Sorting Trash in Germany

by Christina Geyer on March 10, 2008 · 37 comments

Print Friendly

Germans take recycling very seriously.  I’ve heard of fights erupting among neighbors in apartment houses over improper sorting.  To help you with figuring out what goes where, I’ve compiled this little guide.

First, there can be up to four containers at your residence or in public places.  There’s the paper and cardboard container, that is denoted by either green or blue, depending on where you live.  Then there is the plastic and compound materials container, denoted by yellow.  There is the brown biological waste container, and the gray household waste container.

In addition to these containers, you will find containers in your neighborhood for glass, shoe, and clothing collection.  At the entrances of home improvement, electronics, and some grocery stores, you will find used battery collection boxes.  You may need to store hazardous materials for some time until your city or town announces that it will be collecting these items.  And finally, there are scheduled pickups for large items, like old sofas and the like.  In large cities, you will generally be notified of the dates for pickups, but in smaller towns you will likely need to call and schedule a pickup yourself (in our town, we get one free pickup a year, more than one and we need to pay for them to come by).

What’s acceptable can vary slightly from place to place, as can the color of the bins.  I looked over the instructions for several cities, and listed items that were accepted by all.  Some cities accept things that other cities don’t, so to find out for sure what you can and can’t recycle, and what bin it goes in if what I have here doesn’t seem to match up with your bins, check the official website of the city or district you live in.

Basically, if something is soiled, it should go in the household waste container (used tissues, sanitary napkins, pizza boxes with sauce and cheese stuck on them, etc). Items should be fairly clean, or cleanable, to be recycled.

What goes in the Grüne/Blaue Tonne (green or blue can) for paper and cardboard recycling?

  • Paper and cardboard packaging marked with or without a Grüne Punkt (Green Dot), for example, cartons for salt, laundry detergent)
  • uncoated frozen food packaging
  • newspapers, magazines, junk-mail
  • notebooks, writing pads, writing paper, envelopes, computer paper
  • packing paper, corrugated cardboard
  • books without covers, catalogs

What does not go in the Grüne/Blaue Tonne (green or blue can) for paper and cardboard recycling?

  • soiled paper
  • drink cartons, for example, Tetra-Paks
  • pizza boxes with aluminum coating
  • coffee bags (paper bonded with aluminum or plastic
  • wallpaper
  • carbon paper, photo paper
  • used paper towels, Kleenex, or napkins – throw these in the regular trash
  • waxed, sandwich or parchment paper
  • any other coated or bonded paper

What goes in the Gelbe Tonne (yellow can) for plastic and compound materials recycling?

  • plastic food containers, like for yogurt or margarine
  • plastic bottles, for example, body wash, shampoo, sunscreen, laundry detergent, juice bottles
  • plastic wrap, plastic bags (like from inside the cereal box, or shopping bags)
  • vacuum-pack bags, for example, coffee bags
  • Styrofoam packaging, also for meats, fruits and vegetables
  • nets that citrus and potatoes come in
  • aluminum foil, lids, trays
  • paper or plastic plates, plastic utensils
  • fast food mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup packets
  • tin drink and food cans
  • aerosol cans (hairspray, deodorant, etc.)
  • tubes for toothpaste, stain remover, tomato paste, etc.
  • plastic bottle screw-tops
  • milk and juice cartons
  • pharmaceutical blister-packs

What doesn’t go in the Gelbe Tonne (yellow can) for plastic and compound materials recycling?

  • vegetable and fruit cartons
  • glass
  • paper and cardboard
  • video and audio cassettes
  • diapers, sanitary napkins, tampons
  • plastic, metal or Styrofoam items that aren’t packaging, like toys, bowls, lids, laundry baskets, window boxes, plant pots, etc.
  • packaging that contained hazardous material, like spray paint cans
  • electronic devices

What goes in the BIO Tonne (brown can) for biological waste?

  • garden clippings, weeds, grass cuttings
  • foliage and plants, including houseplants
  • feathers and hair from pets
  • paper towels
  • fruit and vegetable peels and leftovers, including citrus fruits
  • coffee grounds and filters
  • tea and tea bags
  • egg shells
  • flowers
  • bread and cheese
  • spoiled food
  • nut shells
  • organic pet litter, like hay, straw, wood shavings
  • untreated wood
  • Christmas trees (no tinsel)

What does not go in the BIO Tonne (brown can) for biological waste?

