Germany, Life

Rainbow Recycling: Waste segregation, the German way!

How many bins do you have? 1, 2, 3? Here in Germany I can count a lot more that we use in everyday life! Read on to find out what goes in them.

This post was long due. It just got lost in the drafts but I was recently reminded of it when I saw Uyen’s video on Instagram about this topic. As an expat living and working in Germany, I love her funny and informative videos about Leben in Deutschland (Life in Germany).

When I watched this I really felt like, “OMG, Story of my life!”, not only because I was overwhelmed at the ultra-segregation of waste in Germany but also because of the part at the end – “German neighbour checking if I do it correctly”. I have to admit that it felt a bit strange when my neighbour casually checked our Gelber Sack (Yellow bag) around the first week when we moved to our new apartment, to see if we were segregating the waste correctly and then was happy to see “Alles in Ordnung” or everything is OK ;). She is the sweetest and most helpful neighbour ever and we know that her intentions were definitely in the right place. It really was more like a friendly “You may not know this already as you’re not from around here” instead of a sneeky “You must have done something wrong”. Our apartment is in a Mehrfamiliehaus (multi-family house) with 4 other families, and the big garbage bins where we throw our individual garbage bags are shared amongst all of us. So if one person screws up with waste segregation, the whole house is affected. And the punishment could range from refusal of the city authorities to empty your bins to fines of upto 1500 Euros. So it is a big deal!

Now that you have a brief understanding of how important waste segregation in Germany is (not only for the authorities but also for the people!), here is some background. I come from India where littering is a huge menace. I don’t want to generalize because there are clean places too of course, but every time I am there for a visit, I am disgusted at how common it is for people to carelessly throw their waste around. Big cities are troubled by a huge garbage problem with piles of rubbish here and lakes catching fire there. In Bangalore I came across an interesting initiative called “The Ugly Indian“. Dirty corners with unauthorized and ever-increasing piles of garbage were cleaned up on weekends by concerned citizens. After the clean-up they would paint that corner with bright colours or beautify that spot with the hope that “the ugly Indian” would probably be discouraged to throw garbage at a clean corner. And I was personally very happy to see that it really did work! Things are changing, albeit at a depressingly slow pace. The “Swachh Bharat” or Clean India initiative hopes to make our cities and towns clean. But unless we resolve to keep our streets as clean as our homes, things wouldn’t improve. It is heart-breaking to see people litter on streets, at tourist attractions, and even in the pristine mountains. It’s not always feasible and not everyone wants to walk around with a garbage bag all the time. Having good intentions is one thing, but ease of adherence is equally, if not more, important, don’t you think?

Anyway, so coming back to waste segregation. I recently watched a report about India’s cleanest city Indore, and was impressed to see how waste segregation at source and an efficient collection and sorting system helps Indore retain it’s cleanest city title for the last few years. In Bangalore, the apartment complex I stayed in, also encouraged people to segregate their dry and wet waste at home. They even had a wet waste processing plant on-site, which was great as it provided manure for the lush green campus. Not many people practiced waste segregation seriously though, because the collection system was not too great and not enforced properly in my opinion. There was also no clarity about recycling or reusing from the so-called dry waste, but still, to me it felt nice to segregate at source and somewhat help in the aim of not having everything end up at landfills.

And then I moved to Deutschland! 🙂 Germany is always amongst the top when it comes to reusing and recycling waste. The simple act of waste segregation is seamlessly integrated in everyday life and the policies and infrastructure available definitely help in increasing and maintaining adherence. Littering is also quite rare because in cities there is a bin after every few steps. Even on hikes and secluded places you would find bins here and there, so one would automatically not want to litter. Again, I don’t want to generalise and not everything is sparkling clean, especially in the big cities, but you wouldn’t find people littering mindlessly. That is precisely why I feel that good civil and municipal infrastructure is extremely important to promote adherence and enable good habits.

Let’s talk some colours first! At our home we have the following levels of waste segregation:

  1. Yellow – Recyclable packaging like milk cartons, shampoo bottles, yoghurt cups etc.
  2. Green (or blue sometimes) – Paper and cardboard
  3. Brown – Bio or biodegradable kitchen/garden waste (not meant for leftovers!)
  4. Glass – This goes to common collection bins (located every 500m or so) where one chooses to throw and further segregate the glass bottles or jars into white/brown/green glass compartments.
  5. Pfand – If you throw some kinds of bottles or cans in yellow bins or glass bins, you are literally throwing money away because almost all of the bottles or cans bought at any German supermarket carry a deposit that you pay while buying it. Almost all supermarkets in Germany, big or small, have collection machines in place, which swallow your bottles/cans and give you back the deposit money as a voucher to use or get encashed at the supermarket. These are then rebottled, reused or recycled. When I first moved here, I was fascinated by this incentivized recycling scheme in Germany that also curbs the problem of littering. I will write about the German Pfand system in detail in one of my future posts soon.
  6. Batteries – They are not supposed to be thrown in the regular waste, so we have a little can where we keep them and then throw away when there’s a few collected. Most German supermarkets have a special bin for taking batteries, bulbs etc.
  7. Black (or grey sometimes) – This is the most common bin in any German household which is meant for Restmüll or residual waste which is non-recyclable. For us or for anyone serious about waste segregation, this is supposed to be the last bin or the last level of segregation. I presume whatever goes here makes its way to the landfills or incinerators either here or somewhere. So it is best to take out anything that can possibly be reused or recycled and put it in another bin.

