Every time we have a visitor I find myself saying “just leave in on the counter”. Here in Germany recycling and garbage is so complicated it is literally easier for me to sort everything than to explain which bin everything goes into to our visitors. Once you figure it out it really isn’t that bad—but I have also always lived in states that were great with recycling. In our house we have 6 permanent bins, and a few that vary (I will explain). As complicated as it is, Germany is spot on with this one—America could really take note!
Bin One: Food waste:
Next to our sink we have a small wastebasket for food scraps. All over town you will see small brown dumpsters specifically for dumping your food waste so not having woods or a large yard is no excuse for not recycling your food waste. I often see neighbors walking by with their little brown bucket to dump, but luckily we have a little wooded area behind the house so I just throw my scraps to the birds. Our yard feeds a few neighborhood cats and a handful of magpies.
Bin Two: Yellow bag:
Now this one is a bit complicated, and rumor has it that Germany is actually going to stop using them since people can’t get it right. In its simplest terms the yellow bag is for plastics. Any sort of plastic packaging for food or otherwise like shampoo bottles goes in the yellow bag. This includes yogurt cups, bags that packaged food as well as shopping bags, non-pfand bottles, caps and lids. Additionally, tin cans, milk & juice cartons, and Styrofoam take-out containers all go in this bag. In our house we usually fill one bag a week. The bags are free and you can pick up a roll of them at the local bakery :).
Bin Three: Non-returnable glass:
Glass that you did not pay a deposit for (explained below) is recycled at collection points around town. Most commonly you will find white, green, and brown glass bins in the parking lot of the grocery for you to deposit your glass into. For us this is very minimal and is glass jars from sauce, liquor bottles, and any international wine/beer.
Bin Four: Paper/cardboard:
This one is pretty self-explanatory. All cardboard and paper is collected in cardboard boxes and put out once a month. I have noticed that some people use plastic bins for their paper, but we have so much of it (thanks to boxes from Amazon.com) that we just flatten and fill those boxes back up.
Bin 5: Returnable bottles/cans:
Now this is not only fun, but America really should get on board! When you buy beverages in Germany you not only buy the drink, but you also pay a pfand or deposit on the packaging. This is on almost all glass bottles and a number of plastic bottles and tin cans. When you are shopping, you will see the price per drink, the price of the pfand per drink, and also the prices if you purchase a whole case. So, when we don’t buy a case we can put all our empty, rinsed containers in this bin and when we go to the grocery store we put them in the recycling machine to be counted. To know if it is returnable, pay attention when you buy to know if you pay a pfand. Some cans and plastic bottles will have a pfand stamp, but not all and glass bottles usually don’t have this stamp to remind you.
You load the bottles/cans into the machine one by one and the machine scans the bar-code on the bottle/can and determines if it is accepted. As long as you payed a pfand you can return it. The machine gives you a ticket when you are finished emptying your bin which you then take to the register to claim your deposit or use it as a credit on your grocery bill. A pfand will vary form .8€ to .25 € and a case is usually 5 €. When I take my bin into the store to recycle I usually get about 7 or 8 € back, not including cases.
Bin 6: Garbage:
Everything else goes in the garbage. In our home we usually have one 13 gallon bag of trash a month (not including diapers). Thanks to all this recycling we have hardly any garbage. In the off chance that we have a lot of garbage, like that one time we forgot to put it out, you can buy a special grey sack to fill with extra garbage and put it out with the garbage bin on the next collection. My German friend explained this to us when we had regular white bags out on the street and brought us a grey bag. She said they wouldn’t take it unless it was in the bag.
Ok so a few extra variables to note. Fist is that we often have a few different cases for returnable bottles stacked in the kitchen. Usually one for Coke, and one for beer. Once the cases are full I take them back to the store, put them in the same recycling machine and get my deposit back. Our house is a little more complicated than the typical German home though because we can buy cases of German beer on base. Cases bought on base must be returned on base because the deposit is different. I have tried to put on base purchased bottles in the recycling machine and they were refused.
Another is batteries. Near the recycling machine in the grocery store is a small battery collection bin that we can put used batteries in. In addition to the regular garbage collection schedule, every couple weeks a truck will drive by to collect large metal scraps, three times a year there is a bulky garbage collection day for large garbage, like from home remodels, and twice a year they will pick up hazardous waste like leftover cleaning liquids and energy saving lamps. Finally, in town there is a bin to deposit old clothes for donation.
As Americans the hardest part to get used to is the Pfand. Pretty much each time I return bottles in the machine at least one is kicked back to me as not returnable. I am getting better at trying to notice if I pay a pfand, but it is just one more thing to pay attention to in addition to a toddler in the shopping cart so it doesn’t always happen. A lot of people struggle with what goes in the yellow bags, but I don’t worry too much about it if I get it wrong and if I ever have a question I just ask one of my German friends.
I am glad to do all the separation, I just wish Brock didn’t like un-doing all my sorting work 😤.
Recycling is obviously very important in Germany. They lead the EU with about 70% of their waste recovered and reused. To put that in perspective the USA sets about 30%. Additionally, Germany has fewer than 200 landfills! In the 1970’s, before their recycling reform, Germany had about 50,000 landfills so clearly they are doing their part to protect the environment. But that is not good enough… Germany has the goal of recycling 100% of their waste by 2020, eliminating the need for landfills completely. GO GERMANY! 🌟🇩🇪🌟
P.S. 5 days till our Adriatic escape to Croatia!