THE GERMAN RECYCLING SYSTEM EXPLAINED – SEPARATE YOUR TRASH LIKE A NATIVE
What do the deadly sins, my trash cans, and Snow White’s dwarfs have in common? Hint: it’s not their reeky odor.
It’s their total. Yes, I do indeed have seven bins set up in my home.
They’re for paper, yellow bag/recycling, bio, Restmüll, Pfand, batteries, and cans – the latter being redundant as I found out two hours into researching this article. But oh well… more on that later.
I have received quite a few calls for help and I know sussing out the German recycling system is more labyrinthine than doing your taxes by yourself in a foreign language after having lost all your receipts and pay stubs.
Add in some snoopy German neighbors lurking behind their curtains ready to bellow at you for rebelling the rules and you get the perfect recipe for anxiety-inducing jimjams with the potential to keep you up at night or, worst case, bust your entire stay here.
But never you mind – I will walk you through this and you’ll be able to scold your German neighbors for doing their recycling wrong in a twinkling.
Note that every town sets its own rules. So, while I will give some general guidelines, please understand that I can’t go into detail for every possible scenario.
Always double-check with the city if you’re unsure. You can find information at your local Rathaus, Bürgeramt, or waste management center.
Disclosure/Werbelinks: All links marked with an asterisk (*) are so-called affiliate links. If you buy anything through those links, I get a small referral commission. The price you pay stays the same. / Alle mit Sternchen (*) gekennzeichneten Links sind sogenannte Affiliate-Links. Wenn du über diese Links einkaufst, bekomme ich eine kleine Provision. Für dich ändert sich am Preis nichts.
WHY EVEN RECYCLE IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Germany has a phenomenal recycling system in place, which means that the biggest slice of the separately-collected-garbage-cake does indeed get recycled. This helps save water and cut costs. In addition, it protects our oceans and the environment.
So, please pitch in and do your bit! I know it’s a pain in the rusty dusty, but not only will our planet and future generations thank you, you’ll also avoid getting fined. Win-win!
Fun fact: We have these itty-bitty wastebins because you don’t need them to be bigger if you separate everything correctly – unless you have diapers to get rid of. In that case: good luck – with everything: jamming all your garbage into your Restmüll, changing your baby without getting piddled or pooed on, and staying sane.
HOW SHOULD I ORGANIZE MY TRASH AT HOME?
As is customary in Germany, I am renting a place that has one complementary bedroom dedicated solely to gathering garbage. We call it The Magical Chamber Of A Million Smells. Good citizen or hoarder? It’s a thin line!
Just kidding. I have all my wastebins scattered all over the house. The best spots to place them are the under-sink cabinet (especially for niffy garbage cans like bio and Restmüll), your pantry (if you have one), and the basement.
You can buy trash cans with separate compartments for your recycling, like Treteimer* which can be used for Restmüll, paper, and plastic all at once. It does take up quite some room, though, so if you’re in a smaller space, this wall solution Edelstahl Wand-Abfalleimer* might work better.
For your bio trash, I recommend only using specific bins to prevent overly bad smells. I am using Rotho Bio Komposteimer* which comes with an activated charcoal filter in the lid to keep unpleasant odors from oozing out. Granted, it’s not the prettiest, but it does the trick and it’s affordable.
WHAT GOES WHERE?
First off: don’t mistakenly toss out any of your Pfand-bottles. Click here, to learn how to identify them.
Read on to learn what goes where. Restrictions may apply, so if in doubt, always double-check with your local waste management center.
- envelopes (including windowed ones)
- egg cartons
- receipts that look blue or contain the “Blauer Engel” seal
To save room, break down any boxes and tear up bigger pieces. Egg cartons can be made smaller by standing on them. Pro tip: Double-check for eggs first, because they WILL break. Duh – I know. Don’t ask.
DON’T PUT IN:
- drink cartons
- wax paper
- parchment paper
- padded envelopes
- sticky paper
- coated paper
- any paper cards with magnetic stripes
- solid food scraps (sometimes including meat and fish – but double-check with your local waste management center
- fruits and vegetables
- small amounts of yard clippings
- grass clippings
- potted plants with soil (but without the pot)
- coffee filters
- paper towels (double-check!)
DON’T PUT IN:
- hydroponic substrate
- fluid food scraps
By the way, you might have possibly noticed a slightly unpleasant odor coming from your bio bin. That was sarcasm – those things stink like an elephant’s poop had had babies with a durian fruit, and then said baby had gotten diarrhea and pooed in a sauna for three weeks straight.
Anyway, if you’re tired of the smell, maggots, and flies, rinse out your trash can with a hose after each pick-up, put it upside down to dry (but in a way that lets air in. Use the lid as a stand!) and only use it once it’s completely dry.
