When Garbage Sorting Gets Complicated

My wife has been losing sleep because she’s afraid she is misclassifying a lot of the garbage at our German apartment. There is much more insistence on recycling in Germany (and much of Europe) than in the U.S.

We have four different containers in front of our building: paper (blue), packaging (yellow), biological (green), and the rest (gray) — and that doesn’t include the containers for three different kinds of glass (green, brown, and old) at the local park.


We are confused about what goes where and spend lots of time transferring refuse from one container in our apartment to another before deciding where to throw them outside. We’re probably right most of the time — and the additional sorting beyond what we do in the U.S. (where we only have garbage, paper, and glass/plastic containers) does reduce the negative externalities to the environment.

At the same time, the transactions costs of garbage sorting here are substantial, and I wonder if they can be justified by the environmental improvement that results. Our time has value, and that is being ignored.

Perhaps the best argument in favor of this extra work is that people learn to sort garbage by doing; so after a while, even for temporary residents like us, the transactions costs are lower while the environmental gains remain.


I live close to Bonn and its very easy..buy three trashcans and one glass recycling bin. One is for wet/old food/scraps trash, one for Yellow trash basically anything plastic, container like or metal cans, one for all paper products (ripping up all receipts and addresses so the trash police can not identify you) and then the Pfand, or deposit bottles that need to go back to the store. It took me a week to get the system.. have not had any problems since then.

Kevin Ryan

With 3 different kinds of recycling here in Kawasaki, 4 across the river in Tokyo, and 7 down the train line in Nagoya, I fail to see much reduction in transaction costs. Pile on the scheduling (was it the second Tuesday for batteries, or the first?) and the constant changes (they put stickers on the signs at the pickup place now, not new signs), and a call for standardization is in order.

Then we could really start saving the planet and time.

Dan Bock

Recycling is the philosophy that everything is worth saving except your time.


Um, are you sure that your city is actually recycling things? At one point, in certain German cities, recycling was mandatory, but in practice the paper and plastic bottles and so forth all went into the same truck as the regular garbage, and all of it went straight to the city incinerator.

Everyone still separated the recyclables into the correct bins -- it was mandatory, and Germans do follow their rules -- but it was not actually "recycled".

I understand that München still finds plastic bottles to be excellent fuel for the power-generating incinerator...


"Our time has value, and that is being ignored."

Our planet has value too, and the younger of us would prefer that cranky old economists do not aid in its destruction.

If you have a better solution for sorting, then by all means, please suggest it.



I live in Barcelona, Spain, where there are bins for paper, glass (all colors), plastic, organic and general trash. While I'm fully convinced by their usefulness and do my absolute best to separate things, I'd like to echo the concern of some other comments: Sometimes it's incredibly hard to know what goes where. Where are used hygiene products (such as diapers, sanny pads, condoms, wet wipes, paper towels soaked in cleaning products...) supposed to go? What to do with those bakery packages that are half paper half plastic but cannot be broken or cut? At least twice a week I run into an item I can't really decide where to put.


Oh, I was forgetting. One must also reckon with that passionate but pathological German love of ordnung. Sometimes that has translated into enacting arbitrary and burdensome rules for little more than the sheer joy of inconveniencing people and wasting their time, the attitude evinced, for example, by #46. At other times, it has gotten Germany into very serious trouble, and I suppose it will again someday.


Similar problems exist in New York City, with 85-year-old grandmothers handed expensive citations over trash they can barely see well enough to sort accurately. But environmentalists are just as bad as any other fundamentalists, or worse, so as far as they are concerned your time is properly to be valued as absolutely valueless.

Economics simply does not count with self-righteous moralizers, many of whom seem bent on appealing to envy by punishing people for being prosperous. When New York's mayor plays along with that, I think his issue is the supercilious self-righteousness that too often comes with being a politician.

