How to: Recycle in Germany

We try to do a lot of environmentally friendly things at our house by choice.  Now that we’re in Germany, we also kind of have to do them by law.  It seems this country is obsessed with sorting their garbage to the tiniest detail, and no one is afraid to point out when you’ve messed up.

The not speaking German thing I can handle.  Figuring out the garbage system practically takes a PhD.  Thankfully, I think I might graduate thanks to my wonderful eves dropping skills.  Living in the city makes garbage sorting So Much Easier than small town life.  I don’t have to worry about which bins get picked up every two weeks or four weeks or if I used the right color of bag.  Yes, the proper bag makes a HUGE difference.  In the city, I just go out to the back of the building with my recycling piles or carry them to the drop off bins any time I need.

You ready for the routine?  I’ll be handing out diplomas at the end…

Step 1.    Return plastic bottles and glass bottles and yogurt jars to drink stores to get your deposit back.  This process is all fine and dandy until the clerk hands one of  your bottles back to you and says “nein” no. I have no idea how I finally figured out the solution.  I think it’s because I’m not all that great with rejection.  So after the third time my Bio-nade bottles were rejected by the chain grocer and I had to walk home with groceries AND empty bottles, I determined that if they don’t sell that product, they don’t take back the bottle.  You have to walk back home with it and remember where the heck you got the stupid thing so you can get your 15 cents.

Step 2.    Recycle all remaining glass by color in three bins like these.  Martin says I’m a dork, but I just loved the contrast of this picture I snapped while we were exploring in November.  I’ve been dying to share it with you ever since.


Step 3.    Toss all paper and cardboard in the blue bin behind your building.  Easy peasy.

Step 4.    Plug your nose and get ready to move.  You’ve got to put your food scraps, plant bits, and other yuckies in the compost bin also nicely behind the building.  You won’t miss it – it’s got all the fruit flies and stink around it.  Thankfully, our windows are nowhere near this bin.

Step 5.    Put every bit of packaging – and I mean EVERY bit – in the huge yellow bins if it has the little green “dot”, the symbol for recycling.  Everything from cheese wrappers to shampoo bottles and old compost bins go here because I haven’t found a piece of packaging that doesn’t have this dot.

Step 6.    Put the styrofoam… Oh wait.  There is no styrofoam.  That stuff takes millions of years to break down, and I really like living somewhere where I don’t have to ask the waitress to NOT give me a styrofoam container for my leftovers.

Step 7. This list doesn’t end, does it? Hunt down a clothes recycling bin for all fabric scraps, clothes, and shoes.  They’re around.  No idea where I found this one:


Step 8.    I don’t know what to do with metal in Berlin yet, but in the small town, a funny little man drove a cart around town ringing a bell.  He took all your metal scraps… I mean ALL.  Old pots, wires, beat up jewelry…

Step 9.    Toss your batteries into your coat pocket or purse so you can return them to the hardware store.  (I’m sure you can recycle them at other places, but we practically live at the hardware store after quiet hours every week.)  At our house, we practically need a whole other line item that says:  remember to take those AA batteries OUT of your pockets at the hardware store.  I’m sure none of you would ever forget, huh?  Talk about irritating.

Step 10.    Put everything else in the black bin… which, you know, is like NOTHING since you already recycled everything.  You’ve never seen a smaller garbage can.

It all sounds pretty easy, right?  (!!)

Now if you’re doing the math like we were… that much sorting could easily fill our entire kitchen by itself with all those bins.  So we wasted no time brainstorming a solution for how we could fit upwards of a hundred separate recycling spaces in our kitchen.  And that challenge, my friends, is a post for another day.  Enough trash talk.  I’m spent.

In the meantime, we’d love some tips on how you manage your recycling and trash.  For those of you who aren’t recycling, well maybe just don’t tell me.  Okay?  I’m still working on that degree.

Hungry for more?  Here’s how we organized our kitchen recycling center to accommodate everything.  And if you need more Germany survival tips, check out our Expat Guide.