude adjustment imnsho.

  11. Great post. The more people that get informed about issues like this, the better.

    I agree that many places in Europe are on a good path towards lowering energy usage, however, to say that they have already arrived at sustainability is a steep claim. A glance at 2009-2010 world energy statistics will show that the UK is still around 14th in the world when it comes to oil consumption. There are many other factors besides how people get to work, such as the production, importing and dispersion of food. (I know you probably didn’t mean “arrived at sustainability” literally, but I just thought I’d point it out for the sake of being informative.)

  12. This is very informative. Comparison between countries is needed to see how we can do so much better. I live in Canada and I thought Canada is doing a good job and then I see this post. Made me realize that we could do so much more. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I am trying hard to run a sustainably managed little farm out here in the midwest and it is just lovely. very good post. I am hoping there are a lot of people that think like you out there.. c

  14. Great post! I only wish that all the cities of Europe could compare with the modernity and beauty of Amsterdam and Edinburgh. They are good examples of what all communities should aspire towards.

  15. Our present situation, energy- and population density-wise, makes sense historically. After WWII, gas and suburban land were cheap- moving out of the city made perfect sense. Americans would have been crazy not to take advantage of these blessings. Who knew about the consequences of CO2 pollution?
    But now that is our undoing. I have traveled in Europe a lot as well, and agree that their lifestyle is in general greatly superior in terms of energy efficiency and taking it easy on the planet. However, I don’t have much hope for Americans in general in this regard. Many Americans disdain ANYTHING European, no matter how much sense it makes (think “Tea Party”), and unfortunately they tend to be influential beyond their numbers, especially politically. I just don’t think we Americans are going to be getting our fat asses out of our cars and on bikes in any great numbers, nor are we likely to adapt sensible energy consumption patterns until (not unless- until) it is forced on us.

  16. Actually, at the University of Michigan, all the toilets have the double flush option. The difference is that there aren’t two buttons: there is a handle. Pulling up on the handle is a half-flush while pushing down is a full-flush.

    Also, while smart cars are cuter and more environmental friendly, I would not drive one simply because in a car crash, the smaller car ALWAYS loses ( Physics will prove this fact with elementary equations) and in a country where larger cars are always on the road…. *sigh* and I so much prefer smaller cars..

    ..part of this lack of movement on par with Europe in terms of sustainability is due to the Kyoto Protocol.. The US never signed thus putting the US behind everyone else… -_-

  17. Yes, I totally agree with your observations and comments! And one of the commenters is right to say that Americans have been spoiled…and look where it got us. Attitude adjustment I think would be a little difficult for us but I think it’s what we really need, especially in these difficult times. Even young ones are learning to think differently because of our economic situation.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  18. Nice post and add some perspective from other parts of Europe. In some ways they are ahead of the states but in some ways we actually do exceed. I have been teaching Permaculture (a design science focusing on sustainable human settlements including but not limited to local and organic agriculture) the last few years there and just was in Bulgaria and Portugal for the last three months doing so. I dodged many spanish and Portuguese SUV’s over the last month of crazy tourism in the beach town that I was living in. And yes they were American sized SUV’s. Not Escalade or Suburban size but explorer and VUE size. Portugal is a dominant car culture with an ok public transport system. When I lived in Paris off and on, yeah, the transport was amazing but how sustainable is a city of 10 million. Amsterdam was great riding bikes and I loved paris’s velib bike rental system. Absolutely brilliant. Furthermore, food production is a big part of sustainability. Some countries this is very engrained but they very much love their supermarkets there and I actually feel like they are headed deeper into that model as their is a huge renaissance in the states right now with farmers market and local foods. Huge progress to be made in both continents but good progress in Portland, OR but also with food coops in Vienna, Austria. So I believe they do love to conserve energy, stack functions in space and time in apartments, and they need to drastically increase their environmental literacy and yeah plant trees. Love seeing how many trees there are in a natural state in Bulgaria but in Portugal it is all monoculture eucalyptus and pine forests. So design for efficiency but go beyond to regenerative system like what permaculture focuses on.

