How To Dispose Of Your Waste in Germany Posted by Sten on Feb 11, 2021 in Culture, Language, vocabulary
In 2014, I wrote about Mülltrennung (trash separation) in Germany, but here’s an update on that post with some more information. Mülltrennung can be pretty confusing in Germany, as each Kommune (municipality) manages their own Mülltrennung for Hausmüll (domestic waste). This means that in one place, you may have a Tonne (bin) for everything, and in other towns you may only have one or two Tonnen. Here’s an explanation to disentangle some of the confusion.
You can stay in your Bademantel
Let’s first discuss the waste you can dispose of in your Bademantel (bathrobe). You don’t have to leave your property for this stuff.
Across Germany, you will find that your Mülltonne (trash bin) comes as a large plastic container, the so-called Müllgroßbehälter (MGB) (Large Trash Container). These big bins replaced the metal ones that were prevalent until around the turn of the Jahrtausend (millenium). While they’re called Großbehälter, they are smaller than the large ones in, say, the United States. However, a household usually has more than one of these, as each serves its own purpose. Germans usually call them Mülleimer or Mülltonne, not Großbehälter or MGB, so that’s what I’ll do here too.
Germany’s disposal system uses Farben (colors) to separate between each kind of trash. In many Kommunen, you can request the Tonnen at the Rathaus (town hall). While the Gelbe Tonne doesn’t cost anything, and rolls of the Gelbe Sack can be picked up for free at the Rathaus and often at Supermärkte (supermarkets), the other Tonnen will cost you. While the Biotonne and the Papiertonne don’t incur such high charges, the Restmülltonne (residual waste bin) can get quite expensive, up to 450 euros a year! These costs are lower if they don’t have to be picked up as often or if you get a small one. So there’s also financial incentive to separate your Müll.
Here’s the four most common Tonnen.
Blue is for Altpapier (waste paper), so the blaue Tonne, which is usually black with a blue lid, is for paper. This is for paper products, like Karton (cardboard), Papier (paper), Zeitungen (newspapers) and Geschenkverpackung (gift wrapping). Any verschmutztes (dirty) paper with food remains or paper that’s beschichtet (laminated), like the cheese wrapper don’t belong in the blue one. This paper goes into the Restmüll (residual waste). Not all of it, however. Coffee-to-go cups, for example, go into the Gelbe Sack.
Yellow is a rather recent addition, having been introduced only in 1991. The Gelbe Sack (Yellow Bag) or Gelbe Tonne (Yellow Bin) are for Verpackungen (packaging) that are not made of Papier or Glas (glas). So think Plastikverpackungen (plastic packaging), Konserven (cans) as well as so-called Verbundverpackungen (composite packaging), which is stuff like the Tetra-Paks, the Milchpackung (milk carton), etcetera. Whatever is not packaging that is also not made of glass or paper goes into the Restmüll.
Recently, some Kommunen, like Dortmund, have replaced this Gelbe Sack/Tonne with the Wertstofftonne (recycling bin). This Tonne is a Gelbe Tonne 2.0, basically. Besides everything you can put in a Gelbe Sack/Tonne, you can use it for stoffgleiche Nicht-Verpackungen (identical-material non-packaging). What this means is that the metal pan you had to drop into the Restmüll can now go into the Wertstofftonne, just like your plastic Zahnbürste (tooth brush). So now, anything made of Metall (metal), Kunststoff (plastic) and Verbundstoffe (composites) can go into the same bin. Some Kommunen even allow Altholz (wood waste) and kleine Elektrogeräte (small electric devices) into the Wertstofftonne. Pretty cool, right?
In some Kommunen, there is neither a Gelbe Tonne/Sack nor a Wertstofftonne. In these Kommunen, you have to get dressed and go to the Sammelstelle (collection point) to dispose of your Verpackungsmüll.
Plastikflaschen (plastic bottles) and Getränkedosen (beverage cans) often have Pfand, also known as Flaschenpfand or Dosenpfand (deposit-refund system). On more and more of these, you pay 25 cents as Pfand (deposit) at purchase, which you get back when you return the Flaschen and Dosen at the market. So again, a big financial incentive to return this stuff and not toss it where it doesn’t belong.
One last point: There’s this idea that the Grüne Punkt (Green Dot) means anything with regard to waste separation. It doesn’t. When deciding where the package belongs, don’t look at this thing. It’s not mandatory anymore, either.
