I have briefly mentioned the comprehensive recycling system in Germany in a previous Culture Shock post. Here’s a more in-depth look at it!

Why so serious?

Recycling in Germany is serious business. 

And in 2021, I think we can all agree that recycling is a good thing, right? Climate change is the biggest problem we are facing as humans. Yes, even bigger than the Pan-orama. 

Recycling is one of the easiest and most affordable things we can do to help the planet a little more.

Germany is Europe’s largest economy, the number one location for research and the world’s 3rd largest exporter after China and the US. So it makes sense that they would also be a world leader in recycling.

In fact, according to this report from 2017, Germany is THE world leader in recycling. It’s easy to understand why they take it so seriously.

History of Recycling in Germany.


Did you know? The modern waste separation and recycling system started in East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) in the 1960s and 1970s. Import of raw materials was so expensive that it largely fell to the moral duty of the citizens to help out.

Enter: the SERO system. An incentive created to encourage people to hand in their recyclable materials in exchange for $$$.

The states of Western Germany went freelance with their waste management guidelines until 1972 when the first national disposal act was created (Abfallbeseitigungsgesetz). This act has changed slightly over the years, but it essentially remains the same. 

The act now applies to both Western and Eastern Germany, after their reunification in 1990. 

However, the separation of household waste did not become mandatory in reuinifed Germany until 2015.

That’s definitely more recent than I would have believed it to be.

Waste management and separation in Germany is second nature to most citizens and is one of the first things you’ll learn about when you come here because there can be consequences.

What can you recycle?

The short answer: EVERYTHING.

Okay, not quite, but the list is pretty extensive.

  • Newspapers (and the countless Supermarket offer magazines they come with), letters, paper, cardboard, egg cartons go into the blue bin.
  • Non-deposit plastic bottles and some cans, milk and juice cartons, yoghurt containers, drinks cartons, aluminum foil and any packaging that has Der Grüne Punkt belongs in the Gelbe Tonne (yellow bin).
  • Coffee grounds, egg shells, food leftovers, fruit & veg, garden waste all go in the Biotonne (brown bin).
  • Pretty much anything you have left belongs in the Restmüll (black bin).

This website has a great article on what you can recycle and where it should go.

However, I highly recommend checking your local regional website because the rules can differ.

For example, we can no longer place food cans in our yellow sack.

Land of the Pfand

The Pfand machine is one of the best tourist attractions in Germany. I’ll be taking my friends and family for a visit when it’s safe for them to come. FUN FOR ALL THE FAMILY!

Definitely one of the biggest culture shocks for many expats and immigrants when they first move to Germany is the Pfand (translation: deposit). Similar to the previously mentioned SERO system that operated in East Germany, the Pfand system allows you to return many plastic and glass bottles, as well as some tins and cans to the store in return for money.

It’s not big bucks, but it’s definitely an incentive for people to continually recycle.

Recycling in Germany meme

Another advantage to this system is that it allows you to help those in need. Oftentimes (more so in cities) there will be people sifting through bins, or there will be bottles left on top of bins/benches. This is because the homeless or those more in need are able to collect them up and take them to a supermarket in exchange for some money or to help them pay for food/essentials.

This incentive is used at events like the Weihnachtsmarkt where you pay a little extra for your first glass of Glühwein. Then, at the end of the night, you can choose to keep the glass as a souvenir or hand it back to the bar and receive your Pfand back.

This ensures minimal recklessness and glass smashing. Unlike at any event in Britain.

Anecdote: I once went to an arena gig in Newcastle where nobody could purchase the band’s mugs as merchandise until after the show because there were fears the mugs would get thrown around and smashed, causing injuries. The mugs were 12 GBP. If you’re paying 12 quid to smash a mug over someone’s head, I’m betting you’ve got too much money to spare.

Recycling in Germany vs UK

The complex German recycling system is fascinating to me. But, inevitably, someone from Britain (see: Wales) always pipes up with

it’s nothing new, Wales has been doing that for years”.

Good for you sweetie. 

Thing is, most countries do not have this in-depth recycling system. 

In England, we had two bins – recycling and normal. The recycling bin was for literally anything that could be recycled, no matter the material.

The normal bin was for everything else. Any “special” waste had to be taken to the local recycling centre yourself.

It was commonly known that most of the things we recycled ended up in landfill sites abroad anyway. Because of that, most people in the UK didn’t really pay attention to what can/can’t be recycled.

But things in Germany are different. Aren’t they?


Next week, I’m diving a little further into the truth behind the great recycling nation of Germany. Join me then!

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