  19. Great post! I can never understand why we Americans need to drive around in vehicles that weigh as much as two (or even three) cars in other countries. Maybe it’s back to the idea of ‘Mine’s bigger than yours!’ as a way to show off how “successful” a person is (or wants everyone to believe they are). I for one would not mind seeing our roads populated by more small, fuel-efficient cars, but I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.
    Congratulations on being picked as a “Freshly Pressed” blog and good luck with your writing.

  20. I haven’t been to Europe, but have been working in Asia since 2003. Much of the things you described in Europe are also present here – even in China who often gets a bad rap for environmentalism. I agree with you that it is a mindset of conservation though, possibly due to density constraints? At least I see that being the case here in Japan.

    You can get anywhere in Tokyo by using their intricate network of trains, subways and buses. In any other city I have been in here the subways and trains were perhaps not as plentiful, but it was still no problem to get all over Hiroshima for example using a streetcar. Tiny hybrid cars are everywhere – you wouldn’t drive a huge car in Tokyo – where would you park it?

    Singapore is the same, there is no need for cars. I also like the “text-a-cab” system which notifies a cab driver within five minutes of you to come pick you up. In both countries trash is divided in separate containers which make it easy to separate out paper, plastic, etc. I think a lot of people in the US don’t recycle simply because it is not easy! Japan makes it very simple, and everyone does it! Most of the solutions are very easy.

    I think one of our big problems in America is how politicized its all become, while most countries do it almost unconsciously because it is just practical. Why are we out to prove the world wrong?

  21. Interesting entry. I’m here in Scotland, so I can vouch (up to a point) for what you say about buses in Edinburgh. Glasgow has not only buses but a couple of great train systems too. This is not to say that the car has been phased out of British mentality. It hasn’t. If I stand on the Queen’s Bridge in Perth, a couple of minutes from where I work, and take a mental poll of the traffic, I see car after car after car with only one occupant. This is still the main problem with transport in the UK – ‘Johnny-one-in-a-car’.

    Something else that doesn’t help is the blinkered attitude to what constitutes ‘green’. I heard a commentator on BBC radio say “… so this car, with its high miles-per-gallon figure, is greener than the average motorcycle”, as though the only environmental factor one has to take notice of is fuel consumption. It isn’t. A car (as I see from my ‘poll’) typically carries one person – that’s 20% or 25% of its capacity; a motorcycle never carries less than 50% of its capacity. A motorcycle takes up about one third of the space on the road of a very small car, so the same small car will cause more congestion – on the move or parked – than a motorcycle, thus spending more time idling and consuming fuel whilst not moving. The car will take more raw materials to manufacture than the motorcycle. I could go on.

    Neither Britain nor the rest of Europe is actually a shining example of sustainability merely because we have more buses and a slightly better attitude to lightbulbs and shopping bags. There’s a long way to go yet.

    A friend of mine used to have what he called his ‘half hour rule’. If he could reach somewhere on foot in half an hour he would walk. If he could reach it in half an hour by bicycle he would cycle. If it wasn’t cycling weather and he could reach it in half an hour by bus he would take the bus. If he was in a hurry he would go by motorcycle (otherwise he used his motorcycle for pleasure). If he needed to carry something then he’d get the car out of the garage. He told me that when he was on his regular half hour walk to his office he was shocked by the number of people he saw getting into their cars to drive a shorter distance (he would pass the parked car on his way).

    Kind regards,
    Marie Marshall

  22. Great post. As an architect (residing in North America) who has a strong interest in green living it is heartening to see not only how it is possible to live more effectively but also to hear when people visit abroad and see/learn/experience/marvel/awaken to how it is possible, and even desirable, to live in a mode of sustainability. I cringe to see the modern, average, house over here in its 2000sf+3 car garage bloated incarnation, placed in some far flung suburb (or carved into a mountaintop). Thanks for sharing your impressions, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  23. It’s so hard to imagine life without a car here in the states! But I remembered how much I loved not having to drive while living in Europe, but I hated lugging my heavy groceries around and laundry! haha

  24. Hi,
    I’m from Germany and I read your post. Here I find some anwsers between the differences of sustainability in Europe and America.In the last month I’ve read some books about “Eco Wedding” and I wondering myself, why these concept “isn’t use in Germany” ? The truth is: In 2011 wedding season the No. 1 is “Green Wedding”. Here they call “a trend”, I think (and hope 😉 ) it’s the future…
    And I know, many people, but not all, in Germany think every day: “What could we do better?” We only have begin to live really sustainability…
    Thanks for the insights.