I have to think that the automated sorting facilities used by some American cities would do a far more accurate job of sorting than people can really do manually at home, or will really do in places like public parks, but I don't know for sure. But as I said, the real issue is not re-using the materials, it is punishing people for their failure to live in such poverty that their time would indeed be worthless.


Mary Kathleen Kisiel

This is one of many ways you can use the down time while you are doing the laundry at home to do the sorting.

Sorting for recycling is different in every town and city in the US, as well. Many states also have weird bottle recycling laws as well. I'm sure you'll get the hang of it eventually, just like you'll learn how to do the laundry efficiently at home.

Those of us who have experienced life in Germany have come back and replaced out mammoth American washers and dryers with Energy Star German-type machines. They actually save a lot of time and effort, as well as electricity and water, once you learn how to use them.


In response to all the people calling for more incentives to recycling, I would have to agree with the way #35 put it, there already is a large incentive to recycle because you save money! It is actually not illegal to just dump all your trash in the grey garbage can if you so choose, you just have to pay for it all to get picked up by the city. The more trash you are able to (correctly) put into different recycling bins, the less you have to pay.

Our old American neighbors didn't want to deal with all the sorting and had a second grey trash can added to their already existing one, but they had to pay twice as much to have their trash picked up as we did with just one trash can. Here is the price calculator of the Berlin company responsible for trash http://www.bsr.de/bsr/html/behaelter.php . Adding an additional trash can will cost you 70€ a quarter! That's a pretty sizable incentive to invest some time in proper recycling!



I agree that if you grew up with this, it comes (somewhat) naturally to you. Germans aren't actually that good at this stuff as one would think based on the intenseness of the system and all the bins you see everywhere (even the train stations all have four trash cans).

If you look in the cans, people usually just get the paper and glass ones right. The "Gelbe Tonne" (yellow can) and general refuse are hard to keep apart. I remember some government recycling experts coming to my high school and analyzing the trash in our different garbage cans (yes, we did have three separate small trash cans in each room in which we had to separate our trash). They found that about 70% of the trash in "Restmüll" (general refuse) was misplaced.

Since we learned all this in elementary school with huge posters and special class lessons devoted to it, here is how it is SUPPOSED to be done so your wife can sleep well again:

Blue: Paper, pretty clear. However, NO laminated paper and no paper tissues or paper towels.

Yellow: All packaging that has a "Grüner Punkt" (green dot) on it. The manufacturers have to pay for the disposal of this trash, as they are responsible for creating it. However, you can't put really soiled plastic in it (like dirty joghurt containers). It has to be relatively clean.

Brown or green: Biomüll - basically stuff from your garden like the trimmings from trees or old flower bouquets.

Glass: pretty clear, different colors, different containers

Grey: Everything else! (Restmüll), literally leftover trash.

Beside the inate German desire to save the environment there is actually a real benefit to separating your trash this much: You only have to pay the city to pick up the "left over trash" because everything else is paid for by the recycling company or the manufacturers of the product (the green dot system). This was the reason my school invested so much in recycling: to lower trash costs.

It is true that automatic sorting is more efficient and there are debates to end the whole system "Gelbe Tonne" system, but for now Germans are still separating their trash meticulously.



What about my valuable time used up reading your whines about recycling? This is at least the second time...

Sorry, maybe that wasn't very polite. We lived in Germany from 2003 to 2006 and didn't have a problem with recycling. Perhaps my time is not as valuable as yours.

Victor CMS

There are various ways to make this time consuming process worth it. One thing the government can do to create an incentive for proper recylcing is to provide a refund for the amount recycled (which some places already do such as recycling a can of coke giving you a 5 cent refund in the US). So if you can apply this to say, for every full bin of platic/glass containers you recycle, you recieve a refund that can be seen on your taxes that month. Some people, specially those who arn't in the best of economic situations, might find this as an opportunity to save money while helping the enviroment, creating a win-win situation. Another way of making the whole process less tedious can be by having the bin manufacturers place a picture of all the kinds of things that can go in the special bin to make the sorting process easier.

