Time and again, we catch ourselves not knowing how to properly dispose of things that we don’t often throw away. Which garbage can should the broken frying pan go in? Where does the scrapped toy excavator belong? Is the yellow garbage can still only for garbage with the green dot?
People often say: “Put it in the green dot garbage can,” but what they really mean is put it in the recycling garbage can.

Since much more waste is now allowed into the yellow recycling bin in Hamburg than just packaging bearing the Green Dot symbol, we asked Johann Gerner-Beuerle, head of media and public relations at Hamburg’s city cleaning service, for more detailed information. In addition, we now know what underfloor systems are, what we should look out for when shopping and that Hamburg’s waste could also be recycled into new packaging here on site!

The Hamburg recycling bin

Mr. Gerner-Beuerle, how long has the recycling garbage can been in place in Hamburg?

The recycling garbage can was introduced in the spring of 2011 by Hamburg’s city cleaning service as a municipal service provider. The background is actually that until then many recyclables still went to thermal recycling, i.e. waste incineration. Naturally, however, we try to bring as many recyclable materials as possible into a cycle. That’s how this idea came about. Overall, of course, it makes a lot of sense not to stop at packaging. As long as things are made of the same materials as packaging, they can also be disposed of in the recycling garbage can.

Yellow recycling garbage cans in hamburg

But the “Green Dot” was and is only on packaging?

The “Green Dot” is such a coined term. In the beginning, it was exclusively the “Green Dot”. In the meantime, however, it is no longer necessarily on all packaging. In the beginning, it was the symbol for the introduction of the dual system, i.e. for the return of packaging. The dual system was introduced at that time in order to gradually eliminate landfill disposal, which has now been achieved to a large extent. Today, the “Green Dot” is one of many dual systems. This term is still learned, but there are now ten take-back systems and the “Green Dot” is just one of them.

I also remember when the dual system was introduced back then – I was allowed to witness this as a fairly young person – the “Green Dot” was a synonym for it. Things then developed somewhat differently. For us, the big difference from the Green Dot is that non-packaging of the same material is also collected. This means that old frying pans can be disposed of in the recycling garbage can, as can plastic children’s toys and old tools. These are all valuable materials that would otherwise not be recycled, even though they are well suited for this purpose. We are in a situation where we have to ask ourselves: What raw and valuable materials do we have and how can we use them in the longest possible way?

What can I do as a consumer?

What would the city sanitation department like to see more of in the recyclables garbage can? What do consumers too often dispose of elsewhere?

That’s a somewhat ambivalent question, because in principle it would be best if less of everything went into the garbage can. The best waste is always the waste that is not created in the first place.
But if the waste has already been created, we would like to see a higher recycling rate overall. We have a rate of over 58.2 percent in 2019. Basically, that rate is increasing. But the evaluation for 2020 is still pending and we have to see to what extent Corona played a role there. Of course, there were many more people at home and more packaging waste was generated.

But what we would like to see more of in the recycling garbage cans is cleanly separated waste. Relatively often, small mistakes are made in the process, which then ensure that the recyclables are not recyclable. The classic example is the yogurt pot, where the aluminum lid has not been removed. This is then assigned to aluminum in the sorting plant and is subsequently rejected because it cannot be clearly identified by the plant.

Many people are certainly not aware that you should separate your waste into individual parts if not all parts are made of the same material. So in machine processing, nothing can be separated afterwards, and no one stands at the assembly line and pulls off the yogurt lid?

Exactly, at least you can’t assume that. The waste passes through a sorting facility at our recycling partner. As a company, Hamburger Stadtreinigung collects and transports the waste and then sends it to a partner company, which at the moment is Veolia. There, the waste then runs through the plant and is sorted using different mechanisms. Composite packaging, or packaging for which different materials have been used, is problematic. But in some cases, like the yogurt cup, you can easily separate these materials.
Well separated recyclables we would like to see more there. But of course also recyclables that show an awareness of: What is good packaging?

