How to recycle like a German

Black bin, blue bin, yellow bin, brown bin... welcome to the world of rainbow recycling in Germany. Most foreigners are baffled by the waste separation rules when they first arrive so if you want to be a good German, not bug your neighbours and get ahead of the expat pack, read on!

    If the members of Destiny’s Child had been born in Germany, “Bills, Bills, Bills” probably would have been “Bins, Bins, Bins” instead. Maybe Beyoncé would also have sounded a bit more like Rammstein, which could have been quite entertaining. (There’s some Kopfkino for you.) Sure, “Bins, Bins, Bins” might not have been a global hit but it definitely would have shot straight to number one in the German charts. Yep, recycling is a big deal here and, if you want to start living like a real German, you’ll need to get your head around it.

    As you probably didn’t blast out of the womb in a recycling frenzy like most Germans, it can take a while to get the hang of the system. In fact, as a foreigner here, you’ve probably already made some rookie mistakes.

    • Baking paper in the paper bin? NEIN!
    • Eggshells in the Restmüll? NEIN!
    • Used napkins in the paper bin? NEIN!
    • Unused napkins in the Restmüll? NEIN!

    If you live with Germans, you’ll likely be schooled in the art of waste separation (Mülltrennung) very quickly. In fact, it’s not uncommon to come home to find your German flatmate standing in the kitchen, shaking their head sadly, quietly tut-tutting over what you thought was your recycling good deed for the day. So, the big question:

    Waste separation. What goes where?

    This list is by no means exhaustive as the internet isn’t big enough for all of the German waste separation rules and exceptions (sometimes even Germans are confused) but here goes anyway.

    Bio (brown or green)

    Bio is for food / organic waste, e.g. vegetable and fruit peel, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea filters, food leftovers. It’s a good idea to buy the compostable green bags that are available at every supermarket. Otherwise, use newspaper or a paper bag, not plastic. You really do not want to see the inside of a plastic bag that’s had bio waste in it.

    Verpackung (yellow)

    All lightweight packaging that isn’t cardboard, such as aluminium, plastic, polystyrene, tin cans, and Tetra Paks. In some parts of the country, instead of bins, a yellow plastic bag - the “Gelber Sack” - is used to collect packaging. Just pop it outside for collection on the scheduled day. You’ll probably get a calendar in the mail or you can check online when this is. Or just look at when everybody else is putting out their yellow bags.

    Restmüll (black)

    All non-recyclable waste, e.g. cigarette butts, nappies. In case you were wondering, baking paper also goes in here, along with used napkins.

    Papier / Pappe (blue)

    For waste paper, such as newspapers, magazines, cardboard packaging, unused napkins but not used ones. Obviously.


    Green glass in Grün, brown glass in Braun, clear glass in Weiß – simple, for once. Often green and brown glass go in the same container – “Buntglas”. Blue and yellow bottles also go in Grün. Lids, bottle caps, corks, etc. go in a different bin. Also, don’t throw broken drinking glasses or window panes into the glass containers as they're made of a different type of glass that messes up the recycling process. And don’t throw anything in there on Sundays or public holidays or between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. or after 8 p.m. on weekdays. Even though you’re trying to be a good citizen, you’ll actually be violating the incredibly vague German noise laws, and your neighbours probably won’t like you very much either.

    What is the Pfand system and how does it work?

    When you buy a soft drink or beer (bottle or can), most of the time there’s a Pfand (deposit) of between 8 and 25 cents included in the price. When you’re done, bring these bottles and cans back to the store and pop them into the magical machine – you’ll get a receipt which will be deducted from your shopping bill or paid out in cash at the register. Unfortunately, there’s no Pfand on wine bottles so just throw them into the normal glass containers. But not on Sundays or public holidays or between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. or after 8 p.m. on weekdays… If you can’t be arsed bringing your bottles and cans back to the store – or are rich and don’t need the money, lucky git – you can leave them near a public bin so homeless or poor people can bring them back and get the deposit instead.

    What if my waste doesn’t fit in the regular bins?

    If you live in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg in Berlin, no problem - just haul it to the nearest corner and then slink off into the night. That way, your neighbours get to wake up to stunning views of your soiled mattress or clapped out fridge. If you’re a decent human being, take it to a recycling centre or call the Sperrmüll to arrange a date for pick-up. Prices start at around €10 depending on the amount of waste and how quickly you want to get rid of it. Start saving that Pfand money.

    Which bin do batteries go in?

    They don’t. Most grocery stores, and shops like Rossmann or DM, have a bin for old batteries, usually close to the door.

    What do I do with old clothes and shoes?

    Donate them to a second-hand store or drop them into the clothing bins you’ll find all over Germany.

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    That sounds like a lot of work. Can’t I just not bother?

    NEIN! You are a naughty German! Aside from the environmental benefits, you may find yourself at the receiving end of “helpful” notes from your neighbours who’ve kindly brought your incorrectly binned rubbish back to your door. Because yeah, of course they’ll know it’s the foreigner. Not taking waste separation seriously can result in fines for your building so if you don’t want to find yourself in the doghouse, you’ll make an effort. And that’s about it. You can probably see why Beyoncé (or anybody else for that matter) hasn’t attempted to write “Bins, Bins, Bins” as it would be about an hour long. Still, bins will be an important part of your everyday life here in Germany so don’t make a song and dance about it and start trenning that Müll!