  25. Congratulations on being FP’d. Dont be too hard on yourselves over there. Many US cities experienced most of their growth in the age of the motor car You have long had cheaper energy and land. The resulting low densities make public transport much less economic (so the interurbans etc soon vanished). If the US had the sort of energy taxes we have here, you’d be punished by the longer distances you guys have to drive, plus the much larger houses to heat and cool. So if we seem greener, it’s not just because we are more virtuous – it’s partly just economics and climate. Oddly, more and more Europeans have been driving ever-bigger cars, as you have been downsizing in increasing numbers. Here, huge thirsty 4x4s proliferate. As for red lights, no city has as many per mile as London, often with extra long “red” phases to deter car-use. I wonder if the US will ever copy the eye-watering charge to drive in the centre of London at peak times!

  26. That’s not just Europe. Most of those practices (smaller appliances, cars, public transportation, half and full flush) are followed in other countries as well.

    For some reason in America, these things don’t seem to catch on.

  27. Isn’t it strange how people who aren’t originally from Europe have a different perspective? I live in England, and I’m often struck by how un-eco we are and how much more we need to do. But having read this, I’m actually feeling pretty good about our sustainability levels! Thanks 🙂

  28. Great post. My mum never allowed my sisters and I to use the telephone until after 6pm when it was cheaper! And I as an adult now tend to put the washing machine and dishwasher on at night when the electricity is cheaper! I dont suppose i ever thought about it, i just did it!
    Congrats on being freshly pressed.

  29. Have you ever seen anything like that in the States? Its a Chevy! I bet that thing gets well over 40mpg. But why don’t we see more cars like this zipping around our streets? Is it the American mentality? Is bigger really better or are we just simply unexposed to the smaller option?

    this part is best…………v nice post
    thanx 4 sharing

  30. I really enjoyed your post 🙂 My mother is from Amsterdam and I love the relatively ‘sustainable’ lifestyle there. You also highlight an important point that consumerism is something we need to tackle.

  31. I’ve lived in the UK for half my life and just got back from a 3 week holiday in LA where I stayed at a friend’s house. I had a reverse reaction to you – everytime I wanted to go somewhere I said “I’ll just get the bus!” and my friend would laugh at me. “The bus system doesn’t work here” she’d say…

    Then there are really broad street lanes and the 6 lane highways – if you need a 6 lane highway something is wrong with your urban planning!! Not only that, the traffic jams on them everyday…. I also noticed that (at least in LA) most of the buildings are only 1 storey. More inefficiency!

    But yes, like Joel and Tara say, it is probably all that space you guys have – and I think it would be very difficult to take some place like LA which is already built up and try and turn it into an energy efficient place – because that would pretty much mean shrinking everything so people wouldn’t have to drive all those distances to get anywhere!

  32. I’ve heard about North America’s lack of public transport. Is it because it isn’t feasible or because of the mentality? The countries of Europe are quite small and so it could be easier due to lots of populations being in close proximity. But Australia, where I live, has a pretty decent public transport system using trams, buses and trains that uses a one ticket system (although changes are being made to that with the introduction of Myki) – unfortunately they kind of terminate after 11 PM if you don’t live close to the city. But our trains do allow us to take bikes on board. Consumer culture is everywhere, I think but we too are starting to adopt greener measures. I’ve seen sustainability designs taking prominence as of late. I guess it remains for other countries to hop on the green bandwagon too.

  33. Great article on your experiences in Europe. I was there too and saw the same thing. In Switzerland the air conditioning would shut off when you turned out the lights or locked left the room. Also in your next article you could talk about how they have been recycling everything for decades and that is ingrained in them also.

    I have an American going green blog here at wordpress. Thanks.

