Communities Field Note

Waste Management in Germany

How young people are making a difference and how we still have a long way to go


Germany is a country that enjoys many luxuries. Sadly, a “throwaway culture” has developed over the years. Yet my experiences at the Regine-Hildebrandt School have shown me that young people are taking a stand against unnecessary waste and coming up with ideas to make their lives greener.

IntroductionHow do nations meet their communities’ needs? 

Daily life in western countries has certainly changed a lot since our grandparents and great-grandparents were young. For those who grew up in East Germany, it has been vastly different for only about 23 years, when Germany was reunited in 1990. Do you remember when I talked about Eberhard Hatt and his wife Regina? Well, when at their house, I saw some of their old kitchen appliances out of the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or former East Germany). Regina still uses a mixer from that time when she bakes. That means the mixer is more than 23 years old! She said it still works because in East Germany they only had a limited amount of supplies to make things. Therefore, they built everything to last, from radios to kitchenware.

Today, I am lucky if any appliance I buy lasts five years before I buy a newer, better one. Today, the mentality is different. It seems we throw away perfectly good things because there is always something better available. Slowly, we’ve realized how hard this is on our environment, because the things we throw away have to go somewhere! Let’s take a look at how this change is happening in Germany, and how the younger generation is trying to learn from the values of the past.

What community need did I learn about?

At the Regine-Hildebrandt school, we have been doing a unit in English class about waste management. The teachers have asked the students to take a look at how much waste their household generates weekly and what the students could do to cut down on their waste.

I learned a lot about Germany’s waste problems and solutions through this unit. Luckily, Germany has been able to handle waste fairly well. However, as I explained in my last post about the environment, German citizens are very concerned about their environment and are trying to find ways to make it better. Germany is a wealthy western European country and enjoys many advantages, like the ability for its citizens to buy what they want, when they want it. This, unfortunately, comes with consequences.

Why does the community have this need? 

Even though they are covered in graffiti, it’s difficult to miss all of the trash bins in Berlin!

In the grocery store, fruits and vegetables come pre-packaged for convenience and meat and cheese comes wrapped in layers of paper. Packaging is not the only major source of waste. In the 13th and 11th grade classes at school, we watched a German documentary called “Taste the Waste.” The documentary was about how much perfectly good food wealthy countries, including Germany, Japan and the United States, throw away. After watching the documentary, I was stunned at how much waste our countries create simply because we have the money to buy more food. It was clear that we have a problem we need to address.

Is this need being met? How?

To reduce overall waste, Germany has cultural norms, rather than laws, that help people to waste less. In the grocery store, you have to pay for each plastic bag. This encourages everyone to bring their own. I have started dragging around a yellow trolley to take my groceries back to my apartment.

Students and teachers at the Regine-Hildebrandt School came up with some helpful ideas to address all of the food packaging. One teacher said she brings her own tupperware to the butcher to stock up on meat and cheese. Students said they try to buy only fruits without packaging, like loose apples or oranges, to prevent garbage from piling up. Students who had bottled water said they refill the bottles with tap water, which is safe to drink. Others pledged to only buy what they needed so that food wouldn’t go rotten in the refrigerator.

Before I started working on my Fulbright Grant, I spent some time this past summer volunteering at a program at the American Church in Berlin, where they would give leftover groceries to the needy. In these types of programs in Berlin, stores take the almost expiring food off the shelves (even though it was still perfectly good) and give it to local organizations who would distribute it to people struggling to put good food on the table. I thought that was a much better thing to do with the extra food than throwing it away before it was even bad, and I am glad organizations like this still exist in Berlin.

This poster tells us which bin to put the trash in

It’s still really difficult to buy “green” or to buy only food without packaging (I’ve tried, and it takes a lot of restraint!) since potato chips, strawberries, and even milk from a carton is out of the question. Therefore, Germany has rules regarding garbage so that it can be disposed of in the “greenest” way possible.

I will admit, the first time I came to Germany (in Freiburg in 2010) I was scolded by my roommates for putting my garbage in the wrong can. In the U.S., I had only separated the recyclables from the non-recyclables, but in Germany, even the trash gets sorted. Although it’s not illegal to mix your garbage, I found out that roughly 90% of Germans sort it anyway.*

It’s quite easy to follow the rules once you get the hang of it. There are different colored trash bins for packaging, paper, glass, compostables and then whatever’s left over. Each apartment complex has its own bins.  Also, there are plenty of bins around the city for when you’re out and about. It is also common practice in grocery stores and food stands to pay a deposit (called a Pfand) of 8-25 Euro cents on every bottle purchased. When you bring the empty bottle back to the store to recycle it, you get your money back. It actually feels like a treat to get the money back after bring my plastic Bionade (my favorite juice soft drink here) bottles to the recycling, even though I know I paid the money in the first place!

I know that these initiatives are not enough, since the amount of waste we create is still growing. Yet, when I listen to the ideas the students at Regine-Hildebrandt have, as well as their commitment to buying less and reusing more, I feel some hope for the future! Now I would like to ask you. Do you have any ideas for reducing waste?

Even though I’m trying and separating my garbage, I should be cutting down altogether!

* Tristana Moore, “Recycling around the World.”  BBC News, June 25, 2005.    


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