Boxes with collected plastic and metal lids

Greenschnacker Tip:

You can collect metal and plastic lids and crown caps for the non-profit initiative Eco-Projects Global.
These single-variety recyclables are recycled and you can use your Eco-Cents to support sustainability projects!

Are there any recyclable materials that are actually allowed in the Hamburg recycling garbage can, but are better collected individually?

No, there is no such thing from the Stadtreinigung. From our point of view, it doesn’t make sense either, because the recyclables are separated in the sorting plant.
What we would like is for people to buy and live in a packaging-conscious way. That’s putting it simply, because of course it’s a change for many people. This also requires appropriate information.

Do you have any practical tips in this regard? Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity or the desire to go to an unpackaged store. Do you have something where you would say: You’d rather leave that at the supermarket?

Basically, I can recommend our “Packaging” shopping guide, which we developed with the Technical University of Harburg and have already licensed to several German cities. It’s a guide line that helps you decide what is good and what is bad packaging. There are three criteria that can be used to measure whether packaging is suitable for recycling. The first, of course, is the material. There are plastics that recycle well and others that are problematic. For example, packaging that combines different types of plastic and forms composites is problematic. These are difficult to separate from one another, and often it is not possible at all.

Is there any indication of how I can recognize this visually or haptically when I’m standing in the supermarket?
There are various products that are typical of such packaging. For example, if you look at bags of ready-made mixes for soups or sauces, it’s usually a composite material. It has a different design from the outside than from the inside. From the inside, it’s often connected with an aluminum layer or with a metallic layer. That’s tricky.
What’s relatively easy to stay away from is dark-colored plastic. That’s a rule of thumb that would help quite a bit: Anything that is black or very dark plastic is better left in the store!

dark plastics in the drugstore
Conspicuously few light-colored packaging for men

So men’s shower gel should be left out?

Exactly! I’ve also become much more aware of this since I started working for the city sanitation department. When I go into a drugstore, I see that almost everything that is “For Men” is dark blue to black. That’s packaging that can’t be identified in the facilities and is then assigned to residual waste.

Why is that?

The way you have to think of it is that the packaging is scanned with a laser. This laser can determine what type of packaging it is. But if it is dark colored, this laser does not penetrate the material and does not get any feedback. Technically, that’s not possible any other way so far. This is certainly something that we have to hope that recycling technology will improve in the next few years or decades.

With a lot of packaging, for example the box of chocolate marshmallows, you find out when you open it whether it is a composite material. Then you might not buy it again the next time.

Another example is the classic drinking pouch. For these, PET is combined with polyamide. This is a combination that cannot be separated and recycled.

Capri Sun drinking pouch
Unfortunately not recyclable.

How clean do the parts have to be? Older people in particular often used to rinse out yogurt pots before throwing them in the yellow bag.

Spoon clean is quite sufficient! Gladly without food remains, but you do not have to rinse out the packaging extra.

Are there things or substances that often end up in the recycling garbage can but don’t belong there?

One problem is really that small electrical appliances are often thrown into the recycling garbage can. There are other ways to dispose of these devices. On the one hand, there are the small electrical waste containers, and on the other hand, there are the recycling centers. These are the right places for them.

recycling garbage bags

Does every household in Hamburg have a recycling garbage can? Or rather, how many have one?

There are currently around 119,000 recycling garbage cans in use in Hamburg. However, every household is connected to the dual system. This means that every household has the opportunity to separate waste and can then dispose of it via the yellow bags. There are collection dates for the yellow bags for each district, for each street, which can then be placed on the street.
Of course, however, our goal is to increase the number of recycling garbage cans because it is the better collection system for several reasons. Firstly, collection is not physiologically optimal for our employees and secondly, each bag is of course additional waste. In 2020, 42,600 tons of packaging waste have already been collected this way.

Hamburg’s Recyclables Innovative

Most recently, there was a detergent bottle that was made here on site from Hamburg’s garbage. Is this the only product where you can say that it really comes from our Hamburg recycling garbage cans? Or are there more manufacturers who process packaging waste directly here?