  34. That’s really interesting, hopefully the majority can grasp that concept. The closest to efficiency I drive is a Toyota Corolla and let me tell you, it sure beats an SUV or a big truck. But what can I say, college life conditions you to be conservative.

  35. I have two low-water-use toilets here in my house in California. They were made in Australia and given to me by the water district. It is a two-button flush toilet like you describe. There are American toilets like this too, but the Australian toilet was the only choice they gave me for free.

  36. “Small button – part flush” … I love Europeans! It really does strike me that Europe is so much further ahead of the rest of the world in terms of saving energy. Biking all over town would be lovely if there were not giant SUVs and Hummers and trucks on the road; you’re right, bigger might not always be better. And a mini-fridge for an entire family?! An oven the size of a microwave?! This is so unlike American households that even I, a big energy saver, find this just weird and amazing at the same time.

  37. we here in the states r still used to having it all and being number 1 with no competition – we now have competition for that number one spot and having it all is getting more and more difficult and not just because of economy either – we will make the transition to conservatism and hopefully wont have to do it the hard way – this will be up to our elected officials

  38. I recently returned from a week in Sweden, and I was quite impressed with their culture! The size of the hotel room, the bathroom, the way they ask you to reuse your hand towel over and over to conserve. I walked 10 miles a day. I would walk to the store and have a hard time keeping pace with a woman older than I(quite a bit older), carrying more bags! And bikes, everywhere there are bikes and the wonderful thing is that there are paths, bike paths and walking paths everywhere so you felt comfortable riding your bike. Unfortunately, at least where I live in the USA, there aren’t paths, very few sidewalks. The idea of biking to the supermarket and grabbing what few things you need for dinner(because the fridge is tiny) is not what we do around here…..When in Rome….do as the Romans, but it sure would be nice to see some major shift in our road infrastructure to include bike paths with logical routes. Though, I would have a hard time learning the stick shift! I am automatic all the way, but willing to try.

  39. Loving this post.

    It’s interesting to see all the different ways sustainability is framed in European settings. It is also interesting to think about infrastructure, which isn’t present in large parts of the US, that allows for more sustainable transportation in Europe.

  40. Great post and spot on!
    I’m from Mexico so things are quite different here to both the US and Europe but luckily I’ve been to both in many occasions.
    I also used to live in Europe and I loved the transportation system and the fact you don’t NEED to own a car, whereas in both the US and Mexico is almost mandatory, just getting to a mall or a supermarket can take over half an hour!
    If I had to move out of Mexico again I would definitely turn first to Europe for this and many other reasons.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed and enjoy Scotland! (mmmmh Haggis!)

  41. U need a car in Australia too. But we love little hatches and are taking to electric cars in a big way? its a shame the US giants killed off the electric cars in the 70″S. who knows where we would be now had they not.

  42. My co-blogger recently returned from Uganda, so we’ve been having a lot of conversations on sustainability, local projects, and a simple lifestyle. We have such a long way to go, especially in the U.S. Thanks for your much-needed post. -abi

  43. We hope some day every person and ever country realises that we will be running out on energy that is abundantly available at present. It has already started declining and I hope we all take a step each and contribute to saving for the future.

  44. Agreed.
    Americans do as a fact like everything bigger, and it is still instituted as better. Though time and technology has been reflecting on change (via smaller, portable, more energy efficient) it is slow but yet progress. Not only that, gas in comparison is way cheaper still in the states, and depending on where you live (ie LA or NYC) public transportation could be a troll.
    With LA never having the infrastructure for public transport (locals perception of “lower income dwellers only”; lack of expansion infrastructure, and mother nature) places like that will never catch on with Euro, or even Asian standards.
    And due to American corporate greed, (profit over anything) and lack of environmental sanctions, US will unlikely market any of those “smaller” cars (look at the smart car for example, both consumer opinion and sales). I could go on and on, as I friggin love this topic as I mention it with my good buddies, but I wouldn’t want to take up your whole comment roll. So i leave it at that!

    Thanks for sharing! The more people know the better!

  45. Good article. We have a lot of catching up to do here in the States. To do that, though our communities would have to be significantly more walkable (including mixed use), and a lot heavier emphasis would need to be put on including the public transit and commuter rail systems.

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