I know you probably didn’t think you needed an instruction manual for throwing out your garbage. Just put it in the garbage can, right? Maybe separate your glass, plastic and aluminum containers for recycling. Simple. Not so here.

Throwing out the trash is like a complicated skill in Germany, one that requires intense years of study. Or at least it seems like it should require some kind of course. Anytime someone comes to visit us, I have to give them a briefing on the trash situation in an effort to avoid total chaos and the breakdown of society. So I thought I’d share a summary of the garbage process with you. It could save your life someday.

Endless categories of garbage

On the surface, there appears to be just a few simple categories of garbage. But it doesn’t take long to realize, that’s just WRONG.

Bio – This is for food waste. So egg shells, banana peel, scraps of food you didn’t eat, that kind of thing. But I recently learned you’re also supposed to put your napkins in there too. But not used tissues. Huh?

how to throw out garbage in Germany

Paper – This is clearly for paper products. Empty cereal boxes, junk mail (although the envelope is more complicated…I’ll get to that in a minute), cardboard, and any other paper product. It’s where I used to put my napkins, because they’re paper products. They still end up in there about half the time now.

how to throw out garbage in Germany

Yellow bag – This is a plastic yellow bag, about the size of a standard kitchen garbage bag. Plastic items and other non-paper packaging materials go in here. So juice cartons, the plastic container meat comes in, plastic wrappers, yogurt containers (but only after you’ve rinsed out any remaining yogurt), and shampoo bottles. Oh, and those envelopes I mentioned? If it’s the kind that has the plastic see-through window, technically you’re supposed to separate that from the paper part of the envelope.

how to throw out garbage in Germany

Black garbage can – This is the only garbage can we actually pay for. You choose your size and you’re charged accordingly. They send us a sticker each year to show that we’ve paid for it. But the odd thing is they send us the sticker in January, and it has to be on by the end of February, but the instructions specifically say not to put it on when it’s cold. January and February are pretty much always cold, so I’m not sure what the thought process is there.

how to throw out garbage in Germany

The black can is supposed to be for “other” trash, but there are so many conflicting ideas about what goes in there, it makes my head hurt. We have a German friend who says food scraps that have been cooked go in the black, but that’s not correct. Those tissues I thought should go in the bio actually go in this one. Got an old sock with a hole in it? Throw it in the black. A pan that’s starting to lose it’s protective coating? Black. Expired medications also go in here. Basically if it doesn’t quite fit in the other categories, it goes in the black.

Unless…..

Bottles and cans – Whether it’s the 2 liter Coke bottle, the smaller half liter Coke bottles, an aluminum can, or a beer bottle, they all go back to the grocery store. When you purchase something that comes in one of these containers, you pay the advertised price plus a Pfand (basically a deposit) which is listed next to the price. It ranges from 8 cents to 25 cents depending on what the item is. You have to put these bottles and cans into a machine that spits out a receipt with your refund amount. Then when you buy your groceries, the refund gets applied to your total. Or you can just hand the cashier your receipt and get your refund in cash.

how to throw out garbage in Germany

Other glass – Notice I didn’t mention wine bottles up there. They don’t have a Pfand. Wine bottles, along with any other glass jars, like pasta sauce or even a glass bottle of cough syrup, go to one of three outdoor recycling bins, sorted by color. Leave the lids on, even though my German teacher insists the lids go in the yellow bag. Also, don’t even think about walking down the street to dispose of your glass on Sundays or after the posted hours. Those are quiet hours.

how to throw out garbage in Germany

Batteries – Dead batteries go in a box next to the machine that collects the bottles.

Christmas trees – There is one specific day in January when Christmas trees are picked up. If you miss this day, well I don’t know, you might have to just keep that tree for another year.

Corks – There are a few places in town that collect the corks from wine bottles, and then they bring them somewhere else and make environmentally friendly insulation out of it.

Recycling – There’s a recycling place where you can take your dangerous items, old clothes, wood, corks, and who knows what else. Most of these items seem like they go in other categories. Plus the different recycling places in the area are all open for very limited hours once or twice a week. This category baffles me.

Other random crap – Andy had the bathroom renovated almost two years ago, resulting in lots of construction materials that needed to be disposed of. That crap sat on our balcony for about five months because it’s complicated to get rid of it. This type of garbage requires a pick-up appointment. You have to make the appointment weeks ahead of time and give them a list of what you’re throwing out. Then the night before, you put the trash out on the sidewalk. Sometime before they come and pick it up, random passers-by will dig through your crap and take home some new treasures.