That was a pilot project. That a recycling loop is closed in this regionalized way did not exist before. Several people in charge had the fixed idea that it must be possible to close a recycling loop in a very small area. That’s why six different companies joined forces and said: “Yes, we’ll make it possible. A product that was created in Hamburg’s garbage cans, we’ll also bring to Hamburg’s retail trade.” That was a first. The project is called “Hamburgs Wertstoff Innovative” and the detergent bottle was the result of it all.

detergent bottle from Hamburg

Has there been any feedback on this showcase project?

Yes, the first feedback was that it worked at all. We can’t say anything about the retail figures yet; you might have to ask Budni about that. [Editor’s note: Unfortunately, we haven’t received an answer yet].

But the fact that the cooperation of various players has succeeded in getting a product ready for series production in such a relatively short time is, of course, a success. The purpose of the whole thing was to minimize transport routes and logistics, which are often particularly harmful to the environment. It’s not the first packaging made from recycled material, there are others, but that’s why our goal was to really make it a hamburger product.

How often can plastic packaging be recycled on average before the fibers become too short?

It’s impossible to say exactly, because there are different types of plastic. An HDPE will certainly be recycled more often than a PET plastic. However, the quality decreases with each recycling process, which is why recycled material is often mixed with new plastic to restore the quality.

Increasing the recycling rate

In part, there was a lot of bad publicity for recycling when there were cases of unsorted waste being exported abroad. Can they still detect some kind of frustration or separation fatigue in the population? Or is it other reasons, like lack of space, that keep people from separating their trash?

A lot of people just look, “What’s in my house?” Then when they see a black garbage can standing there four times, they say to themselves, “Aha! In Hamburg, they don’t separate garbage.” That’s a task for us, to raise awareness of this and also to keep following up in communication. But what we notice, precisely because this environmental aspect is becoming increasingly important and is also perceived as more important by the general public, is that the willingness to participate in urban cleanliness is also increasing significantly. We notice this in the participation in campaigns such as “Hamburg räumt auf” and the use of our apps. So we are confident that our environmental education, which we are also actively doing, is falling on open ears.

Can you say how much of this packaging waste that is generated and collected in Hamburg goes abroad?

No, we can’t say because we hand it over to Veolia, a certified partner who is responsible for recycling. There are requirements that such partners have to fulfill, but ultimately the city cleaning department has no control over this.

Will there be any innovations to the recycling garbage can in the future? Or is Stadtreinigung satisfied with the way things are going at the moment?

We consider the garbage can itself to be a good system. For us, the goal is to get more households connected to the garbage can. That’s a goal we’re constantly working on. That requires a dialogue with the owners, who have to decide that.

Garbage truck

To get very specific: Is there a price difference for landlords between the recycling garbage can and the black garbage can?

Yes, there is. It is cheaper to separate. So there’s nothing to stop you from taking a yellow garbage can into your house – as long as you have the space. But especially in a city like Hamburg, with many old and densely built-up districts, there are often space problems that have to be taken seriously. In Altona, for example, we have now set up a great many underfloor systems. After all, there is still the collection form of pink sacks, a legacy from the densely built-up districts, so we want to change the collection system there.

What exactly are the underground systems?

You can think of it as a trash container that is placed underground so that the bottom edge is at ground level. That means, where there is no space to create a garbage station, we try to solve that with underground systems. an in Altona and we’re in the process of doing the same in Eimsbüttel, but these are very intensive projects. There are a lot of players involved, but we are confident that we will now take the next big steps in Eimsbüttel. And then we’ll move on to the next district!

Do people have to apply to you for these underfloor systems, or do you approach the owners?

That’s a cooperative effort with the district offices, which get in touch with the relevant landlords. We would like to push back the pink garbage bags with the residual waste and preferably abolish them. On the one hand, they are not pretty and on the other hand, they are not very clean.

We wish you every success in connecting even more households to the recycling garbage can and closing Hamburg’s material cycles. Hopefully there will be more local projects like “Hamburger Wertstoff Innovative” in the future.

Thank you very much, Mr. Gerner-Beuerle, for talking to us on behalf of Hamburg’s municipal cleaning service!