Berlin's Sustainability Guide

How this supremely cool city combats climate change.

May 27, 2024
view of berlin parkview of berlin park

Berlin basically wrote the book on what it means to be a sustainable city. Modern in all things art, architecture, and culture, their green outlook is no exception to their forward-thinking ways. Put your ear to the ground and you’ll discover the million and one ways Berlin injects creativity into sustainability - from rooftop fish farms to orchestras for bio change. Get inspired and get environmental with this eco-echelon of sustainability.

Berlin has been paving the way for sustainability for some time, with maximum green space at the core of its identity and particular care when it comes to recycling. We look into the depths of what changes are projected for Berlin when it comes to sustainability, what initiatives are happening around the city, and ways to get involved and be the (green) change as a Berlin resident.

The Future of Berlin’s Sustainability

Forward-thinking and out-of-the-box, Berliners are famed for their counter-culture. Sustainability has been woven into these rituals and rites for a while, but even more so now as the push for climate action steadily increases.

The industrial era was a dark time for sustainability worldwide, with Berlin being no great exception. Berlin’s stint in factory booms and industrial sites has now been seen as a place to right the wrongs. The billowing of factory smoke can’t be undone, but the city’s attempt to reduce its after effects is apparent. There’s been a widespread movement to “green” the previous industrial spaces. Freight stations are now blooming parks as we can see with some converted examples of Gleisdreieck Park and Tempelhof Park, the latter being an old airport turned green space. This has been a steady trickle of turning the city from a concrete jungle to green and grit-less.

In more defined terms, Berlin also has some ambitious goals for climate change. The city council affirmed that they plan to make Berlin completely climate neutral by the year 2050. Roughly 100 measures have been or are in the process of being implemented to bring this to fruition. Some of the highlights include turning Berlin into a solar city, making renewable energy more accessible and affordable, and incentivizing environmentally-friendly transportation.

The Bees of Berlin

A “fun fact” of Berlin’s push towards sustainability is its drive for pollination over pollution. Interestingly amongst the list of things Berliners love besides music, art, and kebab, is their affinity for bees! The German Wildlife Foundation is working on creating safe havens for wild bees in order to protect native species. Perhaps more interesting are the beehive homes found throughout the city.

Artificial hive environments can be found in the most surprising crevices of the city including the Berlin Cathedral rooftop, the Berlin legislative office, the Sparkasse Bank, and more!

Berlin’s Incentives for Sustainability

We’ll get more into the ins and outs of recycling in the next section, but before that, we must cover the grand appeal of Berlin’s recycling and the sort. Berlin, and Germany at large, seek to break the stigma of sustainability as a luxury. To do so, some initiatives have been put in place to make environmentally-friendly solutions more accessible. Subsidies for electric cars or energy-efficient heating and cooling reduce the costs for its residents.

There are also tax breaks for German commuters who opt for public transport. On the reverse of this, higher taxes and permitting make individual car usage and excess carbon emissions that much more difficult.

Smaller measures like getting money back for recycled goods and charging for single-use plastic help to offset climate change in small but substantial ways.

Green Transportation in Berlin

Planes, trains, and automobiles are all a thing here in Berlin. This is the city of connectivity, but how are they doing so with the environment in mind? Berlin keeps their transportation sustainable in all the typical ways, much like Lisbon, they have multiple means of moving around from the tram, metro, bus, or regional trains. Germany aims to have a fleet of 3,400 zero-emission buses in rotation by 2025, but currently, Berlin’s electric transportation network is limited.

Cycle strategy for Berlin

You’re not a true Berliner if you aren’t familiar with the bicycle culture. Biking in Berlin is one of the main means of transportation for locals and it makes perfect sense. Navigating the city, especially with all the restrictions placed on private cars, is just easier on two wheels. Back in 2011, the city embarked on its Berlin Cycle Strategy which sought to make cycling as a means of transportation frictionless. Since then, more bicycle parking and bike paths have been added.

If you’re looking for a fun cruise through the city, check out these top 7 bike routes in Berlin.

Berlin Recycling

The locals of Berlin are thorough, as is the case when it comes to recycling. “Leave no can unrecycled” is practically the cardinal rule of this German city. With that said, the precision around recycling can get confusing for non-natives. Here’s everything you need to know.

Gray Household Waste Bin

This is your standard bin for generic trash. When the item is unclear or distinctly difficult to separate then this is the waste bin to use. Some of the common items include: diapers, vacuum and swept debris, soiled paper or foil, and ashtray contents.

Berlin’s Organic Bin

As is the case with most cities, Berlin’s organic waste bin follows a pretty general rule of thumb: use this for compost materials. Food, peelings, coffee grounds, kitchen paper, and flowers all belong here.

Orange or Yellow Recycling Bin

Depending on where you are in the city, this bin might be either orange or yellow, but the same rules apply. This container is dedicated to recycling waste. Plastic, containers, foil, tin cans, bottle caps, and cartons are all recyclable here.

Blue Paper Bin

Perhaps the easiest of them all is the blue bin. This container is paper only and used as a raw material in Berlin’s recycling plant. Newspapers, magazines, cardboard, paper packaging, and books belong in this bin.

