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.
Many Germans are conscientious about recycling – and the German Pfandsystem makes it easy to do so.
Since 2003, Germany has had a system (the Pfandsystem or “deposit system”) that regulates the sale and return of plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans. When someone buys a bottled beverage, they pay a deposit on that bottle (for example, 15 extra cents). If, however, they bring that empty bottle to a return station (often located in supermarkets), they get that money back. Imagine how much money you could get back if you return 50 empty bottles! This is why you sometimes see individuals voluntarily collecting used bottles in Germany.
The bottles that are eligible for Pfand (the “deposit” cash) are usually multi-use, refillable bottles. Plastic bottles in Germany can be reused up to 25 times and glass bottles can be reused up to 50 times. It is much more environmentally friendly to sterilize recycled bottles than to produce new, single-use bottles. The Pfand is an incentive to have those bottles returned, rather than thrown in the garbage.
Most bottles in Germany are eligible for Pfand, but there are always exceptions. Single-use bottles occasionally find themselves onto grocery store shelves and these are usually not eligible. Imported bottles from other countries may also not be subject to German laws and thus not be eligible for a deposit.
But overall, the German Pfandsystem is quite effective; last year, British company Eunomia named Germany as the world’s best recycler. In Germany, 97.9 percent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were sold with a deposit on them and 93.5 were recycled in 2015, according to a report by the German Society for Packaging Market Research. Most PET bottles end up as new PET bottles, but some are recycled into other products (plastic sheets, textile fibers, etc.)
Many Americans who visit Germany (or other Europeans with similar systems) rave about the Pfandsystem. Because after all – it’s efficient and it works.