Monday, January 21, 2013

Mix-Up Monday: The Nitty Gritty of Garbage

It's our 200th entry! Wowee! We are getting down and dirty for this entry and talking about garbage.

Just spend a few days in Germany and you will become overwhelmed by the extremely complex trash system this country has.

Although rather complicated, the trash system in Germany makes a lot of sense once you get used to it. It is also the same everywhere in Germany, meaning you don't have to learn something new every time you move. In the USA, the system changes depending on where you live, meaning although it is less complicated overall (she says!) you have to figure out how the garbage system works where you are at the moment.

There are six basic categories garbage can fall into in Germany. Yes, you read that correctly, SIX!

Biodegradable [green bin]:  All leftover food falls into this category. In Germany, it does not seem to matter how fatty or what type of biodegradable food goes into the bio bin. In the USA, she was taught to not put fatty items into the bio bin because they did not compost as well. Plain paper towels and stuff from the garden (sticks, twigs, leaves) can also go into this bin.

Plastics and such [yellow]: This bin (in many German states, bag) is always yellow which allows it to stand out as being the place for plastics. All wrappings from products (from food, clothing, office supplies, etc.) can go into this bin. Plastic bottle caps, milk cartons, and even tin cans can also go into this bin.

Paper [blue]: Paper is pretty self explanatory. All paper and cardboard goes into this bin.

Bottles with deposit: Although the USA chargers a deposit on most cans and bottles purchased, few Americans go through the effort of returning them to get their money back. In Germany, returning bottles is the norm and stores are set up to make this process relatively painless. More about this in a future Mix-Up Monday.

Glass recycling (
Glass without a deposit: Glass bottles and containers that do not have a deposit must be kept and recycled at one of the recycling areas found throughout towns. These then must be separated by color (brown, green, or white), turning Germany's six category garbage system into an eight category system :) Of course, like all things in Germany, there are rules about when you can recycle your glass (for example, never on a Sunday!!!).

Other [black]: Everything that does not fit into one of these categories goes into the "Rest" bin.  If you are following the garbage rules correctly, this pile is quite small.

~There are two more categories but since they are not used on a daily basis we did not count them. Dangerous materials (e.g., paint, oil) and large items (e.g., mattresses, sofas, chairs) are each picked up once or twice a year. This brings the count up to TEN categories, and actually ELEVEN if you live somewhere that does garden scraps (branches, leaves, etc. separately!~

People truly follow this system in Germany. Train stations and other public areas have special trash cans with the correct number of spaces for people to separate their trash. Only tiny trashcans on the street and in trains and trams seem to have one bin for everything. Individual homes are motivated to follow this system because you pay each time your trash is picked up (meaning you want to reduce the amount of "other" trash you have) and because the garbage men will actually check your trash time to time and not take it if it is sorted wrong (and no one wants their trash sitting around an extra two weeks!). Beyond these reasons, this system is just part of the norm here in Germany and even people living in large apartment complexes where trash is not done by family, seem to strictly adhere to the sorting rules.

So, after that short explanation do you think you got the system down? Test yourself!

Where would the garbage go when you have for dinner a coke with spaghetti and a canned sauce?

Got it?

Bio: Leftover food (if any)
Yellow bin (plastics): Bag from the spaghetti
Glass (with deposit): Coke bottle
Glass (without deposit): Sauce jar (white glass pile!)

That is a ridiculously simple meal and you have already used four different bins!

Although trash in the USA is overall more "simple" since it varies depending on where you live it is not as easy to explain. She grew up first with separate bins for paper, glass, cans (like tin), yard trash (greens), general trash and food scraps (not fatty) for compost (by choice not because of city laws). After time, the recycling (paper, glass, and cans) could all be put in one bin while the yard trash was in another, and everything else was in a third one (although again her family chose to separate food for composting). She has also visited areas where almost no separation takes place and garbage seems to just be garbage.

When it comes to garbage, Germany knows what it is doing. It is easy to laugh about the many categories and how complicated only Germany can make garbage. But, in the end it makes sense, is good for the environment, and teaches children from a young age to take the time to separate their garbage and to pay attention to what they use. Something the USA definitely needs to learn!

Comic: Recycle Corner
Sign on left: Please sort trash
Bubble: Mmm...banana peel. B for banana or E for leftover food?


  1. In my apartment block we (gasp) do not do recycling. At all. Everything goes into the same bag, but I take my bottles to Rewe and to the banks. It's annoying how the glass bottle banks have "opening times" on them.

    In Japan, they would put our trash bag back on our doorsteps when we put something in the wrong bag. No joke.

  2. Wow, that really does deserve a gasp! I can't believe they can get away without recycling and not have a little old lady come yell about it ;)

    Firsthand experience getting your trash back in Japan?