You get two of these pick-ups for free each year. If you need more or need an appointment within a week, you pay for it.

how to throw out garbage in Germany

Depending on what it is, many people will simply put stuff they don’t want anymore on the side of the road without making one of these appointments. Used books, dishes you no longer want, kids’ toys, just about anything that some scavenger might find useful. Or sometimes, like some people down the street from us, just a big pile of crap they didn’t feel like sorting, so it sat on the sidewalk for at least a month, slowly dwindling as passers-by and the weather conditions whisked things away.

Really random crap – If you have a bathtub, window glass, or an animal carcass, you have to call a special number. But only these three things.

The trash magazine

How do we know all of this wonderful information? The city sends us a magazine each year in December. It’s eight pages long, and explains in great detail where everything goes. There’s even a chart listing just about every item you could possibly think of throwing out so you know which one of eight categories it falls under. There’s another four page insert that lists pick-up days by street name, plus it also contains cards for the “other random crap” pick-ups. This year’s version was illustrated with children’s drawings.

how to throw out garbage in Germany

Learning about trash in German class

My German book also had a section about trash sorting. This led to all kinds of dramatic discussions in class about garbage because, as foreigners, we were all still confused about trash even after months of living here. And our teacher’s information didn’t always agree with the trash magazine, like with the jar lids. Plus apparently some of the rules vary depending on what part of the country you live in. As if it wasn’t confusing enough already.

how to throw out garbage in Germany

Garbage is complicated business in Germany. When it’s trash day, you will see a rainbow of garbage cans and trash bags lining the streets waiting for the appropriate garbage collectors to retrieve their specific pile of trash. If you put something in the wrong place and the garbage collectors see it, they will leave your trash there along with a note. We do our best to sort things correctly, but when even the Germans who have lived here their whole lives can’t agree on what goes in which can, we can only put so much effort into it. I do appreciate how much Germany does for the environment, although I know I will probably never know how to throw out garbage here with 100% accuracy.

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61 comments on “How to Throw Out Your Garbage in Germany

  1. Jennifer

    Haha! Sounds like Italy, except there is not a nice manual to explain it all. They are very green here and all the rubbish gets separated. The food waste even has to be disposed of in certain biodegradable bags.

    1. Ali Post author

      We have those biodegradable bags too, although they’re not mandatory, so people who don’t want to buy the bags just put their food waste straight into the garbage can. There’s one bio garbage can for our 8 unit apartment building. Apparently the city cleans that can twice a year too.

  2. Heather

    Ha! I don’t remember this from my visit, but then I’m sure my German host took care of everything for me. I think I’d need to print a cheat sheet and have it posted somewhere in the kitchen!

    1. Ali Post author

      They probably did take care of it, or they were one of the families that doesn’t pay as much attention to the trash sorting. There’s actually a big sign down the street from us at another apartment building in 7 or 8 different languages telling people what trash goes in which garbage can!

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  4. Sofie

    In Belgium it also depends a bit on where you live, but in general we have to split up:
    – glass
    – paper and carton (same rule about the envelope with the see-through bit!)
    – plastic bottles and drink package thingies
    – electronic garbage
    – batteries
    – the rest

    Some people also put their bio garbage separately and we also have a bunch of rules about bigger items that you want to get rid of, like the bathtub you mention.
    Ow and if we by beer bottles in ‘containers’ or boxes, we also get some money back if we return the emptry glass bottles. Same goes for coke bottles, but not for wine bottles, those need to go with the glass.

    And then there are plenty of other exceptions and side rules…

    1. Ali Post author

      That sounds exactly like our system of throwing out garbage in Germany! Probably less confusing if you grow up with it though.

  5. Andrea

    Our system in Norway is exactly the same except for the yellow bag – and how we need a yellow bag!

    1. Ali Post author

      Maybe this is a sign I’ve been here awhile, but my first thought when I read your comment was, WAIT, where do you put the garbage that we put in the yellow bag?? And then I laughed at myself.

  6. Spartacusjr

    That is just crazy and too much of a headache to keep up with. I would reather pay someone to organize my trash. I bet that “trash day” is not called that, it’s called “pain in the *** day”
    That’s a good one Ali, thank u for sharing :)

    1. Ali Post author

      Thanks JR! It is a pain, but you get used to it after awhile. And you stop worrying about it if you don’t know where some piece of garbage goes.

  7. Andrew

    It kind of becomes just a part of what you do. I found it so weird when I first got here, but now I just do it mostly. There are always little oddities of what goes where and the annoying bit of taking out the bio before it goes smelly.

    Everyone we talk to seems to have a different opinion of exactly what goes where, which I find somehow very reassuring.

    Going back to Atlanta to get married was very strange to see everything just thrown into the same bags and down the same chute.

