Recycling is Germany’s contribution to the global battle for the environment, and the country has been very successful in its fight against growing garbage heaps. But the whole subject of recycling can be a daunting issue for any newcomer to the country.

The good news is that there are some easy guidelines to follow. Soon you will be able to handle the line of garbage bins at your front door like a recycling pro.

Germany produces 30 million tons of garbage annually. The Green Dot system has been one of the most successful recycling initiatives, which has literally put packaging on a diet. The crux is that manufacturers and retailers have to pay for a “Green Dot” on products: the more packaging there is, the higher the fee. This clever system has led to less paper, thinner glass and less metal being used, thus creating less garbage to be recycled. The net result: a drastic decline of about one million tons less garbage than normal every year.

A major part of the success of this program is the proper sorting of garbage, however. And this is where the lesson starts.

Let’s start with the easy stuff: glass. Any kind of bottle or glass jar that is non-returnable and on which you did not pay a deposit or “Pfand”, belongs in the designated glass bins. This includes wine bottles, jam/preserve jars, oil bottles, juice bottles and even bath-salt bottles. Ceramics, china, mirrors and wine corks do not belong in the glass bins. Glass is sorted by color. There are different slots for depositing green, brown and clear glass. You will find these bins dotted over every neighborhood. The only thing to take note of here is the times when you should not recycle. Remember Quiet Time? That is not the time to recycle your bottles or you will have a couple of very irate neighbors on your hands.

The other bins you will encounter are usually at your doorstep, and are color coded; green, blue, yellow, brown and gray. Sometimes the whole bin is the color in question, sometimes just the lid. The color of the lid is key. It’s important to note that not all municipalities have the exact same system. You may not find a brown or yellow bin at your doorstep, for example. And paper will probably go into a blue bin. In the absence of a yellow bin, households may have to put plastic materials into a yellow plastic bag (Gelb Sack). This bag is then placed outside for collection at regularly scheduled times. The bags can be picked up in various places throughout a community – at a nearby kiosk or at other stores.

Paper is also entry-level recycling: all packaging made of paper and cardboard, newspapers, magazines, waste paper, paper bags, etc, etc. (you’ve got the idea?) belong in the blue bins. Tissues, however, do not belong here. Read on to find their place in the scheme of things. If you don’t have a blue bin at your home, you will certainly find one somewhere in your neighborhood. You are supposed to flatten boxes before putting them in the bin, and make sure you throw only the box and not the plastic wrappers inside the box, in the bin.

It is now time to move on to the more advanced level: the yellow Bins and the Green Dot. Cans, plastic, polystyrene, aluminum, tinplate and “composite” materials like beverage cartons made of a mixture of materials belong in the yellow bin or should be put in the yellow bags. Empty spray cans are also allowed here. You are not supposed to put stuff inside each other, like the yogurt cup inside the baked beans tin. And lastly, spare a thought for the end process: this stuff gets sorted by hand. A kind request has been made to rinse the cans and cups before throwing them in the bin. No need to scrub, just a light rinse.

Now you are left with the “other stuff” and biological waste, which by the way, makes up almost 50 percent of the total garbage produced in Germany. Bio stuff is anything destined for the compost heap in a good gardener’s back yard. This includes kitchen scraps, peels, leftover food, coffee filters, tea bags and garden waste. If you live in a house, you probably will have a separate brown bin for this. The end result of bio recycling is either energy through the natural fermenting gasses, which is captured and utilized, or garden compost. So this is good stuff to recycle, albeit a bit smelly at times. The brown bins do, however, get emptied very regularly during the summer months. Nevertheless, keep the bin far from your kitchen window!

If you are not fortunate enough to have a separate brown bin and don’t feel like making your own compost heap, you are allowed to throw the bio stuff in your household waste bin, the gray one. This bin is also the destiny of, finally, “almost the rest”. This includes ash, cigarette butts, old household objects like hairbrushes and frying pans, textiles and nylon stockings, nappies/diapers, tissues, other personal hygiene items, extremely dirty paper, etc. Everything in the gray bins will be incinerated.

In this very advanced section of recycle know-how, we are really left with “the rest”, i.e. the stuff that did not feature anywhere else. That is the hazardous waste, which includes fluorescent tubes, batteries and acids, cans of paint still containing paint, thinners, adhesives, corrosives, disinfectants, insecticides, and so forth, has to be treated as hazardous waste. You will receive a notice from your local town council on when and where the truck collecting this kind of waste, will be. You need to bring your stuff to the site for them to dispose of it in the proper manner. If this waste ends up in the gray bin, it will be burnt with the rest of the “gray” waste, which could result in extremely poisonous gasses.

Batteries are disposed of separately. Look out for a small bin (it looks like a small garbage bin) at your local shopping area. You can deposit your used batteries here for proper disposal.

If you are still left with something you would like to throw away (heaven forbid!) and do not think that it belongs on the “Trödelmarkt”/fleamarket, you have the opportunity at certain announced times to place your stuff outside when Sonstige- or Sperrmüll (miscellaneous items) will be gathered. This could include a sofa, broken hi-fi, chairs, building materials, etc. The funny thing is that not much of this stuff ends up on the garbage dump since many second hand dealers or “collectors” drive round the neighborhood to inspect the thrown out stuff. The majority of it gets loaded into private vans long before the municipal vans come around!

Another useful feature of the waste disposal system in most cities is the Recyclinghof, an outlying area to which you can transport your trash and Spermüll with your car. They are equipped with containers for the deposit of such things as furniture, batteries, electrical and electronic items, paper, plastic, cans, glass, wood and garden waste, The personnel there can guide you to the proper bin.

No arguing that all this sorting can sound a bit much. One option is to prevent as much garbage as you can. Buy yourself a basket and buy fresh fruit and vegetables at the outdoor market. They use paper bags, which you can just as well re-use every time you go to the market. Or buy loose products in the supermarket. Bring your own egg carton with you every time you buy eggs. Avoid products with obvious superfluous packaging. Use returnable product options and use refill packs. Buy yourself a cotton shopping bag and bring that along every time you go shopping instead of using the plastic carry bags provided (most often for a small fee) by the store. Pack food in reusable containers. Try to buy as many products as you can with the Green Dot on it, since this means that the manufacturer is assisting in financing the recycling of the packaging. You will find yourself tuned into the recycling frame of mind in no time.

Now that you know where to put what, you need to know when to roll the bins out onto your street for collection. Your area will have a designated day on which garbage is collected. The only thing you need to find out is which garbage bin to put out. You can get a calendar with garbage collection detail from your local registration office or from the community newsletter. Alternatively, just wait until your neighbors roll out their bins and check out the color(s) of the week!

Despite the extra effort and diligence required by First World Recycling, it does provide a sense of pride to know that you actually managed to figure out the German recycling system – something for your résumé, no doubt!

Our thanks to the American Women’s Club of Cologne for contributing this article to How To Germany.