  • ashes
  • mineral-based pet litter
  • meat and sausage leftovers, cooked and prepared food, flour and milk products (in some places, these can go in)
  • treated wood
  • bones
  • Kleenex, sanitary pads, diapers, tampons
  • other treated items, vacuum cleaner bags, street sweepings

What goes in the Altglastonne (old glass containers)?

  • non-returnable glass jars and bottles
  • marmalade, jam, jelly, preserve jars
  • packaging made from glass
  • blue glass (goes in the green glass container)

What does not go in the Altglastonne (old glass containers)?

  • lightbulbs
  • ceramic and porcelain
  • mirror, window and plate glass
  • crystal
  • ceramic stove tops
  • auto windshields
  • fireproof glass

So, are you a recycling practitioner, guru, novice?  Do you have anything to add?


  • Jul

    I’m just glad we don’t have to bundle paper and cardboard here like we did in CH…

  • bowleserised

    THANK YOU for doing this! Oh boy, have I been getting it wrong. I need to print this out and buy more bins.

  • Matthias

    Trenne niemals Müll, denn er hat nur eine Silbe!


  • cliff1976

    Touché, Matthias. That one was perfect.

  • Migraine Meister

    Doesn’t Grüne Punkt go in the “Gelbe Sack”? Or is this one of those regional differences?

    – Could be – when we rented a Ferienwohnung in Bayern we had to separate quite differently than up here in Rheinland-Pfalz, but can’t remember the difference anymore… brain shrinkage from pregnancy three years ago– still using that as an excuse!

  • Blythe

    I looked all over the web for something like this (auf English) when we moved here. It’s a wonder I haven’t been kicked out of my building for gross recycling misconduct.

  • Christina G

    @Jul: They weigh your trash there or something, don’t they?

    @bowleserised: It set me straight on a couple items as well!

    @matthias: Can’t argue with that!

    @migraine meister: there are cardboard things with Grüne Punkte also, it just means that the manufacturer has paid a fee to help offset the cost of recycling the packaging of their product. From the website:

    Once packages have served their purpose, manufacturers and vendors have to take them back, arrange for eco-friendly recovery, and finally document the entire procedures involved…
    By paying what is called a licence fee, you, as the company responsible for the product, acquire the right to use the Green Dot on your packages, and in return are exempted from your statutory obligations to take them back and recycle them, and document the procedures involved.

    @blythe: I looked for one too, I finally decided that I should just make one!

  • Revathi

    Where do sanitary napkins go..?

  • Christina G

    Hi Revathi,

    Sanitary napkins would go in the regular trash (the gray or black container)

  • recycler

    Where can I buy Gelbe sack from? Any of the supermarkets?

  • Christina G

    Supermarkets wouldn’t have them, try at the Rathaus

  • S

    Thank you for such a detailed list. :)

    I think I should print it out too and paste it in the basement where I keep all the bins, so that next time I throw something I know which bin it goes to.


  • Marko

    Yeah, Germans allways want to save the world.
    My grandma’s neighbour was also an older woman; she controlled every single bin and looked after the other neighbours if they separated correctly. I just called her the “Blockwart”.

    My opinion about separating trash? If you watch a TV programme, finding poor people of local minorities seeking trash for valuables, its a film either about a third-world-country or about a plant of the “Grüne Punkt”.

  • http://AmiExpat Kim from NoVA

    Great blog Christina, very helpful.
    I lived in Southern Bavaria for three years in the 80’s (& visited three times 2000/2004/2005) and I want to go back (possibly to live) in 2 years when my daughter graduates school in the US.
    I’ve been dreaming of it for years. Don’t know exactly how to make it happen, but I’m working on my German again with a teacher nearby and starting a stammtisch. Anyway, it’s so great to hear about your experiences and know that it is still very similar to my experiences back 20 years ago.
    Which leads me to discuss another difference that I noticed between our countries (maybe you already mentioned this somewhere?) is that American’s are much more comfortable with moving and NOT staying in the same area, Germans tend to stay pretty close to where they grew up.
    It made me think that maybe the reason that Americans are usually more outgoing and friendly right at the start is that we have usually had to make new friends in completely new areas over many times in our lives. If the norm was to stay in your region with little change, would that make anyone more protective and careful of new people? Just wondering. What do you think?

