So how would you rate your knowledge of the German mülltrennung system? Do you know how to separate your household waste the German way? Learn all about German garbage disposal system in this article.
When introduced for the first time, many of us expats assume that the puzzling German garbage disposal system is just an unnecessary complication to an otherwise simple household chore. Many Germans would like to disagree with you.
In fact, waste separation is a matter of national pride.
Even though this infamous system for waste separation is so complex that at times Germans themselves cannot completely wrap their head around it. So fret not, dear foreigners. I’ve created this nifty guide to explain how the German garbage disposal system works.
Go on take up the challenge and become a Mülltrennung master in no time!
First Some Important Factoids
The Green Dot (Der Grüne Punkt), German dual system of the waste collection was introduced in 1991. The goal of this dual system is to keep recyclables as long as possible in an economic cycle by high-quality recycling. It is no wonder that Germany boasts the highest recycling rate in the world. The rate for municipal waste rose from 56% in 2002 to 67% in 2016. This goal was achieved so fast that Germany ended up reaching the 2020 target of increasing the recycling percentage for municipal waste four years earlier.
Germany’s waste management success really comes down to two factors:
First, one being the strong government policy. And the second, the German citizens being bros and embracing recycling fully. The recycling success comes primarily from strong government policy and proactive public action. It is also the responsibility of the expat community to make sure that our host country stays as clean and green as possible.
And now the lesson starts.
Overview of the German Waste Management System
Unlike in most countries, where localities have a trash bin and a recycling bin, Germany has multiple colour-coded recycling bins to guide its citizens to sort the household garbage themselves. This is where the infamous German efficiency truly shines.
By pre-sorting their recycling, the German government saves a significant amount of money, resources and time. This process also reduces the amount of contamination that can potentially ruin entire batches of recycled material. This feat certainly wasn’t achieved overnight.
With time it became an inseparable habit in German households and, in fact, a matter of pride today.
Mülltrennung can be quite hard to master for fresh arrivals. So don’t be shocked if one day your nice German neighbour is suddenly schooling you over your garbage sorting skills. Take it as a lesson and learn from the experts. 😉
How the German Garbage Disposal System Works
The big loop of German waste management begins in your home. You sort the household waste as it comes, and later fill it on into the different coloured bins in front or back of your house. And it is collected up by the city council each week.
The Garbage Pick-Up Calendar
The bins are picked on different dates in different municipalities. This pickup schedule is printed in a special calendar (Abfall-Kalender). You can find this schedule at the entrance of your apartment. If in doubt then you can ask your neighbours or Housemeister for more info.
You have to place your bins in front of your house the evening before the collecting date so that the collectors can empty the bins the following morning.
It sounds very complicated in the beginning. However, with a little routine one gets used to it. And before you realise you will find yourself tearing off the clear plastic off your carton packaging and disposing it in two different bins.
Colour is the Key
The garbage bins are colour coded; green, blue, yellow, brown and gray. You may notice that the colour of the bin itself may differ. So the colour of the lid is key.
In most big to mid-sized cities, there are four different bins in almost every backyard. In the countryside, you may have to drive to a recycling plant to find these bins. Only certain types of waste may be thrown into each bin:
Yellow Bins or Bags (Gelb Sack/ Leichtverpackungen)
Light-weight product packaging, i.e. all packaging which are not made of glass or paper belongs in the yellow bin or bags. This includes:
- plastic packaging (as yoghurt tubs),
- tetra-pack (as for milk or juice),
- packaging with plastic in front and cardboard on the back,
- spray cans (empty deo or hairspray),
- boxes and tins,
- screw tops (used for marmalade glasses),
- film and plastic bags,
- pet food packaging
In the absence of a yellow bin at your house building, you have to put plastic waste into a yellow plastic bag (Gelb Sack). This bag is then placed outside for collection at regularly scheduled times. These bags are available for free at your local Rathaus.
Pro tip: Don’t put non-recyclable waste into the yellow bags! Sometimes they are inspected by the garbage collectors. If there is something wrong in the sacks, the full bags will be returned for resorting with a big sticker on it. So sort your garbage properly and avoid the walk of shame in front of the entire neighbourhood.
