Recycling in Germany: A Tour
International students arriving in Germany will probably tell you this story. Among the many anticipated hurdles and exciting moments one of the first things one may encounter upon arrival in, say, a dorm, is a small brochure with the main commandments on recycling. And this is no joke.
Germans take most things seriously and recycling waste is definitely one of them. The “little recycling bible” in your hand comes in handy during the first couple of weeks, because trust me, it can get confusing. Especially in your worry and hurry to do everything just so. Because if you don’t, something bad will happen to the environment, right? Here’s a first look.
Once you get used to it, it’s pretty simple and becomes a habit. And actually it’s probably similar to systems in the rest of the world. Although in Russia most people will only recycle glass and throw the rest away, as there are no recycling laws in place. Most buildings in Germany have an area with trash bins in their own courtyard, at the back or in front of the house, or nearby. If not, you can make an arrangement with the city to have your trash picked up regularly.
Cardboard packaging, napkins, envelopes, paper – anything made out of cardboard or paper goes in the blue container. In addition to that people usually save all those copies and discarded printouts to use the blank other side. They are really good for shopping lists. Then you can toss them in the blue container with a clean conscience. Or you can donate them to the local library, because they use them as handy notepaper for people doing their research. Or you can give them to your kids for drawing.
Glass bottles and jars are usually separated according to color: green, white, brown, multicoloured. Oh, and be careful: in some places you aren’t allowed to throw away your glass earlier than and after a certain time. Which is understandable, as it may get pretty loud while you are getting rid of all those wine bottles from last night’s birthday bash. Usually there’s a sign or you just find out from your neighbours.
Germany is also very particular about recycling product packaging – juice boxes, chips bags, cans, plastic bottles and the like. They go in to big yellow trash bags and then the famous yellow container. And this is where the confusion begins.
Before throwing things in there, you should check for a special sign on the packaging, which signifies that the packaging is recyclable – usually a little curving green arrow. Same goes for plastic bottles. If the bottle label has a special sign on it – a different kind, you can bring it back to the supermarket, feed it in to a special machine and get part of your money back. It’s included in the price. If the label on the bottle says “pfandfrei”, this means you cannot return the bottle and you throw it in the yellow sack.
Big waste like broken or old furniture can be picked up by a special service, old or broken electrical appliances can be dropped off at a recycling yard. What is left, theoretically, is food and household waste that lands in the gray or black container, and then in the incinerator.
It all sounds pretty straightforward at first. However, there are issues involved.
The German news magazine Spiegel Online reported in 2010 that 65% of Germans saw trash sorting as a contribution to the environment. And it is. The problem with the yellow sack is that most people throw any kind of plastic packaging in there. Or even plastic products. But actually the only things that should go in there are packaging materials from companies who have registered with Dual System Deutschland (DSD) and paid for it. DSD organizes the yellow recycling.
The little green arrow isn’t always helpful, since cardboard packages also often have that sign printed on them – but they go in the blue container. Experts and scientists argue that many recyclable and valuable materials land in the waste container and are burned instead of being reused, as people are not sure if what they have in their hand is recyclable or not. And then they just throw it in the black container to get the frustration over with. Concerns are valid, as German foreign trade statistics speak for themselves: in 2010 Germany’s foreign trade balance in plastics was 7.6 billion euros. Both internally and externally there’s a lot going on in plastic production in the country.
A successful project that has been tested in several cities was the so-called “yellow-plus” container. You could recycle not only packaging, but small electrical appliances and therefore really be eco-conscious. The project is still in the experimental stage, as it isn’t implemented all over Germany. But considering the country holds fourth place in global plastics production, it’s definitely something to think about.
Some people don’t separate their trash on principle, saying that everything is thrown in to one incinerator anyway. So that’s another question: just how efficiently trash is sorted after households have sorted. Yes, it does make you a little dizzy, doesn’t it?
Still, there are cities where one is legally required to separate trash in the provided containers; otherwise you might find yourself paying a fine. Or the landlord of the house you live in, which could have repercussions for you.
To recycle or not to recycle? In any case there are plenty of hotlines available where you can ask, if you have the time. The discussion continues.
Image note: this image is released under the creative commons license (source: Flickr/ lydiashiningbrightly)