One of the most immediate culture shocks of traveling to Germany, especially if you grew up in the United States, is Germany’s seeming obsession with recycling. Whereas in the U.S. you are lucky if you can locate a recycling bin in public areas like parks or street corners, you’ll have the opposite problem in Germany, where you’ll find a sometimes confusing plethora of multi-colored bins. If you have been in this situation, looking around desperately to strangers or waiting to see what items other drop in each bin, we feel you. You are not alone. Even Germans sometimes question which bin is appropriate for which items.
Due to this common culture shock and the often harsh punishment one receives for a wrong move, we thought we’d give you the lowdown on German recycling.
Step 1: Prevent creating waste in the first place
Germany has created and continues to develop a culture of minimal waste. This is true for projects big and small: here are a few examples of major reducers of waste.
Bag fee: Germany combats the environmental threat of excessive plastic bag-use by adding a small fee onto bags at stores. Even though it’s small, the fee has further motivated people to bring their own reusable bags or carts to stores. Some stores now don’t offer plastic bags at all–opting instead to offer paper bags for those who need them.
Lack of excess packaging: Say tschüss to those individually wrapped fruit packages or items wrapped individually in plastic, then wrapped collectively in plastic.
Quality over quantity: According to a 2016 report by Germany Trade and Invest, Germans are well researched and particular consumers. They are much more risk averse and likely to return items that don’t meet their expectations. This makes things like quality labels or reviews really important and generally lends towards a population that has fewer, but higher quality possessions that don’t need constant replacement.
Step 2: Pfand
Imagine if, for every bottle–plastic or glass, you bought, you had to pay extra for it. The deal in Germany is that you pay more initially but then receive that surcharge back when you give the bottles back for recycling. So, just like when you weekly take the garbage out in the States, in Germany it is a regular habit to return your bin of recycling to super markets where you will find a machine like this:
This machine scans the bar code of your items, and prints a receipt for you to redeem at the register. Basically, if you don’t recycle your eligible items for Pfand, you are losing money.
As a tourist, you have potentially experienced Pfand in a different way. At Christmas markets, stands will charge you extra for the mug that hot drinks are served in. You can choose to keep the mug as a memento, or to return it for Pfand.
You may have also been asked for your empty bottle in public by someone collecting them to return. This is potentially convenient for you, earns them a little money by returning them AND it is good for the earth. Triple whammy! There are even entire non-profits that fund themselves by collecting Pfand at events or concerts.
Step 3: Choose your bin
This part sounds really uncomplicated from an American perspective. Trash or recycling…right?
After giving back bottles for Pfand, Germans sort trash typically by paper, plastic, bio/organic, glass, and other. Though details are dependent on town or region, a general breakdown goes like this:
Paper= blue bins. This bin is for cardboard, newspapers, magazines, waste paper, paper bags, etc, etc.
Plastic = Yellow bins. This is for plastic such as body wash, shampoo, sunscreen, laundry detergent, and juice bottles
Glass= Glass is sorted by color. There are different slots for depositing green, brown and clear glass. In this bin you should be putting any kind of jars (mustard, jam, yogurt, etc), oil bottles, wine bottles or the like.
Bio (organic) = green bins. This is for food waste like egg shells, banana peel, or scraps of food you didn’t eat.
Other = black bins. You choose your size and you’re charged accordingly. They send you a sticker each year to show that you’ve paid for it. Residual waste is garbage that neither includes pollutants nor reusable components. For example ash, dust bag, cigarette ends, rubber, toiletries, and diapers are thrown into the black bin.
Step 4: Enjoy a cleaner earth!
Though the effect of one person caring about the environment is small, the collective effort of a nation makes a dent. Germany leads the European nations in recycling, with around 70 percent of the waste the country generates successfully recovered and reused each year.
By Claire MacFarlane