How to separate trash like the Germans

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Spot the errors in this green glass bin

Glass is separated into three different bins: white, brown and green. Blue or yellow bottles can go with green. However, broken drinking glasses or windows should not be thrown in the bottle and jar containers. They're made of a different type of glass that disrupts the recycling process. Jar lids belong in a separate bin. Residential glass containers are only available in some parts of Germany.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Public containers

If you don't have glass bins at home, or if they're just not big enough after your last big party, you can also use one of these public containers. Here - just like for residential glass containers - you are expected to avoid the noisy task during "Ruhezeiten," or quiet times, from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm and after 8:00 pm on weekdays, as well as on Sundays and public holidays.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Bringing back bottles

Bottles with a deposit shouldn't go into those glass containers. Instead "Pfandflaschen" can be brought back to the store for a refund. Most supermarkets have automatic bottle return machines that gobble up the bottles, calculate your refund - usually eight cents per glass bottle and 25 cents for plastic. Since many Germans drink sparkling water, returning bottles can be a weekly chore.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Another option for deposit bottles

In urban areas, those who don't bring their bottles back to the store can simply leave them near a public trash bin. It might seem messy, but it actually helps those who go around collecting bottles for money. Collectors can simply pick them up instead of having to dig through the trash. This clever ring around a public trash can in Karlsruhe makes the informal system more effective.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Blue is for paper

All Germans know that the blue bins are for paper and cardboard, but many don't realize that pizza boxes and paper plates for fries don't belong in there. Food leftovers create problems in the recycling process. Glossy paper, such as posters, cannot be recycled with normal paper either. Recycling paper is an old tradition in Germany: It was invented by a lawyer named Justus Claproth in 1774.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Brown or green for biodegradable waste

Those who are used to the strict restrictions of garden compost will be surprised to find out that they do not apply to the brown or green bins collecting food leftovers in larger cities. Leftovers of cooked or uncooked food, citrus and dairy products, meat and fish can all go into the bin for "Biomüll," or biodegradable waste. It is then processed in a fermentation plant.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Yellow is for packaging of all sorts

A wide variety of packaging products belong in the yellow bin, such as aluminum, plastic, polystyrene, tin cans, and Tetra Paks. Although cartons should be empty to avoid leaking all over, traces of food are allowed in this bin: The best materials are picked out for recycling and the rest is burned to produce energy.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Sometimes it's a yellow bag

In some areas, instead of the bins, yellow plastic bags are used to collect various types packaging. They are known as the famous "Gelber Sack." These bags are to be placed outside on the scheduled days planned by the community for collection.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Black is for the rest

The black or grey bin is for "Restmüll" - whatever is left that shouldn't go in the previous bins, from diapers to cigarette butts or any other soiled item. Yet even this category can be reduced. More specifically, hazardous waste, such as leftovers of paint, insecticides, corrosive products or fluorescent tubes and batteries need to be collected separately or brought to the dump.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Hazardous waste

Many supermarkets collect used batteries. Each town has its own collecting system for other hazardous waste, sometimes with scheduled dates where a truck picks everything up, or specific locations where this waste can be dropped off. The reason why these items should not be thrown away with the normal trash is that it is incinerated, and these items would emit poisonous gases when burned.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Bulky waste

Some items are too big for the trash can. There are special collecting points for what is known as "Sperrmüll" in Germany, where you can drop off that used sofa, old TV or leftover building materials. Other communities schedule pick-up days. Many Berliners just leave the items outside their house with a "zu verschenken" sign - "to give away" - hoping that neighbors will reuse their stuff.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Special bins for clothes

Used clothes and shoes do not need to land in the trash. Bins to collect them can be found throughout most cities. Charities resell the recycled clothes. Some people prefer to allow anyone to have a first pick, by leaving their used clothes beside the bin instead of inside it. The collection of shoes that landed in front of this one was somewhat exaggerated, though.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

Do not overfill

When a bin is too full, garbage collectors may refuse to empty it - so adding more trash on top of an already full container will not help. If you wonder why most houses keep their bins locked up, it's to avoid having neighbors dump their trash into them. It is possible to obtain a larger bin of a certain category, but you'll have to pay extra for the service.

Guide to separating trash in Germany

More chaotic than you'd expect

Despite their reputation for taking trash separation very seriously, not all Germans are tidy waste collectors. An early Monday stroll through a park where people are allowed to barbecue and party, such as the Mauerpark in Berlin (pictured), demonstrates that the situation can still be improved. Now that you know all the rules, you can outdo Germans and become the next trash nerd.