    1. Ali Post author

      I’m sure I’ll find it strange next time we go back to the US to just put garbage all into one place. I’m definitely getting more used to it after being here for over a year.

  8. The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen)

    I noticed this in Germany and it was overwhelming! But it’d be a small price to pay to live in Deutschland! Here in China, no recycling. At least not in the area we live in. I can’t wait to get back to the US and start doing my part again. Good post, Ali!

    1. Ali Post author

      I do love how much they’re trying to do for the environment by doing all this trash sorting, but I sometimes think there are too many rules/categories. If there are too many confusing categories of garbage, it’s easy to put something in the wrong place, and they who knows if it gets recycled properly. I’m sure going from places that recycle to someplace like China that doesn’t is an adjustment!

  9. Isabelle

    You made me laugh! It reminded me of when I lived in Japan. It took me a while to figure out how to separate my recycling, when they would pick up what and where to keep all these different bags in my tiny apt! I had to be really careful since some type of recycling was picked up only once a month, you don’t want to miss it! I had a calendar devoted to keeping track of my recycling! And since the bags were transparent, neighbors would check to see if the foreigner had done it right!

    1. Ali Post author

      Thanks Isabelle, glad I could make you laugh! Our garbage is either every week or every other week depending on what it is, I’m glad we don’t also have any once a month things. The city sends us a calendar with the trash magazine so we can keep track and figure out when the dates move because of a holiday. That’s hilarious that your neighbors were checking to make sure you sorted your garbage correctly! I hope they were nice if they had to point out mistakes!

      1. Isabelle

        Well, either I made no mistakes (which I doubt!) or they were too shy to tell me, I never got a complaint even though I could see them checking intensely!

        1. Ali Post author

          That’s great that they didn’t complain!

  10. Matthew Cheyne

    I’m surprised that you guys in Germany have to pay for your garbage cans. Here in Australia garbage collection is handled by the local government (councils, cities or shires depending on what they call themselves and where they’re located). The costs for garbage collection come out of property owner’s council rates which they pay either monthly, quarterly or yearly. Being a renter I’ve never paid council rates in my life. The council where I live at the moment is called Latrobe City and they have a weekly collection for standard rubbish for which you’re allocated a bin with a red lid on top of it. There are also two other bins that they issue and the rubbish for them is collected on alternate fortnights. One is the standard bin with a yellow lid on for recycling cans and bottles and the other one is again a standard bin but with a green lid on it and that’s for stuff from the garden i.e. garden based organic waste.

    Although the garbage collection system in Germany where you are seems really complicated, there is at least some logic to it. I know for a fact that organic food waste can be processed and the methane generated used to put electricity into the power grid. But remembering what goes into what bin has to be a pain. Three bins for me is enough. It looks like you have six plus a collection for Christmas Trees and other stuff.

    I hope they don’t do that here!

    1. Ali Post author

      We only pay for the black ones, and I think that’s because it’s based on what size you want. Andy and I have 35L and it gets collected every 2 weeks, but some people have theirs picked up every week, some people have bigger cans, etc. It’s not expensive. I’m sure the rest of the trash is paid for through taxes of some sort. It is really complicated here, but I’m glad they’re trying to do so much for the environment. Germany is a very environmentally conscious country. But for your sake, I hope Australia doesn’t start making garbage sorting as complicated as it is here!

      1. Matthew Cheyne

        I hope for my sake too that they don’t do it here. I live in a block of four units and we barely have enough space on the nature strip to put the bins we do have now. If we went the German route it would be total chaos or that they would have to do it all on alternate days. Total chaos again.

  11. budget jan

    I felt like I was at school and was hoping there was not going to be an examination at the end of it all, lol. I live in the north of Australia where not all plastics are recyclable, but most people put all plastics into the recycle bin regardless. I think the recycle places then sort it more, either that or it all goes into landfill. A horrible thought I know.

    1. Ali Post author

      Ha! I’m sorry to make you nervous Jan! I hope the recycle places do sort out the plastic that can be recycled from the ones that can’t. Otherwise it seems like such a waste of time for everyone! I think certain types of garbage here gets sorted through once it gets to wherever it goes. We’ve read that they burn some of it, so they want to make sure they’re not burning things that shouldn’t be burned. Who knows, it’s so complicated!