Bottle Recycling System Berlin

What makes Berlin’s recycling so unique is its refined glass waste process. The Berliners take the Pfand system seriously, so pay close attention. Pfand is basically the deposit you pay for a bottle. When you return the bottle, you get this deposit back, much like paying for a storage locker or grocery cart. Not all bottles are created equal though. Here’s what you might expect for average bottle deposit costs in Berlin:

• Beer bottles - 0.08€ or 0.15€ if it’s resealable

• Aluminum cans - 0.25€

• Single-use plastic bottles - 0.25€

• Multi-use glass and plastic bottles - 0.08€ up to 0.15€

• Wine bottles - 0.03€

Not everything comes with a deposit or is recyclable in Germany. Bottles with a pfand either will say it in plain text or have a logo that shows an arrow pointing left over the top of a bottle symbol which is typically found next to the barcode. If there’s no deposit, the bottle might say "Pfandfrei" or "Ohne Pfand."

Where to return bottles in Berlin

If you’re wanting to cash in on your pfand, you need to know the right places to go. Luckily, Berlin gives you a couple of options for returning bottles. The most common option is the supermarkets where you can find a bottle return machine normally near the entrance. The machine will give you a sort of “receipt” which you’ll then present to a cashier to collect your cash.

Some alternatives include liquor stores, charities, or convenience stores, also referred to as Spätis. If you’re not too bothered about getting your deposit back, you can always leave the bottle underneath a regular street bin where someone can collect it for spare change.

Bottles with No Deposit in Berlin

Not all bottles come with a deposit, as you’ll be able to find if it says “pfandfrei.” Many wine bottles, milk cartons, or foreign bottles aren’t eligible. When this is the case, Berlin offers glass bins separated by type.

Berlin’s Glass igloos

Although not quite as fun as it sounds, it is great for the planet. Berlin separates its glass recycling by type so you’ll need to look for the glass igloos or Glasiglus, and begin sorting. The brown bin is for brown glass, the green for green glass, and the white bin for clear glass - easy breezy!

Environmentally-Friendly Things to Do in Berlin

Recycling, in all its importance, may not be the most exhilarating side of Berlin’s sustainability but fear not because there are plenty of events and movements happening around the city that combine environmental with excitement. Whether it's techno going UNESCO or indulging in some bio eats, Berlin serves up sustainable fun best.

Urban Gardening in Berlin

What’s more fun than playing in the dirt? Urban gardening initiatives are popping up all around Berlin and they offer a number of benefits. Beyond showing off a sustainable thumb, it’s a great gateway to the community and with some delicious produce to show for it. There are a number of urban gardening projects in Berlin for you to join and here are some of the nutrient-packed faves:

• Forstwirtschaft • Mörchenpark • Prinzessinnengärten • Almende-Kontor • Himmelbeet

Urban gardening reduces the need for international food migration and allows you to reap the rewards of delicious produce right in your backyard. Not to mention, it’s a great way to practice your farming skills and German food vocabulary!

Berlin Flea Markets

Perhaps emblematic of the city itself are the flea markets. Every neighborhood of Berlin has its own flea market, rich with a personality of goods and items. As they say, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and an eco-treasure at that. Breathe new life into some used goods by checking out some of Berlin’s top flea markets.

• Marheinekeplatz - good for second-hand clothes and homemade items

• Rathaus Schöneberg - electrical goods and tchotchkes

• Kranoldplatz - art and vintage items

• Bode Museum - books and antiques

• Fehrbelliner Platz - jewelry and home goods

Greentech Festival

Where innovation and sustainability meet: there's the Greentech Festival. Positioning itself as a step ahead of the rest, it’s no wonder that Berlin hosts this conference. With start-ups aiming to reinvent the energy wheel and new eco-technologies coming to the table, this is not a conference to miss.

Green Organizations in Berlin

Per the theme of “cool” things happening in Berlin, there are many organizations bringing this to fruition. Berlin, in all its wonder, offers many options to engage in the community, contribute to the local economy, and live authentically during your stay.

Berlin’s Sustainable Food

Beyond the community gardens, Berlin embodies farm to table in a number of ways. Organizations like In Farm show what farming in the 21st century can be. By offering vertical farming solutions right in the city, this organization allows locals to buy produce without having to travel the world to do so. The best part? Zero pesticides.

“All taste, zero waste” is a motto we love. Frea is a sustainable restaurant in Berlin that throws out the notion of wastefulness as a consequence to hospitality. Here, you can have your (green) cake and eat it too. And if you choose not to eat your cake, they’ll compost all the leftovers at their in-house composting machine.

Sustainable Art and Culture in Berlin

Leave it to Berlin to find a way to make art and music environmentally-friendly. The culture of Berlin can be enjoyed in good faith knowing that much of it is sustainable. Some of the best known monuments, like Ökowerk, offer an environmental education center so guests can take in the sights while also understanding the ecosystem around them.

A resounding step for art is the Art Laboratory Berlin. Shattering the glass ceiling of art, this organization aims to keep the artist at the center of exhibit while also making the processes sustainable.

If sustainability is singing in your ears then follow the tune to the Green Music Initiative in Berlin. Here, the organization insists that entertainment needn’t be at the sacrifice of going green. The Green Music Initiative highlights a song in Eurovision, a green tour, environmental features at the Berlin Music Week, just to name a few.

That’s an (Eco) Wrap

Berlin is rich with culture, cuisine, and sustainability, too. Whether it’s their buzzing love for bees or the clever recycling labrinth, Berliners take pride in doing their environmental part. When planning your visit, don’t forget to weave in this same eco-admiration that makes Berlin exactly what it is: sustainable, cultured, and eclectic.