Germans – god bless their souls – love to recycle their trash. Many foreigners not used to this degree of recycling make fun of Germans but I actually find this to be pretty great. Apart from the obvious environmental aspect of this practice, recycled material is also used for electricity generation in the country which is great. Now, let’s have a look at the German take on trash.
Like most countries, each house and apartment building in Germany has a trash area. In this area, there are many kinds of garbage cans of different colors.
Each color signifies the kind of garbage that goes into them. In the photo on the right, you can see an assortment of trash cans. This is the most common color combination. The brown one is for things such as compost, plants and other organic matter from the garden. The black one beside it is for the other trash from the household like leftover food, used paper napkins and what not. The yellow trash can is for all things plastic. The last black and blue one is for paper trash. In some cities – usually the smaller ones – people are given yellow bags in which they can put their plastic trash. These bags are collected on certain days a month and can be piled outside the house before the trash collectors come to pick them up. The bigger the house or the apartment building, the greater the size of these trash cans. These trash cans are rented from the city and a tax has to be paid for them. The amount of this tax depends on the size of the trash cans. The colors of these trash cans changes from city to city. Mostly, the garbage bin says what goes in which one.
In most bigger cities in Germany, there are neighborhood glass disposing containers.
These are color coded and glass bottles of the corresponding color (brown, green, white) are put in them. In smaller cities, there are colored plastic baskets which can be put out on collection days.
For disposing electrical appliances, there’s a different system. Bigger cities usually have a receptacle for smaller electrical appliances (such as a coffee maker, keyboard, etc.) and a bigger area outside the city for the things like the washing machine or TV set. Small town, on the other hand, usually have the place outside the city for all kinds of electrical appliances, big or small. This location is called a Wertstoffhof and other big trash such as couches or tables can be deposited as well. There is, of course, a fee for all this and it depends on how much stuff you’re bringing in unless your city waives it for residents.
This brings us to the very German concept of Pfand or deposit. As a foreigner, it’s one of the first things I picked up on. Certain plastic bottles have a recycle sign or Pfandflasche written on them. These bottles can be brought back to the nearest supermarket and returned at a so called Pfandstation.
This is a machine which checks if the bottle is recyclable, and crushes it if it is. Typically you get back €0,25 to €0,50 per bottle as a refund. The machine then gives you a receipt which you can show at the supermarket counter. The price of the Pfand is included in the bottle when you buy it. For example, if I buy a €1 bottle with a Pfand value, it’ll cost me €1,25. When I return it, I’ll get my deposit of €0,25 back. Brilliant isn’t it? Glass bottles have a Pfand value as well as a deposit for the container which you’ll get back when the bottles and container are returned. The principle remains the same.
The concept of Pfand has given rise to what I call Pfandkultur*. Many people clutch their Pfandflasche in their hands all day just for the sake of recycling them or adding them to their recycling pile at home only to binge recycle one day. On the other hand, there are the Pfand sinners who actually throw away Pfand bottles.
Because of such people, there are many homeless seen rummaging in public trash cans, looking for a Pfandflasche which is then put into a bag and taken home with them to be recycled at a later date. Naturally, you don’t make much off it unless you turn it into a business which I have seen happen.
Here’s the take home lesson from this post: whenever you’re not sure about the trash, check your trash pick up plan (Abfallkalendar). Another lesson is: recycle, recycle, recycle.
*Literally Pfand culture. I like to invent German words all the time.