Brown is for Bioabfälle (biowaste), think your Küchenabfälle. This seems pretty straightforward, but there are some differences. Any compostable, organic waste goes here. Plants, kitchen waste, all that stuff. However, plastic bags are a big NO. Even the ones that say they are biologisch abbaubar (biodegradable). They don’t degrade fast enough, and at the composting plant, those bags are still seen as plastic bags that need to be removed. In some Kommunen, Fleischreste (meat remains), Fischreste (fish remains) and Frittierfett (frying oil) are not allowed in this Tonne. Asche (ash), Staubsaugerbeutel (vacuum bags) and the like belong in the Restmüll.
The brown Tonne for Bioabfälle isn’t in use everywhere in Germany. In those where it isn’t, the Bioabfälle go into the Restmüll. That’s also the case in my home town.
Finally, black is for Restmüll (residual waste). Like you saw from the above, this covers the Rest (residue). But many things can’t go here, either, such as Sondermüll (special waste), Sperrmüll (bulk trash), Elektronikgeräte (electronic devices), Glas (glass), Kleider (clothes) and Leuchtstoff- und LED-Birnen (fluorescent and LED light bulbs). What about all this stuff?
All these Tonnen and Gelber Sack are usually collected once every 14 days. Once a year, you receive an Abfuhrkalender (removal calendar) that tells you on every single Abfuhrtermin (removal date), so the day and time that the Müllabfuhr (waste removal) comes to pick up the trash. Increasingly, you can also find these Abfuhrkalender online. The Müllabfuhr often comes very early in the morning, so it makes sense to put the trash by the curb the evening before.
Zieh dich an, wir entsorgen den Müll!
For all this stuff, you wanna get dressed, it’s time to entsorgen den Müll (to dispose of the waste)! Sometimes, some of the Tonnen described above also require you to take off that Bademantel and make your way to the Müllcontainer (waste container). Let’s see what you’ll find.
Glass is collected in the Glascontainer (glass containers) that shouldn’t be too far from your home. As a kid, I used to take the Bollerwagen (handcart) with the glass to the containers, as it was not that far.
Continuing with the theme of separating by color, Germans have another color separation with glass containers. These colors are even more straightforward. White is for transparent Weißglas (“white” glass), brown for Braunglas (brown glass) and green for Grünglas (green glass). Glass in other colors goes into the green container. You can leave the Deckel (top) screwed on. Just make sure the glass is empty. You don’t need to wash it before disposing of it, however.
Not all glass goes in here, though. Trinkgläser (drinking glasses), for example, don’t go into this container, as they disturb the recycling process due to their higher melting point. It’s a bit of common sense too what makes sense and what doesn’t. Throw this glass into the Restmüll.
Be careful though, because some glass bottles have Pfand. This is mostly things like Bierflaschen (beer bottles), which usually have a Pfand of 8 or 10 cents, so it’s a lot less than the plastic bottles and beverage cans. Those, of course, you want to bring back to the store.
For most Elektronikgeräte (electronic devices) and Birnen (light bulbs), you can return them to the store. Large retailers even have to accept it if you bring devices back if they’re smaller than 25 cm per side. Or you bring it to the Sammelstelle. The same counts for sprays, for example, that have hazardous materials in them.
Sperrmüll is stuff that’s too big for any Tonne. Think that Matratze (mattress) or Teppich (carpet) you really don’t like anymore. You can bring those to a Sammelstelle or pay to get it picked up. There are certain days in the year as well when it’s time for Sperrmüll. People put their stuff at the side of the street, and collectors come pick it up. These are often also private citizens looking to find useful stuff or reuse certain items. Imagine a Sofa (couch), Stuhl (chair) or Möbel (furniture) that are still in good condition.
Altkleider (old clothes) go into the Altkleidersammlung (old clothes collection). These are often big, beige bins that have information on the organisation that’s collecting the clothes. Put your clothes in a bag, make sure it’s closed and throw them in. But only clothes that can still be used, that are in good condition. Any clothes that are very dirty or torn go into the Restmüll.
Of course, Pfand also needs to go back to the market where you bought the bottles and cans.
And that’s pretty much it! Well, it is quite a lot. But we made it!
If you still want to know more, there is the amazing website Mülltrennung wirkt (trash separation works). Learn more about how to recycle properly or do a quiz to see if you are a Trennmeister (separation master)! I also could not possibly list all the differences between each Kommune, so you can use a tool on that website by simply entering your Postleitzahl (PLZ) (postal code) to get more information.
What experiences have you had with Mülltrennung (in Germany)? I want to know, tell me in the comments below!
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