Alex B

It's so embarassing when I make typos and I can't edit them after submitting them.

I still have to get used to secodnary orality. I'm writing as though I am speaking but I still have the usual textual pitfalls.


What? How can you find this difficult? Why are you making it hard for yourself by going through your own rubbish?

Can you buy a few containers and just throw away as you go along? They don't have to be large, or you can just get a multi-bin there are loads around. (google "recycling bin"), or as per the suggestions of many of these posters.


Since no one has pointed this out...

In Germany you pay for the gray container. The yellow, blue and brown containers are provided for 'free'.

Well.. That would be too easy.

It's simple to know what goes into the yellow container. Any packaging with a recycling logo (a white and green arrow formed in a circle) aka Grüne Punkt goes in the yellow container. This container is funded by a mandatory packaging surcharge. The manufacturers are theoretically required to recycle everything (again this is a theory). By the way, and this pisses most Germans off, but if you want, you can also put any glass containers with the recycling logo in the yellow container, you've paid to have them pick it up and sort it for you.

The blue containers are fairly new. They started appearing when the price for used paper to feed the recycling industry got high enough that the local trash companies started putting the containers next to every house. Up until then there were communal paper containers in the park as well. The cities used to use the income to keep trash collection costs lower. In one community close to me, there was a major discussion about whether the blue containers were legal. They ended up being distributed because there wasn't any specific code restricting it. Now that used paper is a fairly valuable commodity there are cases of paper theft.

The brown container is used by the local trash/recycling companies to make compost. That is then used in local parks or sold at a profit.

I suspect, should the price of recycled glass go up, there will be yet another container for glass.

You forgot two other 'recycling' ticks in Germany. First, almost all bottled drinks are sold in cases with a deposit. That means you pick up your case of beer (a very stable plastic case) and bring back the empties. The bottles are then WASHED and reused.

Second. Have you noticed there aren't many beverage cans? Coke (not much Pepsi in Germany) and beer cans have almost all disappeared because they also have a deposit. The replacement, disposable plastic beverage bottles also have a deposit meaning you take it back to the store and feed the bottles one at a time into a machine that shreds them. You managed to miss the chaos when that law came into power because the government couldn’t agree on a better system. (No one was ready for the change.)

Finally, at some point, you might notice a truck driving through your neighborhood playing music like an ice cream man. These are people who pick up metal and old electronic equipment in order to turn that very valuable trash into cash. You can also haul that to your local recycler but having to pay for transportation means it’s easier to wait for the free market trash guys.



I lived in Germany for a year and was also very stressed out by the trash situtation. I would sneak out to the trash late at night so that I wouldn't get the evil looks from the neighbors if I was doing something wrong.

Christian Zeller

I 've heard in Germany recycle plants throw some combination of colored glass together at the end of the day after your effort of sorting them by color for the appropriate bin. Last week I noticed also that the content of the 5 different bins glass/paper/cans/waste/plasic they put up at my local public swimming pool here in Munich went into one single bin eventually. Yes, I think people here tend to spend to much time on sorting garbage than is justified on grounds of efficiency.

Bodo Albrecht

Of course all of our time is valuable. The difference lies in people's conscience regarding environmental issues. People in Germany actually WANT it to be that way out of a growing concern over their children's future. What's the price tag on that? The USA are once again just lagging behind the "rest" of the world.

On a more practical note, what happens when you don't separate is that the collectors will not empty your bin. Very convincing, and very non-bureaucratic.


In parts of Chicago we have trash bins and recycle bins. The recycling is taken to a central station where it is sorted. At first I spent a lot of time guessing which one I should put my trash in, but I have come to a rule of thumb. If I would be willing to sort through it at the sorting station witohut gloves I recycle it. If not, I don't. It basically comes down to nothing wet.