How to Recycle in Germany

Our clients at some point (usually at the hand-over of their apartments) stand at the rubbish bins looking baffled.  The questions, “Can you explain the bin system, and how do I recycle in Germany?” usually follow.  It quickly becomes clear that there is a strong system in place for dealing with your household rubbish.

Germany has a very good recycling initiative in place.  Every year Germany produces 30 million tons of garbage and is reported to now be the leading recycling country in the world. After Germany put a recycling system in place, the country was able to reduce its waste by one million tons per year.

There is a method to this sensible sorting — the trick is knowing in which bin to put which item. Below we explain the different ways to recycle in Germany.

Refundable – ‘Pfand’ – Recycling

Let’s start with recycling that benefits your purse! Returning bottles to the shop in Germany means you can get money back.  This is because you paid a deposit for them when purchasing. Typically, you will receive 8c for glass bottles and cans and up to 25c for plastic bottles.  If the label says ‘Pfandfrei’ (deposit free), or if it doesn’t have the Pfand symbol (see above), then that bottle is not returnable for money.  It is then your responsibility to recycle that item in the appropriate – plastics bin (see below ‘Wertstoff’).

Photo thanks to Wanderlustkoenig

When you are returning bottles to a kiosk or Späti, you can give the bottles directly to the clerk to then receive your refund. If you are returning to the supermarket, head to the Pfand machines (pictured above) and place your bottles in one at a time.  Once you have entered all your ‘Pfandflaschen’ – deposit bottles – press the green button, and you will receive a receipt with the refund amount.  Hand this in at the checkout, and the amount will be deducted from your grocery bill.  If you are not buying groceries on this visit, the amount will be paid out to you in cash.

Glass Recycling

Photo: Never Say Retire

Non-refundable glass (like jam jars and wine bottles) need to be recycled in the appropriate glass bins. It hinders the recycling process to put wine corks or lids into these bins, so please dispose of them correctly.  Corks go to waste, and aluminium lids need to be placed in ‘Wertstoffe’ – the yellow bin.

The bins that take glass are identified by colour. Most often you’ll see ‘Weißglas’ – white glass- , ‘Braunglas’ – brown glass -, and ‘Grünglas’ – green glass.   Often you will find that green and brown glass can be disposed of together in the ‘Buntglas’ bin – coloured glass.

If your apartment building or house does not supply glass bins, you will need to take a trip down the street. Specific corners of each neighbourhood are home to a selection of large metal glass bins — you can dispose of your glass here.

Remember that glass can be loud!  If you do not want to become unpopular with your neighbours, you are encouraged to throw out glass before ‘quiet time’ in Germany — 10:00 pm.

Yellow Bin – Recyclable Materials ‘Wertstoffe, Gelbesack, Gelbetonne’ 

recycling in Berlin

Plastic, tetra packs, styrofoam, aluminum and packaging

Packaging is a big one. The amount of food packaging in the supermarkets is at an all-time high, and these materials need to be disposed of correctly. Items such as yogurt containers, plastic meat containers, spray cans, milk containers and food cans can all go into the Wertstoff bins. It is recommended to rinse the containers to ensure an efficient recycling process and to help reduce unwanted odours. If you are unsure if an item is appropriate for the ‘yellow’ bin, look for the ‘Grüne Punkt’ – the green dot – recycling sign on the packaging. Please note that often this sign is not green and might be navy/white or black/white instead.

Biodegradable – ‘Biomüll’ – Recycling

Raw food scraps and peels, cooked food leftovers, tea bags, coffee, egg shells and garden waste

The ‘Biomülltonnen’ – compost bins – are an important addition to the recycling bin family.  They are either brown or green bins. You can collect scraps and throw them directly into the bio bin in your courtyard, or you collect scraps in biodegradable bags in your home to be later disposed of in the larger green bins.  The biodegradable bags are available at the supermarket or ‘Drogerie Markt’.  These are handy and useful, as it makes it easier to keep your compost bin in the kitchen clean.

If your building does not supply a green or brown bin for Biowaste, you can request that the housing management arrange one.

Paper  – ‘Papier’ – Recycling

Newspapers, magazines, paper and card packaging, books and notebooks

Any clean paper products can be put into the paper – ‘Pappe/Papier’ – bins when you recycle in Germany.   These bins will usually be blue or at least have a blue lid. If these bins are overfilled, the collectors will often refuse to empty them.  It is a good idea to break down any boxes to make them as flat as possible so that the bin can be filled and closed efficiently. Stained or used paper, such as oily pizza boxes, are best kept out of the paper bin and disposed of in normal waste.

Normal waste – ‘Restmüll’ 

Household rubbish, sweepings, ashes, sanitary products and nappies, animal litter, dirty paper, foil and vacuum cleaner bags

Everything else that doesn’t fit into one of the recycling categories should go to the ‘Restmüll’ – literally rest rubbish.

Take a look at this helpful graphic from the BSR – Berliner Stadtreinigungsbetriebe.

recycle in Germany

Download the PDF here

Hard Rubbish – ‘Spermüll’ – Recycling

Furniture, wood beams or boards, kitchen sinks, toilets, beds and mattresses

Larger household items cannot go into the regular rubbish or recycling bins. If these items are still in good condition you can inquire about donating to organizations in need, such as refugee homes, homeless shelters or community centers.  However, if the items are unusable, then they are determined hard rubbish and need to be disposed of.  Many city councils will have a hard rubbish removal at certain times, but you can also take a load of large goods directly to your city dump.

Electrical household items are not considered Sperrmüll and need to be taken to the city dump or an electrical recycling unit.

Hazardous Waste Recycling

Batteries, chemicals and paint

Hazardous waste is an important category, as these materials should not be put in the Restmüll.  The waste is often incinerated and could cause damage if hazardous waste items are mixed in.

You will find battery recycling boxes near the packing stations in most supermarkets.

For other materials, such as paints and household chemicals, it is best to check with the city on the proper recycling facilities.

Recycle Used Clothing and Shoes

Recycling old clothes gives us a great opportunity to keep down waste and aid philanthropic organisations. Humana and the Deutsch Red Cross have large metal bins in many locations across every German city.  Alternatively, refugee centers will always welcome second-hand items in good condition.

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Archer Relocation has been providing relocation services to families, individuals and companies in Berlin since early 2015.  Managing Director, Emily Archer, founded the company desiring to use her first-hand experience as an expat to make the relocation process as smooth as possible for others moving to Berlin.  Read other useful information about moving to and living in Berlin, such as ‘How to Find a Berlin Apartment’, on our Berlin Blog.  

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