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How to recycle waste in Germany

This is a topic we encounter every day - and yet it's not always easy: waste separation.

Waste separation – that means: the waste goes into different bins or containers, so it is sorted.

We Germans often pride ourselves that we are “world champions in separating waste”. I'm not exactly sure if that's true - but it definitely shows that most people in Germany take this topic very seriously.

The exact rules as to what is collected in which bin (or in which bag) (and what is not allowed in!) are unfortunately a little different in each municipality.

But this article gives you a good guide so you know what to look out for.

Containers with different types of waste


Why does waste separation matter?

What are the main wast collection containers?

The recycling center


Why does waste separation matter?

Garbage is usually incinerated in Germany. In any case, everything that can no longer be used, i.e. can be recycled.

However, if we recycle packaging, the raw materials it contains can be reused. For this we have to separate the waste.

That way, waste separation reduces the consumption of raw materials and CO2 emissions and protects the climate.

What categories are there for recycling?

Normally, we separate paper, glass, residual waste, packaging and organic waste.

What are the main waste collection containers?

The most important waste collection containers are:

Blue, green and yellow waste collection containers

die Papiertonne - paper bin

die Gelbe Tonne/ der Gelbe Sack

- yellow bin or yello sack

die Restmülltonne - residual waste bin

die Biotonne - compost bin/ bio bin

der Glascontainer - glass container

Paper (blue)

For paper and cardboard.

There is often a blue bin for the houses. If not, you'll have to take all the paper to the paper container.

Packages should be folded to save space.

What does not belong in the paper waste?

  • Paper handkerchiefs or paper napkins Even though there is 'paper' in the name: They do not belong in the paper waste, but in the residual waste.

  • Receipts made of so-called thermal paper are made of paper, but they are chemically treated so that they are not suitable for recycling. They therefore belong in the residual waste


Empty glass packaging belongs in the glass container. These are, for example, empty bottles that are not deposit bottles, or jam jars.

You have to sort the bottles by color: brown, green or white.

By the way, blue or red bottles belong in the container for green glass.

The lids do not need to be unscrewed.

What does not belong in the glass waste?

You can return returnable bottles in the shop and get the deposit (= money) back.

Broken drinking glasses, broken mirrors or broken window glass belong in the residual waste. That type of glass has a different composition than packaging glass (such as jam jars). The glass types cannot be recycled together.

Good to know:

Containers for waste glass are usually located in residential areas. Out of consideration for the neighbors, the glass can only be thrown in at certain times - so usually during the weekdays. Sometimes there are quiet hours.

Container for bottles - waste

Bio bin - organic waste (green or brown)

Garden waste and leftovers go in the bio bin.

What does not belong in the organic waste?

In some communities, meat and bones go with the organic waste, while in others they belong in the residual waste.

That depends on how the organic waste is recycled.

Der Gelbe Sack / die Gelbe Tonne

Empty packaging that is not made of paper, cardboard, cardboard or glass belongs in the yellow sack or in the yellow bin.

They are usually made of plastic, aluminum, tinplate or composites. But styrofoam also usually belongs in this category.

For example :

  • Plastic Yoghurt pots, packaging from sausage, cheese or ice cream, plastic bags, platic cosmetic packaging, empty toothpaste tubes

  • Aluminum Lids from yoghurt pots, empty mustard tubes, empty spray cans

  • tinplate Empty food cans, aluminum foil crown caps from bottles

  • Composite material Milk carton/ beverage carton (tetrapack)

woman separating waste in different containers in Germany

The packaging should be completely empty. However, it should not be rinsed out with water.

Plastic, composite, or metal materials that aren't packaging can sometimes be taken to a recycling center. Otherwise they belong in the residual waste.

Good to know:

The machines in the recycling center cannot separate different materials.

So, if you have a yogurt pot with a lid for example, you'll need to separate the lid first. Only then do both, pot and lid, go into the yellow sack.

But even the same packaging must not be stacked inside one another.

Staying with the example of the youghurt cups: you are not allowed to put an empty yoghurt cup in another empty yoghurt cup.

Beverage cans or plastic bottles with a deposit sign should be returned to the shops that sell them.

Empty aerosol cans go in the yellow bin/bag. If the can is not completely empty, it must be taken to a recycling center.

Regional particularities

A few months ago, we still had the rule in our community: Styrofoam must NOT go in the yellow bag.

Then something in the way of recycling was changed, and now styrofoam MUST go in the yellow sack.

So, when in doubt, it's better to get more detailed information

The yellow bag often states exactly what is allowed in and what is not.

Or maybe you can ask the neighbors? You will surely be happy to help!

Residual waste (black or grey)

In the residual waste belongs ... exactly, the rest:

So almost everything that doesn't belong in the other bins.

The recycling center

You can take toxins, spray cans that aren't completely empty, or things that are too big for the garbage can to the recycling center.

You can also return old electronic devices and batteries here - or you can bring them back to the shop.

You can also bring large amounts of garden waste and everything that is too big for the bin to the recycling center.

Electrical appliances and batteries

Smaller electronic devices (up to 25 cm) have to be taken back by dealers (i.e. shops).

If you buy a larger electronic device , the dealer has to take back a broken device of the same type - no matter where you bought it.

Example: Your washing machine is broken. You go to a store and buy a new washing machine. Then the shop has to pick up the broken washing machine from you free of charge.

old batteries - waste

You can return batteries where you can buy batteries:

for example in the supermarket, discounter, department store, drugstore, electronics store or hardware store. There is often a collection box at the checkout or at the exit.


If you are new in Germany, you should know the rules of waste separation.

That way, you protect the environment and possibly avoid having to pay a fine.

The most important collection containers are the paper bin, the yellow bin/yellow sack,

the residual waste bin, the bio bin and the glass container.

If you separate the garbage, you also ensure a good relationship with your neighbors! Most people follow these rules and expect others to do the same.


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