The colorful bins in backyards are there to collect different types of trash: Germans are said to take their waste separation very seriously. Here's what you need to know about the routine.

According to the most recent data published by the OECD, Germany is the country which recycles the most of its waste worldwide, with 65 percent of its municipal trash recycled and composted in 2013.

Nature and Environment | 07.12.2016

The country's waste separation system is very well organized – yet this appears at times either confusing or excessively fastidious for newcomers.

If this is any consolation, even Germans do not get it straight all the time.

However, if there happens to be anyone around to witness such an unacceptable trash faux pas, they will most certainly grumble about it. No one is perfect though, so let the person without sin cast the first bottle in the glass bin!

Culture | 09.05.2018

The good news is that it is not as complicated as it seems. Click through the gallery above to get a few pointers on how to separate your trash like the Germans – or even better than them.

Explore the gallery below for 10 things many Germans are passionate about (besides separating their waste). And for more about German culture, language and lifestyle, visit dw.com/meetthegermans. 

10 very German passions

Beer

It's a cliché, so might as well get it out of the way: Only the Czechs drink more beer on average than the Germans. It's not that every German likes beer, but it's just so socially established. An older woman drinking a pint at noon will not be seen as an alcoholic. And any German beer fan knows extremely creative methods to open a beer bottle without an opener.

10 very German passions

Paperwork

The binder is a German invention, and this might help explain why Germans are so fond of keeping their records. Yet even the most chaotic person will quickly find out that keeping any official document is a necessity in Germany. You actually need them more often than you'd think. Despite digitalization, German bureaucracy also remains surprisingly reliant on good-old paper forms — stacks of them.

10 very German passions

Bargains

It's a country where discounter stores often serve as supermarkets for all classes of society. People who are always searching for the best deals are called "Schnäppchenjäger," or bargain hunters. The mentality is ingrained in many Germans, allowing this advertisement slogan, "Geiz ist geil!" — being stingy is sexy — to become part of pop culture.

10 very German passions

Travel

If you're to meet any other tourists in a remote area of, say, the Middle East, they could well be middle-aged Germans in high-tech hiking gear. Passionate travelers, Germans are everywhere. Many prefer to stick to established habits, though. A favorite is the Spanish island of Mallorca, nicknamed "Malle." "Ballermann 6" (pictured) is a particularly famous bar known for its excesses.

10 very German passions

Schrebergärten - garden colonies

The Germans who prefer to stay in the city throughout the summer might be doing so because they have a garden in one of the country's 1.4 million "Schrebergärten," which are colonies divided into plots with a little shack. There, they can work on their flowerbeds, barbecue or line up garden gnomes. Germany, however, strictly regulates these allotments, and each colony also has its own rules.

10 very German passions

FKK

The German nudist movement was the first worldwide, developing at the end of 19th century through clubs promoting "Freikörperkultur," or FKK, which translates as Free Body Culture. It became especially widespread in former East Germany, and not only in nudist camps. To this day, you shouldn't be surprised to see naked people in parks or around lakes in the eastern part of Germany.

10 very German passions

Road rules

As an adult, you may feel you can take your own risk and cross on a red light when there aren't any cars. However, in Germany, you shouldn't be surprised if you hear someone yelling at you: "It's RED!" Often, cyclists, pedestrians and car drivers all feel the need to "educate" their fellow road users.

10 very German passions

Stammtisch

There's no exact translation for this German tradition: "Stammtisch" initially referred to a table reserved for regular clients in a pub, where they'd often play a card game called skat or discuss politics. The discussions weren't always elaborate, though, leading to the expression "Stammtischniveau" (Stammstisch level). Now, Stammtisch is also a regular meet-up organized by any imaginable group.

10 very German passions

Tatort

Most Sunday evenings, nearly 10 million Germans tune in to the TV series "Tatort" (Crime Scene), which has been continuously running since 1970. Regional public broadcasters take turns producing episodes, so investigations are set in a different city each time. As it's more fun to watch with other people, many pubs organize screenings. Tweeting during the show is another popular option.

10 very German passions

Cake every day

The "Kaffee und Kuchen" (coffee and cake) tradition allows Germans to eat cake any afternoon, like British teatime - although most people now indulge in this treat on weekends only. You're also expected to show up with a cake for your colleagues on your birthday. Children sometimes start theirs with cake for breakfast, then bring one to school and get a third one for their party with friends.