Garbage Sorting & Recycling in Germany

Germans are very proud of their Umweltfreundlichkeit (environmental friendliness). From recycling and car emissions to public transit and home appliances, there isn’t much that isn’t influenced but the German desire to live clean or save money (or both). It’s  commendable of the German government to effectively incentives its citizens and companies towards a more sustainable way of life.

Being sustainable in every facet of society is such a central part of their culture and something so different from my experiences back in the States. Where I grew up in rural Washington, it was nearly impossible to recycle even if you wanted to and the few efforts my family made really impacted our day to day life in a negative way.

For example, being just an hour away from Oregon, we did most of our shopping there which meant we could also return our pop cans there to get out 5 cent deposit back. Most of the inconveniences centered around distance. Because of the time commitment it took to drive somewhere we could shop, we only got groceries every couple of weeks, which also meant we could only take our cans back every couple of weeks. If we had too much to do during one trip, recycling was the first item to be scratched off the to-do list making it an even bigger task to deal with next time.

If you were concerned, like me, for the environment and wanted to recycle something, be it only paper, you could accumulate it at home and then bring them into school where there are recycling bins. I’m not sure if this is actually frowned upon but I was always sneaky and never had anyone tell me off. Up until this last week, I hadn’t lived anywhere in the states that has offered any means of facilitating plastic, metal or glass recycling, sending the majority of the least biodegradable materials straight into the landfill.

For Germans (and most of Europe TBH), recycling has been a part of their lives since birth and their system is set up in a way that makes it simple and effortless. At the very minimum (from my experience) every household has paper recycling along with their regular garbage. In most areas there is also another bin labeled “packaging.” In it goes plastics, cans and generally anything marked as recyclable but not paper. Sometimes there’s even a compost bin for tissues, food scraps and anything else that’s readily biodegradable.

Additionally, a vast majority of plastic bottles and many glass bottles have large deposits on them. My 22 cent bottle of Apfelschorle had a 25 cent deposit on it! You’d better bet I’ll be taking those bottles back! If I didn’t I’d literally be throwing away more money as a deposit than the actual drink was worth. Finally, every neighborhood has an area with large industrial bins to throw away glass, electronics and unwanted shoes/clothing.

This all may seem a bit much and work intensive from an American perspective but it’s honestly very simple. It becomes completely second-hand within a week of learning where everything is and what all goes where. In fact, with your waste split into so many different categories, it feels like you have to deal with it less often.

In America, it wouldn’t be uncommon to have to take out a giant, heavy, drippy, smelly bag of garbage multiple times a week. To contrast, in Germany, I might take out my (clean and lightweight) bag of recycling once a week, my glass and deposited bottles usually tagged along whenever I went to the grocery store, and after all that, my actual garbage filled up so slowly that it was my smallest bin/bag and I took it out twice a month max (basically whenever it started to smell).

Another environmental innovation on the part of the German government are large incentives for corporations to reduce the amount of packaging used for products. They essentially tax companies based on what type and how much packaging is used. This has led to thinner plastics and glasses and less unnecessary packaging in general. How often in the US do you buy something relatively small and it comes in an unnecessarily large and wasteful package just for the display? Not likely to happen in Germany.

I actually wrote the bulk of this post long ago and have since moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. Where I’m living now does actually have recycling bins provided alongside our garbage service.

The big question mark for me is why they don’t accept glass for recycling here. Fortunately for me, I will need to be saving most of my glass jars and bottles to use in my bulk shopping as well as replacements for my handful of plastic Tupperware that is quickly approaching the end of their useful lives. So, for now, I don’t have a desire to recycle any glass except for the occasional broken jar.

Despite, my new-found accessibility to recycling in the States, the numbers don’t lie and we’re clearly not as good at it as Germany. Germany is consistently competing for the top spot in the world whereas the USA hasn’t even come close to cracking top ten since I was born (and maybe ever?).

For those of you reading this who might be moving to or visiting Germany or a similar country in the near future and are concerned about this change in systems; don’t fret. Most every receptacle is labeled (often in English as well) and most of the German words are basically the same as English. Plastic vs Plastik. Packaging vs Verpackung. And once you realize their word for residual garbage (i.e. everything that doesn’t fit in the other recycling categories) is literally “the rest of the garbage” or Restmüll, it all becomes pretty self explanatory. When in doubt, ask or see if your region has a garbage guide online. Most do and many of the areas most likely to have Americans are in English as well.

Of course, I’ve made some generalization and this is all based on my own experiences, but I hope this has either acted as a reassuring guide to those of you preparing to make the switch and as an interesting comparison between differing systems for everyone else. Feel free to drop me any questions in the comment section below. Until then, let’s all cross our fingers that I can maintain some semblance of a consistent schedule now that I’m starting work.

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