  12. Christoph

    Your post on garbage separation was very interesting and a bit “unmasking” for me as a German.
    It’ s true that even many locals are still quite unsure about all the sorting.
    Many people think that all sorts of plastics go into the yellow sack or yellow bin. But this is only applying to certain types of packaging (and not only plastics). If the packing has a “Grüner Punkt” (Green Dot, which BTW as a pictogram isn’t always green) on it, it is for the “Gelber Sack” (yellow sack) or “Gelbe Tonne” (yellow bin).
    But if the package with a Green Dot is made of cardboard or glass you have to put it into the bins for waste paper resp. used glass ;-) So it’s all really quite confusing.

    Hope my English was not too bad….

    1. Ali Post author

      Your English is great! Glad to give you the foreigner’s perspective on German garbage sorting. That yellow bag can be confusing. You had me worried for a minute about some of the things we put in ours, but I think we’re doing ok. Luckily our yellow bags list and have pictures of the things that go in there, which is helpful. Thanks Christoph!

  13. Ryan from Jets Like Taxis

    Haha, great stuff.

    Or, you could be like us and basically throw everything in the Restmüll cans. Because we’re bad people.

    Except boxes. And of course, we took our bottles back. Anything useful went in the foyer or on the street. Because let’s face it: Germans love free shit. Even our old mattress that sat out in the rain for a day was taken upstairs by our neighbor.

    1. Ali Post author

      Ha! I had a feeling that’s what many people do, just throw a lot of their trash in the Restmull. I think most people love free shit, but I think in Germany, the love of “free” has combined with the confusion of how to get rid of certain things, and you have a perfect storm where piles on the sidewalk are a normal part of life. I don’t understand why anyone would want your mattress after it got rained on though!

      1. Ryan from Jets Like Taxis

        We lived in Berlin, though, where things seem to be a bit more casual. We never had anyone yell at us when we were throwing garbage out, but I’ve read plenty of stories about that happening in southern and/or smaller towns.

        Also, the neighbor that took the mattress: I’m pretty sure she was a horder. Our landlady yelled at her about it when we were moving out because she had so much crap in the stairway all the time.

  14. Crystal

    Thank you so much for posting this!! I am just now learning how to do the trash here in Germany. How do you keep the bio food from not getting so nasty moldy or smelly. I guess I will have to look for these bio bags because I’ve always used plastic garbage bags and now I know that’s a no no!

    1. Ali Post author

      Glad to help Crystal! It is very confusing, and even after 2 years I still get stumped sometimes. The bio bags do help, just remember that they are biodegradable themselves, so try not to put really liquidy things in it, and don’t let it sit too long before you take it out to the bin. You can buy the bags at the grocery store. I also found out recently the city or the garbage collectors or someone cleans out the bio garbage cans twice a year, so that’s nice!

  15. Teresa Riedel

    Hi Ali,

    This post is very helpful. I told our landlords about the site, and they used it as a reference for the people living in our building here in Freiburg. Thanks for taking the time to write thiis. You did a great job explaining the recycling procedures.

    Have fun on your trip.

    Teresa

    1. Ali Post author

      Thanks Teresa! Kind of funny to think of my post being used as a reference for someone’s apartment building!

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  17. Fotini

    Hello Ali!

    During my last visit to Berlin, I noticed that nearly every street corner has small orange trash bins labeled “Bin Futtern” which very much impressed me. Can you tell me a little bit about them? I am trying to put together a presentation for one of our Councilmen regarding the trash issue in my city and more information on the tiny bins (i.e. what they likely cost the city of Berlin to buy and set up) would be of great help!

    Thank You!

    Fotini

    1. Ali Post author

      Hi Fotini! I have never seen orange trash bins with that label on it! Every city has different rules about trash, so maybe Berlin has something different than we do here in Freiburg. Sorry I can’t help with that one!

      1. Fotini

        Interesting! Thank’s for posting and for sharing your very informative blog!

  18. Newcomer

    Hi Everyone,

    I am so grateful to you for this explanation! I’m new to Germany and I have asked for a brochure from the Rathaus but it never arrived, and I’m so nervous to throw away anything that I think it through a hundred times! I know they make a big deal out of these things here. It seemed to me that I’m the only one struggling with this. It’s a lot easier when you grow up with it.

    Do you guys know how to dispose of cooking oil and medications? You mentioned you can put expired meds in the black trashcan but I’m not sure if it’s OK to do that. In the US, I asked a pharmacist and he said if there is no disposal facility in your area, you must mix them with coffee grounds or something of that sort. I doubt Germans would just throw away meds when even washing your car at home is prohibited. I wonder if the German pharmacies have a box for them?

    Can I put the residual waste in a plastic bag before I put it in the black trashcan in order to protect the trashcan? I don’t want it to get nasty in there.

    Thank you again!! Your blog has helped me so much.

    1. Ali Post author

      Hi, I’m so glad my garbage post is helpful! You should get one of these trash magazines I mentioned sometime in December.

