Recycling made easy

Story and photos by A.L. Shaff
Contributing writer

Recycling contributes to saving the environment, and Germany has succeeded grandly with its fight against growing mountains of garbage. But for many Americans living here, recycling can seem like a confusing task and just a big bother.

However, some easy guidelines exist that can quickly turn any newcomer into a recycling expert.

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

OK, what do we do with glass? Any kind of bottle or glass jar that is non-returnable and on which you paid no deposit goes into the color-coded glass bins down the street. This includes wine bottles, jam/preserve jars, oil bottles and juice bottles. But, ceramics, china, mirrors and wine corks never go into these trash cans. First, sort the bottles by color. Different slots take green, brown or clear glass, so the glass must be deposited into the right slots. Almost every German neighborhood provides these giant containers just down the street or around the corner.

Your green, blue, yellow, brown and gray plastic household trash cans stand at your doorstep with the color of the lid indicating the can’s use. It’s important to note that not all municipalities use the same system. For example, you may not find a brown or yellow can at your doorstep. In the absence of a yellow can, put plastic materials into the yellow plastic bag (Gelbe Sack) and place it outside for pick up on scheduled days. You can get the bags at various places in the community, most often from the town hall.

Paper that goes in the blue container includes all packaging made of paper and cardboard, newspapers, magazines, waste paper or paper bags. You need to flatten boxes before putting them in the container, and make sure you throw only the box into the can and not the plastic wrappers inside the box.

OK, let’s move on to the yellow sacks. Cans, plastic, polystyrene, aluminum, tinplate and “composite” materials like beverage cartons made of a mixture of materials should be put in the yellow bags. Empty spray cans also are allowed here. You are not supposed to stuff things together, like the yogurt cup inside the baked beans tin can. Since this junk gets sorted by hand, rinse the cans and cups before throwing them into the trash.

Now you are left with the “other stuff” and biological waste, which 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 can for this waste. 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 though it may stink at times. Good news is that the brown cans get emptied more often during the summer months.

If you own no separate brown can and you don’t feel like farming a personal compost heap, you can throw the bio stuff into your gray household waste bin, including ashes, cigarette butts, old household objects like frying pans, textiles and nylon stockings, diapers, tissues, and other hygiene items. Everything in the gray cans eventually gets burned.

Now that you know where everything goes, you need only to know when to put the right can or bag out for collection. On designated days for garbage collection, remember to find which garbage can to put out. Easy method: wait until your German neighbors roll out their bins then match their color(s)! Despite the extra effort and diligence required for successful recycling, it provides a sense of pride that you actually mastered the German recycling system!

Even more solutions to recycling
Then, we have the problem of “hazardous” waste. This kind of waste includes florescent bulbs, batteries and acids, cans of old paint, thinners, adhesives, corrosives, and insecticides – stuff that must be treated as dangerous. Such hazardous waste can’t end up in the other trash cans because it can release dangerous gasses when incinerated.

Be aware of bulletins from the local government about pick up times for such materials. Usually, a truck will show up for a special collection, so you’ll need to bring the stuff to that central point. However, you can deposit batteries safely at a local grocery store (Aldi or Penny) or a large shopping market such as Globus or Kaufland. Look for the specially marked box or bin, or show the clerk the dead batteries and ask for the disposal box.

If you just don’t know where or when to dump something and you’re sure no one will want to buy it at a local “Flohmarkt,” or flea market, look for times to place it on the curb for pick up. Such materials might include an old sofa, the ripped-out kitchen sink, chairs or extra lumber from your renewal project.  Don’t worry that you’re dumping stuff on the street because, in reality, most of the stuff set out this way is scarfed up by collectors who drive around neighborhoods looking to fill their vans before the municipal trucks arrive.

Yeah, all of this sorting means extra work. Think of it as your small contribution to saving the world as you prevent garbage rather than create it. Try shopping at the local German markets with a small basket in hand, take one of the commissary cloth bags and avoid buying food in heavy packaging. 

Also, pack food in reusable containers for the fridge; look for the Green Dot on products since the producers pay a recycling fee to help fund the program.
Before long, you’ll fit right in with the Germans as they treasure their countryside, their country and our planet.

So, what belongs where?
» Below is a breakdown of some of the most common household items and which can or bag they belong in. Not all items have been mentioned. To see a full list of items, pick up a copy of the latest city garbage guide, which can be found at the German-American Community Office on Lauterstrasse 2.«


(biological waste)
» Kitchen waste: old bread, eggs shells, coffee powder and filters, food leftovers, tea leaves, and tea filters

» Fruit and vegetables: peels, apple cores, leaves, nutshells, fruit stones and pips, and lettuce leaves
» Garden waste: soil, hedge trimmings, leaves, grass clippings, weeds, dead flowers and twigs
» Other: feathers, hair, kitchen towels, tissues, sawdust and straw

BLUE CAN (paper)
» Envelopes, books, catalogues, illustrations, cartons, writing pads, brochures, writing paper, school books, washing detergent cartons without plastic, newspapers and paper boxes

YELLOW CAN OR BAGS (plastic, etc.)
» Aluminum foil, plastic wrap and inside packaging materials
» Tins, cans, liquids refill sachets/bags, yogurt cups and body lotion bottles
» Plastic bags, margarine tubs, milk sachets, plastic packaging trays for fruit and vegetables, screw-top bottle tops, detergent bottles, carry bags, vacuum packaging, and dish washing liquid bottles

GRAY CAN (household waste)
» Ashes, wire, carbon paper, electrical appliances, bicycle tubes, photos, broken glass, bulbs, chewing gum, personal hygiene articles, nails, porcelain, rubber, plastic ties, broken mirrors, vacuum cleaner bags, street sweeping dirt, carpeting pieces, diapers, cigarette butts and miscellaneous waste

(Courtesy of the American Women’s Club of Cologne)