In addition, you can get Substral Naturen Biotonnenpulver* to put in your bin. It helps prevent mold, maggots, and flies.
Yellow bag/recycling trash
Any packaging and wrappings that are not made out of paper or glass:
- drink cartons
- bottle caps
- food cans
- spray cans
DON’T PUT IN:
- plastic dishes
Exception: Some areas provide so-called Wertstofftonnen instead of the yellow bag. Those can be used for additional plastic and metal items that are not considered packaging: plastic toys, old pots, toothbrushes, and so on. Some cities even allow small electrical items or wood – check with your local waste management center.
Also, don’t throw out any old toys. Or toys in general. Really, anything your child has in their room, for that matter. Kids are hoarders and they WILL sift through the garbage to make sure you didn’t snatch and secretly throw out that four-year-old candy wrapper from underneath their bed.
Any containers you put in there have to be empty. They will get cleaned extensively later on in the recycling process, so there’s no need to wash them first – save some water instead!
Don’t stack items. Also, take the lid off of anything that comes with one – even if both, the container and the top get dumped into the same bin. A lot of times they’re made of different materials and have to be separated later, which will be easier this way.
Anything that’s left:
- animal poo
- vacuum cleaner bags
- treated wood
DON’T PUT IN:
- electrical items
- construction waste
- hazardous materials
WHERE SHOULD I TAKE THE REMAINING THINGS?
These go into your respective household waste, or to the recycling center. For more information and to learn how to correctly dispose of these items in your area, enter your zip code into this form.
Most towns have public bottle banks peppered all over. Separate your empty glass containers according to their color: brown, white and, green.
Oftentimes, there are dumpsters for old metal close to the ones for old glass. These can be used for anything metal (non-electrical) that’s not packaging or that doesn’t fit into your plastic trash at home.
It’s also where I used to haul my cans. Remember: I was today years old when I found out they can go in your yellow bag/recycling bin instead, which is so much more convenient.
Typically, the above-mentioned areas also feature dumpsters – many of them by the Red Cross – for old clothes. Note: Do not dumpster dive in those. They turn into deadly traps if you jump in! I didn’t think you would, but just something to keep in mind, in case you accidentally drop in your favorite Rolex along with your 20-year-old washed-out shorts.
Items that can no longer be worn belong to your Restmüll or should be taken to the recycling center.
Bigger yard clippings
Some cities have public dumpsters called Grünabfallcontainer – if not: you’ve guessed it – haul your clippings to the local recycling center.
Smaller ones have to be reclaimed and disposed of by any bigger store, even if you don’t buy a new one there. For bigger items, they will take back the old ones as long as you purchase a replacement from them. For more info check out this site.
There are collection points at many bigger stores like Kaufland, Real, etc.
Those will be reclaimed by either the electronics stores or the provider.
Lightbulbs and other illuminants
Drop these off at collection points at major stores or take them to your recycling center. Light bulbs and halogen lamps can go into your Restmüll.
You can schedule a bulk trash collection (Sperrmüllsammlung) with the city.
Plonk your old furniture and other big items (double-check the exact rules) outside your house and they will pick them up for a small fee.
Tip: Ask your neighbors if they want to join in and split the costs – a lot of times people will be more than happy to!
Don’t be surprised if strangers pop up out of thin air and swipe some of your items. Technically, it’s considered theft in most towns, but it’s still very common – especially if you live close to the Czech border.
Take anything that’s left (e.g. hazardous materials) or that’s too big for your household waste there and dispose of it for a small fee.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I DON’T SEPARATE MY TRASH CORRECTLY?
Your garbage collectors will randomly check trash cans. If they catch you dumping stuff in there that doesn’t belong, they will slap a sticker on your wastebin, leave it full, and potentially fine you.
But what’s worse: all your German neighbors will know and they will keep extra-close tabs on you to ensure you don’t ever get a chance to repeat your offense.
WHERE EXACTLY SHOULD I PLACE MY TRASH CANS FOR PICKUP?
On the sidewalk, parallel to the road, the handle facing away from the street, and as close to the curb as possible. Quick – without looking: repeat that! Now ten times in a row.
Great, you should be good to go.
In addition, no obstacles should be blocking access to your trash can. If there are several bins, set them up in pairs.
Note: in some cities, your wheelie bin won’t get emptied if the lid isn’t closed all the way.
For more help and regional info visit this website. Put in your ZIP code and it’ll spit out info for your region including helpful links, phone numbers, and the person responsible!
For downloadable PDF lists of what goes where (in different languages, like German, English, Arabic, Polish, Russian, and Turkish) go here.
And now: off you go. You have your Magical Chamber Of A Million Smells to decorate!