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How to separate garbage in Germany


Date03 May 2022


One particularly German idiosyncrasy is that of waste separation. Have you ever noticed the many different bins in your yard? If you wonder which garbage belongs in which bin, what happens to the garbage later and why it is so important for Germans to separate their garbage? You'll get all the answers in this article!

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Why waste separation is important

Germany has a sophisticated waste management system in which recycling is the top priority. Recycling is the reuse of materials, which are then processed into new products. This relieves the environment and reduces the consumption of natural resources. In order to recycle materials, they must be separated from each other. Although efficient machines are used in the waste disposal process that can separate light from heavy and large from small materials, not all materials can be sorted in this way. Therefore, separation already begins in German households. Separating waste at home plays a large part in the fact that so many materials can be recycled in Germany. And the better we separate waste, the more can be recycled and the environmental impact reduced.

If all the waste ends up in the residual waste, then many of the materials can no longer be used for recycling because they are too dirty or destroyed. Properly separated glass and paper, on the other hand, can be recycled by almost 100%. And plastic and other recyclable materials are also easy to recycle when separated. Residual waste is incinerated in Germany. The more residual waste there is, the more CO2 emissions there are from incineration. By separating waste, everyone has the opportunity to contribute to climate protection.

Would you like to separate your waste in Germany, but just can't get your head around all the rules and exceptions? Don't worry, we'll summarise the most important facts about waste separation and give you examples that will help you in your everyday life. First of all, you need to know that waste is collected in different bins. The yellow or orange bin is for plastic waste and recyclables, the blue bin is for paper and cardboard, the black bin is for residual waste and the green or brown bin is for organic waste. Glass is also sorted by colour, and the bins are marked accordingly.

Yellow bin

The yellow bin used to be for plastic only, but in many parts of Germany it has now become a bin for recyclables. As a recycling bin, it is sometimes orange. In addition to plastics, metals are now also disposed of in it. If you don't have a recycling bin yet, only packaging can go into the yellow bin; the rest belongs in the residual waste and is incinerated. Plastics (e.g. yoghurt pots, plastic bags and polystyrene), aluminium (e.g. food cans and bottle tops) and composite packaging (e.g. beverage cartons) go in the yellow bin. If the yellow bin is a recycling bin, you can also dispose of plastic buckets, pots and pans, screws and other metals in it.

You should make sure that you separate all materials from each other before you dispose of them (i.e. separate the yoghurt pot from the lid, etc.) so that the sorting machine can work more efficiently. Note that electrical devices do not belong in the recycling bin. They must be disposed of separately at the recycling centre or in electrical shops.

Blue bin

The blue bin is for paper, cardboard and cartons. The recycled products from the paper bin save wood, water and energy for the production of fresh paper. Newspapers, magazines, envelopes, wrapping paper and egg cartons belong in the paper bin. To make good use of the space in the bin, you should shred large cardboard boxes before disposing of them. In addition, you should only dispose of dry and clean paper in the blue bin, as this is the only thing that can be recycled.

Note that there are some things that should not go in the blue bin, even though they look like they should. Receipts and tickets are printed on so-called thermal paper and because of the coating they cannot be recycled. The same goes for baking paper and cardboard coffee cups. These coated papers belong either in the recycling bin (if there is one) or in the residual waste. Recently blue sales slips have been introduced in many shops, which can be disposed of in the paper bin without any problems.

A small tip on paper bags: they are very resource-intensive to produce. Therefore, you should not throw them away too lightly, but use them until they break!

Organic waste bin (green or brown bin)

Everything that ends up in the organic waste bin is used to produce biogas. The use of waste from the organic waste bin is much more efficient than the cultivation of plants such as maize for the production of biogas. In Germany, there is a lot of potential to dispose of organic waste separately, but it is not yet fully utilised. At the same time, biowaste is an astonishingly good source of energy. The German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) gives a surprising example: a banana peel provides energy for 34 minutes of light with an 11-watt lamp, food scraps provide even more! Therefore, it is worthwhile to dispose of organic waste in the designated bin and not in the residual waste.

All kitchen scraps and green waste belong in the organic waste bin. That means leftovers, cooked food, meat, bones, loose tea and coffee, spoiled food without packaging, flowers, garden waste and leaves. Note that a compost heap is not equivalent to the organic waste bin, where everything can be disposed of, while the compost can only accept local waste.

To reduce waste, it is best to collect and dispose of organic waste without a bag. Alternatively, you can collect the waste in paper bags that are certified with the Blue Angel. According to NABU, biodegradable plastic bags are not very useful, as they are often sorted out by the machines as not suitable for the production of biogas.

Colour-separated glass containers

Not every house has its own glass containers. However, you can find containers on the street where you can dispose of your glass separated by colour. White, brown and green glass are separated. Other colours such as blue or yellow glass go into the container for green glass. You should pay attention to the times when you dispose of your glass so that you don't wake up your neighbours in the middle of the night or early on a Sunday morning with the clinking of glass. Glass containers should be used for bottles, disposable jars of jam or baby food and drugstore items made of glass - preferably all without lids. On the other hand, drinking glasses and ceramics, as well as mirror glass, window glass and light bulbs do not belong in the glass container.

There is another regulation on bottles in Germany. There is a sophisticated deposit system for recycling, where you get money back for your empty deposit bottles. This includes not only plastic bottles, but also beer and lemonade bottles made of glass - so these do not belong in the glass containers.

Residual waste or Restmüll (black bin) 

Everything that ends up in the black bin as residual waste is incinerated. But if you separate the rest of your waste well, there is not so much residual waste. So everything that cannot be reused and recycled belongs in the black bin. Examples are ashes, candles, nappies, dust, photos, leather, deep-frying fat, light bulbs (except energy-saving light bulbs), hygiene articles, cigarettes, animal litter, fabric scraps and soiled/ wet paper.

Waste that does not belong in any of the bins

Of course, there are also things that cannot be disposed of in household waste. These include electrical appliances, which must be disposed of free of charge either at the recycling centre (Recyclinghof) or electrical shops. Batteries and energy-saving light bulbs can be disposed of in the shops where you buy them. You will find special bins for them in every supermarket. Medicines must never be allowed to get into the groundwater, so the safest way to dispose of them is at the pharmacy. You can simply hand in expired medicines there. Sometimes there are special disposal campaigns for some types of waste, such as mobile phones or corks. So keep your eyes open. Bulky waste (Sperrmüll), i.e. old furniture, wood or similar, must be disposed of at the recycling centre.

In general, however, the motto should be: "Everything that can be reused or repaired does not belong in the rubbish!” So try to be mindful of the things around you. For example, paper can be used double-sided, old jam jars can be used to store screws or the like, furniture and clothes that are still in good order can be resold (e.g. via ebay Kleinanzeigen or Vinted) and throwing away food should be avoided as much as possible! Also, reducing packaging waste is something you can easily do in your everyday life.

Do you still have questions about waste separation in Germany? Are you not sure which waste belongs where or do you have other ideas for reusing things in the household? Write to us in the comments, exchange ideas with others in the New2 FORUM or send us a message via [email protected].

Written by: Tanja Holbe

Cover Photo: the blowup - Unsplash

Other Photos: Manfred Richter - Pixabay, Alfonso Navarro - Unsplash, Antranias - Pixabay

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