Waste segregation at source is taken very seriously. Earlier in Wedel when we lived in a Hochhaus or a big apartment building, we were not very clear about everything that was supposed to be done but still tried to do our best to move from the 2-bin Bangalore system that we were acquainted with (dry and wet), to the colourful world of waste segregation here. At our present home with 4 families the waste collection is at a miniscule level as compared to the 50 family big apartment building earlier, so we get to see it at a smaller scale and are definitely doing a lot more than we were doing earlier while getting to learn a lot from our friendly neighbours as well. For example, our neighbour recently informed us that the that the brown biodegradable waste bag, even though it degrades much faster than plastic, takes longer to disintegrate as compared to a much thinner newspaper. She always told us not to waste our money on special brown bags for kitchen waste. We finally listened to her advice and stopped using those paper waste bags and now use a newspaper or sometimes even directly empty our kitchen waste into the common brown bin outside.

At the start of the year we get a waste collection calendar from the authorities that clearly shows which bin would be collected when. We share the responsibility to put the big bins out on the street for collection the next morning. If you forget to put the bin out before the next morning then you unfortunately have to wait another week or so for collection of that type of waste, as simple as that!

Then there are other types of segregation like electronic waste bins which are generally placed near the common glass bins. There are also big collection points for putting old clothes and shoes and sometimes even for old spectacles so that one can donate stuff for anyone in need instead of throwing it away in the black bin. The second hand market in Germany is also quite formalized so you would see many Facebook groups for buying and selling old belongings or initiatives like ‘Free Your Stuff’ where you can ask for or give stuff by connecting with people around your area.

For bulky waste like furniture or mattresses one has to inform the city authorities for pick up. Sometimes it is free and sometimes it costs money. This was also very surprising for me to know that one could be required to spend money to get rid of their stuff! Some people put stuff they don’t need out on the street as “zu veschenken” or ‘to gift’ (which kind of works like Free your stuff but in the physical form), so that others who may need it can pick it up. I have personally picked up a few items of need or want from the streets. Isn’t it great how one person’s waste can be useful to another person.

If you want to go into the details there are a lot of information brochures to help you understand what goes where. I can also highly recommend this wonderful informative post by Yvonne at simplegermany.com, writing it from the perspective of a German who has these ideals of waste segregation deeply ingrained in her.

Last but not the least, something very important I have learned about in our waste segregation journey is avoiding “wishcycling“, which simply put is aspirational recycling, described as the well-intentioned, but often unfounded belief, that something is recyclable, even though it’s not. For me personally, this was very confusing at first because I assumed (actually wished) that all platic is and should be recycled, but that is definitely wishful thinking and that is precisely why it is important to check the packaging and only put in suitable recyclable items into the Yellow bin. It is important to realise that every wrong item placed in a wrong bin, potentially undermines recycling opportunity for that whole bin or the whole lot. So one must take this as a serious duty and responsibility towards the society and towards the environment.

Waste segregation is a seemless habit now and we are happy to increase our knowledge about these topics. As a household we aim to reduce, reuse and recycle to the best of our capability. We come from the humble era when milk was available at collecting stations and brought home in large cans or reusable bottles. Soft drinks were sold in glass bottles which could be returned at shops and were re-bottled. Coca Cola and Pepsi Co are the biggest polluters in the world and they have the audacity to lecture humanity that “people start pollution, people can stop it”. They have conveniently switched to cheaper alternatives like plastic instead of re-usable glass bottles to increase their profit margins and are putting the entire blame for this huge problem and the whole responsibility for a solution on PEOPLE!

Our garbage problem is probably beyond solvable as we have undoubtedly caused irrepairable damage to this Pale Blue Dot we call home. I don’t want to end on a gloomy note, yet I am mildly disheartened and not really optimistic about making this world a better place to live, so let us be realists, and continue to reduce reuse, recycle hoping, that every drop in this vast ocean counts and every small step can one day become a giant leap towards keeping this third rock from the Sun habitable!

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