      The trash magazine does say to put medicine, like pills that have expired, in the black garbage can, so that should be fine. But ask one of your neighbors because rules vary from region to region. As for cooking oil, we don’t really use a lot, just a few drops in a pan, so when we’re done cooking there really isn’t any to dispose of. My guess there is the black can, but you might want to ask a neighbor about that too.

      Yes you can put garbage in a plastic bag before putting it in the black trash can. For the food/bio trash can, they sell biodegradable bags you can use and those are ok to put in the bio trash can. Also, in Freiburg the city cleans the trash cans twice a year, so it might be similar where you are.

      I hope this helps, let me know if you have any other questions!

  19. Brigitte Nafiz

    Hi just visited family in good old Germany,you can not imagine the panik i created,when disposing rubbish.
    Many times one of the,relatives dived in to the garbage to rescue one of the items I disposed wrongly.I thought it was quite funny,but they did not. I am still laughing today.Thanks god for our recycling,

    1. Ali Post author

      Oh Brigitte, that’s hilarious! And it’s funny because I CAN imagine it! Every German we’ve spoken to about trash has a different opinion of what goes into which bin, they can’t seem to agree, despite the yearly magazine we get explaining it all. A friend of mine from Spain told me her mother came to visit once, and she didn’t realize her mother had put the wrong trash in the yellow bag, and the garbage collectors refused to take the bag and left a scolding note! I’m glad you survived your visit :-)

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  21. nirmal

    i m confuse about the paper wast like pizza box, egg box and kind of box made of paper. should i throw in yellow bag or no????

    1. Ali Post author

      No, not the yellow bag. There should be a bin for paper, that’s where you should put a pizza box and other cartons made out of paper. I hope that helps!

  22. marsia

    This article really helped me Ali!!! Thank you! :)
    I’m still quite confused with a few things like cotton swabs, sanitary napkins or handkerchiefs. They all in the black bins I suppose, right??!

    1. Ali Post author

      Thanks Marsia, glad to help! I’d put all of those into the black bins, or whichever one is “restmull” where you live. The “other” category basically.

  23. Anthony

    Thanks for the info! I have lived in Germany for eight years now and still find the garbage removal to be quite mysterious. Just with cleaning today, I was pressed with questions on which bag and what color waste bin. The information you provided did clear some things up! Thank You!

    1. Ali Post author

      Glad to help Anthony! It is quite confusing trying to figure out how to deal with trash in Germany. I imagine I’ll still question things years from now!

  24. Sarah Steinberg

    Hi. I’m new here and i don’t know where to trought out my clothes and my dead batterie. What can i do?

    1. Ali Post author

      Hi Sarah! Dead batteries go in a box at the grocery store, usually next to the bottle return machine. If your old clothes are still wearable, you can donate them. In Freiburg there are big bins next to the bins where you throw out glass jars, so I imagine it’s similar wherever you live. Here there are a few sets within a few blocks of our apartment, and I’ve also seen them near certain intersections. If the clothes aren’t wearable anymore, have holes in them or something, throw them out in the Restmull. That’s the black garbage can here, the one you pay for. I hope this helps, and welcome to Germany!

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  26. Alexander

    It’s pretty much impossibly complicated to live in Germany without committing suicide. This is just another example. The bad weather and the grumpy people don’t help, either.

    1. Ali Post author

      Hmm, I wouldn’t go that far. Yes, there are lots of complicated aspects of life in Germany, but there are a lot of great things about living here too. And even though people aren’t overly friendly like in the southeastern US, I wouldn’t call them grumpy.

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  28. Brent

    Ha! This gave me a chuckle! I too live in Germany and wondered if I was the only American that thought this garbage puzzle was created to cause chaos amongst the people. I applaud the Germans for their attempt to recycle as much as possible and throw as little out as humanly possible but where I live in Rheinland-Pfalz it is exactly what you described. We’ve lived her for 3 years now. Prior to that we lived in Baden-Württemberg where it was MUCH easier. One big barrel for anything that can be recycled (cans, plastic, paper, etc.) and the other trash can was for anything that doesn’t get recycled. It was really that simple and it made sense. I’m glad I’m not alone in the trash chaos!!

    1. Ali Post author

      Thanks Brent, glad to make you laugh! Interesting that you had one bin for all the recyclable stuff when you lived in Baden-Württemberg. It must be different from city to city, because in Freiburg, we certainly have to separate plastic from paper and things like that. I agree with you, it’s great to recycle and be nice to the environment, but sometimes it feels a little out of control, and yes, definitely chaotic sometimes!

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