Berlin Recycling and Waste: Deciphered

Berlin Recycling

Growing up, there was no separating the trash…and as I moved from country to country, the lists of what you can and cannot recycle/throw away and when/where continued to change. It can be quite overwhelming sometimes, but I’ve finally gotten the hang of it after over 10 years in Berlin, so I’m going to do my best to break it down for you. 

In the beginning, I was both impressed by the fact that we were able to separate all of our trash and incredibly confused as to what goes where.  Once I understood the basics, I was then able to optimize it even more, to ensure that I was paying attention to packaging, and trying to buy materials that were easily recycled, and not burnt or shipped elsewhere (ahem…plastic). 

Separating your trash: Stage 1 (in the house), and Stage 2 (in the Hof) 


If you’ve seen Emily’s post about recycling here, you already know the general categories for Berlin — separate bins for food waste (biogut), paper, and Wertstoffe (or in other words, valuable materials that can potentially be recycled— such as plastics* and aluminum) and then another one for your regular household trash, and one for glass. The company in charge of the waste removal is called BSR (short for Berlin Stadtreinigung) and is responsible for Berlin waste management…

When I arrived, I was most impressed by the German Pfand, or deposit system — I thought it was a brilliant way to encourage people not to throw things away in the wrong bin or leave trash lying around.

But did you know that not all Pfand is created equal?  Some items are used once and then shredded/crushed for recycling/downcycling…while other items are used anywhere from 25-50 times before being recycled and then re-used for the same system. It’s part of a circular economy or Mehrweg system, and it goes beyond just beverages.  The other guys, aka Einweg or single-use bottles, are only used once, and more often than not, downcycled (used one more time for a different purpose before eventually ending up in a landfill).

Spot the difference: Mehrweg vs. Einweg


I think it will come as no surprise to you that the better option here is Mehrweg (the bottle on the right). It’s better for the environment, and personally, I feel like drinks simply taste better from a glass bottle (plus there are fewer microplastics to worry about).  While it’s true that glass is heavier than its single-use counterparts, like tetra-pack (a highly complex material that is hard to recycle), the products available in this format are regional, which means they have less distance to travel than some of the other guys, and the benefits of the recyclability of the material outweigh the impact of transport.  

More and more products are starting to participate in this system, so in addition to milk, soft drinks, beer, water, and juices, you can also get yogurt, sour cream, whipped cream, nuts, müsli, teas, and even some plant-based drinks, like oat milk in a Mehrweg bottle. It’s important to note, that Mehrweg does not equal glass — they have plastic Mehrweg bottles as well, so you just need to be able to spot the difference.

There is a symbol for Mehrweg, but unfortunately, it isn’t a requirement, so it’s not always easy to identify.  However, most stores include a label on the price tags, to help you identify whether it is single-use, or not.  And after a while, you’ll start to recognize the shape of the bottles themselves…

If they have either the Mehrweg or Pfand symbol (or both) then you return them in the Rückgabe machines at the store.  

They don’t need to be washed beforehand (you can rinse them out, but as long as you’ve scraped them clean/gotten most of the liquid out, you should be golden)…and the lids/caps and paper labels stay ON; no need to separate them for the Mehrweg products, as it is best to keep them together.  Separation is more important for your bins at home…

Glass without a deposit


Since we are on the topic of glass, let’s move on to the glass items that can’t be returned via the machine (the machine scans the barcode/raised markings on the glass to ensure they are only taking stuff that belongs, so if it’s not Mehrweg, the machine won’t accept it)  Unlike their Mehrweg cousins, Altglas (old glass) comes with some pretty strict rules. It’s important to remove the lids and corks before recycling.  And if the label comes off easily, go ahead and separate that as well, while you’re at it; If the label is hanging on for dear life, then don’t stress about it…go ahead and leave it on there.

The color of the glass is most important here, immediately followed by the type of glass —no broken glassware, tableware or porcelain is allowed in there.  I know it seems silly, as your broken wine glass looks similar, but it cannot be recycled like the wine bottle because it was manufactured and treated differently.  Broken glassware goes in the standard rubbish bin, and the empty glass jars and bottles go in the appropriate BSR ‘igloo’.  Paper labels go in the paper bin; metal and plastic lids go in the Wertstoff bin, and because cork is such a valuable material, those bad-boys should be set aside to be recycled later (more on that in a bit).

Until recently, everyone had Altglas bin at home,  but they recently removed them… so unless you’re one of the lucky few who still have this recycling option at home, you’ll need to find your nearest igloo, here and remember, there are specific days and times when recycling is not allowed because it’s too noisy, so be sure to dispose of it at a time that won’t get you dirty looks from your neighbors.  


Tip: Altglas jars are great for storing food, or shopping in one of Berlin’s unverpackt (bulk) stores…so if that is something you are interested in, be sure to set aside the jars you like (wide-mouthed jars are best) in order to get even more use out of them before eventually recycling them.

