17.02.20

Why is it so thin? Six questions about the yellow bag

It was in 1991 when, for the first time in Germany, a yellow sack was filled with tins and cans, cups and other packaging not made of paper, cardboard, carton or glass. It has been a reliable assistant of the German recycling system ever since. There are quite a few things about the yellow bag that Germans are still puzzling over today. Six questions about the yellow helper.

© iStock by Getty Images / Kerrick

Who was it who chose the colour yellow?

In Germany, every type of waste has its own bin. And they all have their own colour: usually blue for paper/cardboard/carton, black for non-recyclable waste and brown for organic waste. We also separate glass by colour. And what about used lightweight packaging, for example made of plastic, aluminium, tinplate or composites of different materials? They are placed in the yellow bag. Or in the yellow bin. Unfortunately, we don’t know who decided on the colour. But this much is clear: in 1991, when the collection of recyclable materials was introduced, it was intended to provide an eye-catching contrast to the black non-recyclable waste bin and usher in a new era of waste management. It continues to send a strong signal to this day.

Why is the yellow bag so thin?

One of the most common questions about the yellow bag is about its material: why isn’t the plastic of the yellow bag thicker? These issues are decided on by the dual systems in Germany. They determine the properties of the bags. The specifications are based on the mini-max principle, which states: as little material as necessary for as much packaging as possible. After all, the yellow bag is only intended for light packaging waste such as yoghurt pots, tins and cans, aluminium trays and drinks cartons. It is not allowed to guzzle up heavy waste such as toys or frying pans, because that’s not packaging. Another advantage of the thin material is that it is transparent, which means you can tell when it contains the wrong rubbish. The waste collection staff can see immediately whether a yellow bag contains the right waste or not.

What is the difference between the recycling bin and the yellow bin?

Some cities and municipalities make recycling bins or bags available. They replace the yellow bins/yellow bags, but they are generally designed to hold the same packaging waste. In addition, it is also used for “non-packaging made of the same material”, such as leaking watering cans or old saucepans. The additional costs incurred are not just covered by the dual systems, but also the respective local authorities.

Do I have to wash my yoghurt pot?

Put the yoghurt pot in the dishwasher? That would be taking it too far. It goes in the yellow bag even if it’s not sparkling clean on the inside. The not-perfectly-clean principle also applies to other packaging. As long as the Tetra Paks or plastic cups are fairly clean. As a rule of thumb: remove leftovers. Eat and drink up everything. And if you don’t: pour away the liquids and place food leftovers in the organic waste. What’s important, though, is that you take the lid off and – where applicable – the paper around the yoghurt pot before throwing it out and to dispose of these items separately: aluminium lid and plastic cup into the yellow bag or bin, and the covering in the old-paper bin. This also applies to other packaging combinations, such as transparent cheese packaging where the transparent covering is made of a different plastic than the transparent tray. That’s the only way for the sorting plant to ensure that the materials are not contaminated and are made available for recycling separately.

Does the packaging have to bear the Green Dot symbol?

No, in Germany there is no Green Dot labelling requirement for packaging. The Green Dot is just the trademark of one of the ten dual systems in Germany who are responsible for collection, sorting and recycling packaging. Tins and cans, Tetra Paks and co. are disposed of in the yellow sack or yellow bin for recycling even without the Green Dot symbol.

What happens to the waste?

The collection vehicle takes the tins and cans, plastic cups, bottles and other lightweight packaging to the sorting plant. The sorting plants use the latest technology. Bag openers, drum screens, infrared scanners and eddy current separators separate and sort the packaging by material. Plastics are also separated into different types. This is important for recycling, because it means that the recovered reusable materials from the yellow bag or bin are made into new high-quality products. Recycled plastics are then used for new packaging, for example for cleaning agents and household products, or for the manufacture of fleece jackets – or they are turned into floor coverings or pipes in horticulture or construction. The quality of some plastic waste is not good enough for recycling. These plastics are used as an energy source, for example in cement plants. This replaces fossil fuels such as oil or coal – and that also has ecological value.