Green or Blue Bins (Papiermüll)
All packaging made of paper and cardboard, newspapers, magazines, waste paper, paper bags, pizza cartons etc belong in the blue bins. If your packaging consists of paper and plastic parts, throw only the paper or carton of the packaging and not the plastic wrappers inside the box in the bin.
Don’t confuse juice and milk cartons/tetra-packs as paper waste. They go in the yellow sack/bin. If you don’t see a blue bin at your house building, you will find one around your neighbourhood.
Pro tip: Flatten the cardboard boxes before putting them in the bin. This way the bin won’t fill up too fast.
Brown Bin or Bio-Waste (Bioabfall)
Here goes all compostable kitchen and garden waste. This will include vegetable and fruit peel, vegetables, salads, eggshell, leftovers, small bones, fish bones, the leftovers of meat, bread and cake, coffee, teabags, rotten food (without packing!).
If you are lucky enough to own a house with a garden, then you can dump all of this into a compost. Biological waste makes up almost half of the total garbage produced in Germany.
Black or Grey Bins (Restmüll)
This is where the rest of the waste goes to be incinerated. Garbage that does not fit in any of the above categories can be disposed of in the grey bins. Ash, cigarette butts, unwanted household objects like hairbrushes or frying pans, porcelain, textiles and nylon stockings, nappies/diapers, tissues, feminine and other personal hygiene items, extremely dirty paper, vacuum cleaner bags, – you name it.
Pro Tip: If you neither have a separate brown bin nor want to make your own compost heap, you are allowed to throw the biowaste in the grey bins.
A Note for Cat Owners
I could not find any official info on how to properly dispose of cat litter in Germany. For this, I scanned various cat-related German forums looking for an answer. The verdict seems to be that flushing it down the toilet is a BIG no-no.
However, you can put litter clumps in small dog poop bags and dispose them off in the Restmülle. If you don’t have a Restmülle, then the Biomülle is also acceptable (without the plastic bag!).
If you are extra tolerant to cat poop stench, then feel free to just chuck it in your compost tub.
Glass Waste (Behälterglas)
All those lovely wine bottles have to go somewhere as well. German glass waste is also sorted by colour. There are different slots for depositing green, brown and clear glass. You will find these bins dotted over every neighbourhood or near supermarkets like Edeka, Rewe or Kaufland. This includes wine bottles, jam/preserve jars, oil bottles, juice bottles and even bath-salt bottles. Ceramics, china, mirrors and wine corks do not belong in these bins.
Before dumping the bottles in the bins check them for a “Mehrweg” or “Pfand” symbol. If you see one, then you can take it back to a store like Edeka or Lidl and get a refund fee for them. Most beer bottles can be returned for a small pfand at any big superstore with an automatic collection machine.
Pro tip: Make sure that you do not dispose off bottles during the official quiet time (Ruhezeit). Sundays or late evening are not the recommended times to chuck out your bottles unless you fancy a good ol’ stare down by the nearby Germans.
The Rest of the Rest
At last, we are now left with “the rest”, i.e. the stuff that did not fit in any of the above bins. Items like batteries and acids, cans with leftover paint, thinners, adhesives, corrosives, fluorescent tubes, disinfectants, insecticides, and so forth, has to be treated as hazardous waste.
You will receive a notice from your local town council on when and where the truck collecting this kind of waste, will be. You need to bring your stuff to the site for them to dispose of it in the proper manner.
Pro Tip: Do not add this hazardous waste to the Restmüll. Otherwise, it will be incinerated along with the rest of the “grey” waste, and result in extremely poisonous gasses. Not good!
I honestly never thought I’d be ever writing about waste management of any kind. Never mind a FIVE-page long guide about the German garbage disposal system! But here it is. It is truly worth educating ourselves about, and at times to make fun of this super structured garbage sorting system. ?
Germany can be proud of itself for setting up a great example of running an effective and efficient waste management program. It is one thing to have a government policy but a whole another beast to have citizens proactively coming on board and dedicating to make this recycling loop a success.
So how would you rate your knowledge of the German mülltrennung system? Do you separate your household waste according to the system? Do you think anyone who masters the German garbage disposal system should be granted the German citizenship? Tell us in the comments below.
Read more about German expat life here.