  • Christina Geyer

    @kim: I think it’s true that Germans aren’t as open to new friendships because they don’t move around as often. Our country was founded by people who moved a great distance to start over. :)

  • shayne

    for the paper/cardboard bin (blue bin), do you just throw the stuff in the bin…or does it need to be in regular trashbag as well? considering the trashbag is PLASTIC and all….hahaha
    .-= shayne´s last blog ..How to turn paper documents into digital info =-.

  • Christina Geyer

    @shayne: Just throw it in, but make sure the stuff is clean. If it’s dirty, it should go in the regular trash (gray/black bin).

  • junodog

    This is the best explanation of the system that I have found so far. Thank you for making it clear enough for a braindead American college student to understand. XD

  • cathy

    Cristina …

    Now that I figure out the blue without the bag…HOw anout the green (Organic Bin) do you throw it there..or put in plastic bag or how is it done?

    Thanks for all your help

  • Stefan

    Song about the “king of the Wertstoffhof.” Martina Schwarzmann, caberetist…it´s pur fun to listen to, dealing with the problem to get rid of the trash in proper way, its in bavarian dialect…

  • Christina Geyer

    @cathy: Sorry, I didn’t respond, every once in a while I don’t get notified about new comments. I’m not certain, but I imagine you shouldn’t put plastic bags in the organic bin. They sell bio-bags at the supermarket, I would probably use one of those. Or just look how everyone else is doing it.

    @stefan: That was great. Our whole village meets at the Wertstoffhof on Saturday mornings and we have a König as well. Sounds like Martina Schwarzmann has been to our village.

  • Christina

    Thanks for the help.. I have to admit I’m still rather confused, we only have a Brown bin and a Green Bin. No yellow. We were under the impression Green was for compost, and brown was for packaging. Any insight you have would be great. Thanks!

  • Linda

    Ok, I got it now, but where does meat bones or meat leftovers go??

  • Sara

    Bless you!!! I know this is an old post of yours, but saved my butt!! I tried translating some stuff our landlord gave us, but that didn’t help much and I could bring myself to believe the small brown container we have is really for food compost and not just grass clippings!
    Now do you have any advice of how to figure out when what gets picked up? What’s happened the last couple weeks doesn’t match with the calendar I have. I guess I’ll research further….

  • Pingback: 「幻燈機械」‏()

  • Pingback: 地球が回り続けるように « 「幻燈機械」‏()

  • Robert

    Hi Christina, I put out my gray trash can for household trash this morning plus two tall kitchen trash bags with the extra trash that didn’t fit in the gray bin, but the garbage collectors didn’t take the extra bags. What do you do with the extra trash that will now be sitting in my garage?

  • Christina Geyer

    All trash collection needs to be paid for here and only what is in your bin is covered. If you have extra, you need to buy special bags to put the trash in. I’m not sure how it is everywhere, but in our village, the bags are 5 Euro each and can be bought at the Rathaus. You’ll need to keep the trash in your garage until next pickup, then put it out in the special bags (or in your bin if it will fit next time).

  • Ana Negura

    Hi, I recently moved to Germany, not too far from Regensburg. actually!

    I looked a lot on Internet how to recycle tampons, as they have both plastic and organic components, but I only found information about where I should not put them. Can you give me some insight?

  • Christina Geyer

    Congrats on moving to the area! Tampons and packaging would go in the regular trash. Definitely don’t flush them, they will clog the pipes here. If sending them to the landfill bothers you, look into getting a menstrual cup. I have a LunaCup and I love it (DivaCup is another brand).

  • Allie

    Hi! I’m new in Germany.. I read your post cause there’s something I don’t really know yet. I saw what you can and what you can’t throw and where. But I don’t know where to throw the sanitary napkins and tampons. You only said where not to… Please let me know :)

  • Ida Jemand

    black/regular trash

  • Christina Geyer

    Hi Allie, welcome to Germany! As I mentioned above to Ana, these need to go in the regular trash. I’ve just updated the post with this information as well.

  • CJ

    In which bin do meat leftovers/chicken bones get disposed?

  • Christina Geyer

    If you have a Biotonne, they can maybe go in there, but some places forbid it, so check your locality (try googling “Was gehört in die Biotonne “). If it’s not allowed, they need to go in the regular trash.

  • Adriana

    The local glass recycling bins only have slots for green and white glass. So what happens to the other glass? Also they say no broken glass. So where do I dispose of broken cups and glasses?

  • Christina Geyer

    Blue glass goes in with green. Everything else goes in the gray household trash bin.

Previous post:

Next post: