I know you probably didn’t think you needed an instruction manual for throwing out your garbage. Just put it in the garbage can, right? Maybe separate your glass, plastic and aluminum containers for recycling. Simple. Not so here. Garbage and recycling in Germany is way more in depth.
Throwing out the trash is like a complicated skill in Germany, one that requires intense years of study. Or at least it seems like it should require some kind of course. Anytime someone comes to visit us, I have to give them a briefing on the trash situation in an effort to avoid total chaos and the breakdown of society. So I thought I’d share a summary of how to throw out your garbage in Germany. It could save your life someday. Or at least save you from getting scolded by a neighbor.
Endless categories of garbage
On the surface, there appears to be just a few simple categories of garbage. But it doesn’t take long to realize, that’s just WRONG.
4 different types of waste bins
1) Bio: a brown bin – This is for food waste. So egg shells, banana peel, scraps of food you didn’t eat, that kind of thing. But I recently learned you’re also supposed to put your napkins in there too. But not used tissues. Huh?
2) Paper: sometimes a green bin, sometimes blue – This is clearly for paper products. Empty cereal boxes, junk mail (although the envelope is more complicated…I’ll get to that in a minute), cardboard, and any other paper product. It’s where I used to put my napkins, because they’re paper products. They still end up in there about half the time now.
3) Plastic packaging: yellow garbage bags or a yellow bin – This plastic yellow garbage bag is about the size of a standard kitchen garbage bag. Plastic items and other non-paper packaging materials go in here. So juice cartons, the plastic container meat comes in, plastic wrappers, yogurt containers (but only after you’ve rinsed out any remaining yogurt), and shampoo bottles. Oh, and those envelopes I mentioned? If it’s the kind that has the plastic see-through window, technically you’re supposed to separate that from the paper part of the envelope.
In Freiburg we had yellow bags, but in Berlin, we have several yellow garbage cans for our whole apartment complex. So this may vary depending on what part of Germany you’re in.
4) Other items: a black garbage can – This is the only garbage can we actually pay for. In Freiburg, you choose your size and you’re charged accordingly. They send us a sticker each year to show that we’ve paid for it. But the odd thing is they send us the sticker in January, and it has to be on by the end of February, but the instructions specifically say not to put it on when it’s cold. January and February are pretty much always cold, so I’m not sure what the thought process is there.
In Berlin, there are several black bins for our entire apartment complex, so we don’t have to choose a size or deal with any sticker nonsense.
The black can is supposed to be for “other” trash, but there are so many conflicting ideas about what goes in there, it makes my head hurt. We have a German friend who says food scraps that have been cooked go in the black, but that’s not correct. Those tissues I thought should go in the bio actually go in this one. Got an old sock with a hole in it? Throw it in the black. A pan that’s starting to lose it’s protective coating? Black. Expired medications also go in here. Basically if it doesn’t quite fit in the other categories, it goes in the black.
Recycling in Germany and other baffling trash categories
Bottles and cans – Whether it’s the 2 liter Coke bottle, the smaller half liter Coke bottles, an aluminum can, or a beer bottle, they all go back to the grocery store. When you purchase something that comes in one of these containers, you pay the advertised price plus a Pfand (basically a deposit) which is listed next to the price. It ranges from 8 cents to 25 cents depending on what the item is. You have to put these bottles and cans into a machine that spits out a receipt with your refund amount. Then when you buy your groceries, the refund gets applied to your total. Or you can just hand the cashier your receipt and get your refund in cash.
While Berlin certainly has the same system, we also have what are called bottle people. These are people who collect other people’s Pfand bottles and cash them in. Since Pfand is such a small amount, most people would rather hand off the bottle to someone else or leave it on the sidewalk for one of the bottle people to pick up. Because really, if you’re enjoying a couple beers in the park, do you really want to carry a couple of 8 cent bottles home with you? But the bottle people often come around with giant bags or even grocery carts and collect hundreds of bottles at least.
Other glass – Notice I didn’t mention wine bottles up there. They don’t have a Pfand. Wine bottles, along with any other glass jars, like pasta sauce or even a glass bottle of cough syrup, go to one of three outdoor recycling bins, sorted by color. Leave the lids on, even though my German teacher insists the lids go in the yellow bag. Also, don’t even think about walking down the street to dispose of your glass on Sundays or after the posted hours. Recycling in Germany also means observing quiet hours.
Batteries – Dead batteries go in a box next to the machine that collects the bottles. Or somewhere else in your grocery store, but usually up front somewhere.
Christmas trees – There is one specific day in January when Christmas trees are picked up. If you miss this day, well I don’t know, you might have to just keep that tree for another year.
Corks – There are a few places in town that collect the corks from wine bottles, and then they bring them somewhere else and make environmentally friendly insulation out of it.
Recycling – There’s a recycling place where you can take your dangerous items, old clothes, wood, corks, and who knows what else. Most of these items seem like they go in other categories. Plus the different recycling places in the area are all open for very limited hours once or twice a week. This category baffles me.
**Update: Before moving to Berlin, we had a bag of gypsum leftover from the renovations we had done on the apartment. We never got rid of it because…well, because of everything mentioned in this post. So Andy found out the gypsum needed to be taken to the recycling place, which is a solid 15 minute walk from the closest tram stop and only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. He hauled the heavy bag over there on a Saturday, only to have them tell him that specific bag of crap could only be accepted on Wednesdays. Andy dropped the bag at the feet of the person who told him this and walked away. There’s no winning with the rules of garbage in Germany.
Other random crap – Andy had the bathroom renovated almost two years ago, resulting in lots of construction materials that needed to be disposed of. That crap sat on our balcony for about five months because it’s complicated to get rid of it. This type of garbage is called Sperrmüll and requires a pick-up appointment. You have to make the appointment weeks ahead of time and give them a list of what you’re throwing out.
Then the night before, you put the trash out on the sidewalk. Sometime before they come and pick it up, random passers-by will dig through your crap and take home some new treasures. If you happen to be out there when they come by, they might even ask if you have specific things like old TVs. One time when we did this, a guy took our old TV, a microwave someone left near our building, and a bag of old water meters from when we had the pipes replaced. All on his Vespa. I actually find this process hilarious and entertaining.
You get two of these pick-ups for free each year. If you need more or need an appointment within a week, you pay for it.
Leaving trash and other unwanted items on the sidewalk
Depending on what it is, many people will simply put stuff they don’t want anymore on the side of the road without making one of these appointments. Used books, dishes you no longer want, kids’ toys, just about anything that some scavenger might find useful. Usually they will leave a note on the pile that says “Geschenk” which means gift.
Or sometimes, like some people down the street from us, just a big pile of crap they didn’t feel like sorting, so it sat on the sidewalk for at least a month, slowly dwindling as passers-by and the weather conditions whisked things away.
I’m pretty sure Berlin has the option to make a Sperrmüll appointment, but I don’t think anyone actually does it. Maybe because in a big city there’s less personal accountability or maybe everyone assumes someone will want whatever it is you’re throwing out. So instead, all kinds of items are simply put out on the sidewalks. This is a Berlin recycling custom we’ve grown quite accustomed to.
We used to own a bench seat for our dining room table but we didn’t really want it anymore. So we brought it out to the street, and within an hour, the local German pub on the corner scooped it up and added it to one of the tables in their restaurant. Just one of many items we’ve successfully re-gifted out into the weird world of Berlin.
Really random crap – If you have a bathtub, window glass, or an animal carcass, you have to call a special number. But only these three things.
The German trash magazine
How do we know all of this wonderful information? The city sends us a magazine each year in December. (Berlin does not do this.) It’s eight pages long, and explains in great detail where everything goes. There’s even a chart listing just about every item you could possibly think of throwing out so you know which one of eight categories it falls under. There’s another four page insert that lists pick-up days by street name, plus it also contains cards for the “other random crap” pick-ups. This year’s version was illustrated with children’s drawings.
Learning about trash and the German recycling system in German class
My German book also had a section about trash sorting. This led to all kinds of dramatic discussions in class about garbage because, as foreigners, we were all still confused about trash even after months of living here. And our teacher’s information didn’t always agree with the trash magazine, like with the jar lids. Plus apparently some of the rules vary depending on what part of the country you live in. As if it wasn’t confusing enough already.
Garbage is complicated business in Germany. When it’s trash day, you will see a rainbow of garbage cans and trash bags lining the streets waiting for the appropriate garbage collectors to retrieve their specific pile of trash. If you put something in the wrong place and the garbage collectors see it, they will leave your trash there along with a note. We do our best to sort things correctly, but when even the Germans who have lived here their whole lives can’t agree on what goes in which can, we can only put so much effort into it. I do appreciate how much Germany does for the environment, although I know I will probably never know how to throw out garbage here with 100% accuracy.
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