Separating valuable materials (plastic, metal) from landfill


Next up, is the Wertstoff bin or Gelbe Sack, Gelbe Tonne.  You might have an old yellow bin, or one of the new orange ones…  Either way, this is the bin that probably gets the biggest workout, simply because there is so much plastic packaging in circulation (recyclability depends on the type of plastic being used), and because this bin is also used for aluminum and steel (metal is incredibly valuable, as it can be recycled infinitely). Fun fact: You pay for removal of the Gelbe Sack at the till, not in your operational costs, so if you toss this valuable material in the normal bin, not only are you throwing away valuable materials; you’re paying for it twice.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to tell what belongs in which bin …so it’s super important to read the labels. Especially because a lot of companies are creating packaging that looks like a sustainable material but is actually a complex material containing plastic…(like the cereal bag example below) or the companies have actually improved their packaging to increase recyclability, but the consumer isn’t aware of the change ( for example, a lot of the paper boxes from the freezer section look like they are coated, so you’d assume they belong in the yellow bin…however, they don’t — they belong in the blue bin (paper)).  

All the new bio-plastics, or plant-based plastics, make it even more confusing…but as the current systems for recycling packaging aren’t able to recognize the difference between bioplastic and traditional plastic, it can create problems.  For now, the bioplastics belong in the standard rubbish bin — not the Wertstoff bin, nor the compost bin, even if it says compostable on the label (more on that, next).  

Becoming friends with your compost bin


One of my favorite bins, and probably the most confusing of them all, is the brown bin for compost, or BIOGUT. 

 Food waste is a huge contributor to methane gas production in our landfills, so it is very important to separate it from the regular trash.  Most organic food can go in there, as well as some paper and newspaper…so once you get the hang of it, it’s fairly easy.  It is not the same as a home compost system, as the Berlin cycle is only about 40 days long, so it’s important to understand what the BSR allows, and doesn’t — don’t go by the general compost do’s and don’ts on the internet.  

One of the most confusing and frustrating things about the BIOGUT bin is the misunderstanding about bioplastic or biodegradable bin liners.  They are specifically marketed for the compost bin, when in actuality, they are NOT allowed in the bin because the compost cycle is not long enough for them to break down, so if you need to use a bin liner, please use a paper bag or old newspaper.  

Last, but not least, is the blue paper bin.


This is where you recycle all of your cardboard boxes (be sure to break them down and make them small as possible, otherwise the BSR will not empty the bin), newspapers, magazines, and office paper, as well as envelopes (even the ones with the see-thru windows.). The only thing you really need to watch out for here, are the coated papers and mixed materials made to look like paper.  Oh, and photographs, used tissues, and paper towels are also not allowed — those go in your regular household rubbish.

Anything that is not listed above usually belongs in your normal bin.  However, there are also some everyday items that can’t be recycled or disposed of at home but can be recycled by BSR at one of their recycling centers (Recyclinghof). 

Tip to save you a trip to BSR:  Batteries and light bulbs can easily be recycled at most grocery and drug stores…just look for the collection points.  Alnatura has a collection point for cork recycling and H&M collects unwearable clothing for recycling, so keep these in mind if you’re looking for a more convenient option to recycle items that aren’t collected by BSR. 

For the large items that don’t fit/belong in any of the bins, or any hazardous materials,  you’ll need to bring them to your nearest  BSR Recyclinghof for proper disposal or bring them to a collection point during one of BSRs local events (keep an eye out for flyers posted on your door).

Don’t bin it, donate it!

However, if the items you want to get rid of are still in good condition, you can also donate them.  BSR and RE-Use Berlin have recently opened up second-hand stores to marked donated items destined for the landfill, to consumers.   Noch-Mall (a play on the words again, or re-use, and the concept of a mall) is located in the north part of Berlin, in Reinickendorf, and the  Re-Use concept store, B-Wa(h)renhause, is in the old Karstadt at Hermannplatz,  in Neukölln until end of February 2021.


So, if you no longer need something, but hate to see a perfectly good item go to waste, you can donate it to BSR and they will make sure it ends up in good hands. You can donate items in Zehlendorf directly, or Reinickendorf.


Please note, they are not accepting appliances — washing machines, dishwashers, etc. (Weiße Ware), but will gladly take home and office furniture; electronic equipment (except appliances); clothing and textiles; sports equipment and bags/backpacks; children’s clothes/books/toys/puzzles;  books and media; posters, paintings, and mirrors; glass, cutlery, and dishware…including decorative items, such as vases, etc.; tools for the house and garden; and miscellaneous items (like jewelry and other small items)


You can also visit their stores to look for second-hand items in good condition. However, there is not currently an option to have your items delivered, so keep that in mind if you are looking for a big-ticket item.  

Berlin is pretty sophisticated when it comes to their collection and recycling options, so understanding the ins and outs will take a bit of time. Plus, it seems like they are constantly coming up with additional resources and services, in order to keep valuable stuff out of the landfill (like the new second-hand stores I mentioned, as well as some repair cafes that are springing up)…so they definitely keep us on our toes!  

But, no worries…you’ll get there in the end.  Feel free to bookmark this post, or download my free Recycling cheat sheet here to hang near your bins, until you get the hang of it. 


Meg Koch is a sustainability consultant based in Berlin.  She has turned her knowledge of the consumer from over 15+ years in the advertising and technology innovation space into a catalyst for change.  Educating and empowering consumers to address the impact of their everyday purchases and habits, she helps them to identify more sustainable alternatives, and ultimately, to modify their purchasing habits in order to dramatically decrease the amount of waste being created over time. For the most up-to-date info, check out her microblogs on Instagram

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