Recycling in Spain: A How-To Guide

Small recycling bins inside a school in Spain
In schools all around Spain, children learn about the recycling process and what goes in each bin. These three bins were photographed at the first school where I worked in Elviña (La Coruña).

While Spain is almost the only European country that is falling below the recycling guidelines set by the EU for 2020, the country has a pretty straightforward recycling system. It most likely isn’t one you are familiar with back in your home country (in the US we use a number system) but it’s easy enough to learn. Residents and visitors have started to embrace recycling in Spain over the past few years and companies are manufacturing products made from recycled materials, which is encouraging.

I remember learning about recycling back in elementary school in Ohio when I was growing up but I don’t remember learning how to and the importance of recycling in as much detail as my students did. I’m glad that the younger generations (including my own) are standing up and being more outspoken about recycling.

Refillable soap dispenser from bulk soap producer
An easy way to reduce your plastic waste is to clean and fill up existing containers in your house with natural, homemade soaps at bulk price! It costs almost the same (or less!) as buying a new container would.

In the past few years, I’ve been a bit obsessed with recycling and reducing the amount of plastic consumption in my daily life. The more reports I saw around the Internet about the excessive amounts of plastic in the ocean and inside marine animals, the more I pushed for recycling and trying to live as close to zero waste. I’ve been diligently recycling everything I can for years but recently I’ve bought solid shampoos and soaps and liquid soaps in bulk from a couple of local Madrid companies (but you can find these types of shops all over Spain, by the way). If you’re in Madrid specifically, I would recommend checking out Fill in Good (Malasaña) and Enjabonarte (Centro).

With all that said, let’s get to explaining how recycling in Spain works!

Recycling truck picking up large, heavy bins
I didn’t know much about the recycling system in Spain the first time I lived here but I always did wonder how they picked some bins up! These types of metal bins are attached to the sidewalk and are then unlocked and lifted up into the truck’s compartment in order to empty the materials.

Recycling Bins in Spain by Color

Green

Gray and green bin for glass

This is one of two large bins you’ll find in cities around Spain that are gray colored but the flap in front of the main compartment will be a distinct color. These are permanent bins that you can find in squares or on a main street. Recycle and trash trucks pick these up and empty them every night (not during the middle of the day!) or every morning as they fill up quickly in residential areas.

The reason why they are picked up at night (and usually after midnight) is because several streets in Spanish cities are one way and most are filled with traffic during the day. No one would want to wait for a big trash truck to pick up several containers on one street and be stuck in more traffic. When I lived in the South of Spain as a student, one of the oddest things about the Spanish schedule was that the city picked up trash and recyclable materials past midnight. Coming from a housing development in the American Midwest where the trucks come only once a week and residents put out their cans and bins by themselves, this system took some getting used to.

Anyway, the green bins are marked specifically for glass items.

Glass items consist of bottles of olive oil, wine, beer, cider, vinegar and glass jars of spaghetti sauce, salad dressing, jellies and jams, pre-cooked beans, pesto – you name it! And you can also put cosmetics and perfume bottles in here once you’re done with them.

The important note about recycling these types of items is that you must remove the cork or cap for bottles and then the lid to each jar. They do not go in this bin!

Those items will be recycled in a different colored bin. (Keep reading to learn which different ones they go in!)

But most importantly, these recycled glass bottles and jars will all not only go towards making new bottles and containers but also new light bulbs. So it’s a cyclical process and a good one at that!

Vocabulary: botellas de vidrio (vino, aceite de oliva, cerveza, cidra, vinagre), tarros y frascos (de salsas, mermeladas, crema, legumbres, pesto, sopa fresca). También frascos de artículos de cosmética y perfumería.

Blue

Gray and blue bin for paper and cardboard
Paper and cardboard and nothing else! The phrase at bottom says, “If you want it to be recycled, don’t put it outside of the bin.”

This bin is usually the same size and shape as the green bin for glass but they almost always go side by side. And the more you get into the habit of recycling here, the more those will be the first two colored bins that will come to your mind. And hey, they’re nice colors anyway, right?

The blue bin is marked only for recycling paper and cardboard.

Paper and cardboard products include magazines, newspapers, large sheets of paper, receipts, to-go boxes, moving boxes, cardboard packages, large mailing envelopes, and even cereal boxes and packaged foods (rice, pasta, and other dry goods).

An important thing to remember is that you don’t place empty containers of boxed milk or soup (referred to as briks by their shape) in these types of bins.

Surprise, they belong in a different one!

These recycled materials will go towards making new cardboard boxes, paper, toilet paper and dumpster bags for construction sites. (All of this goes through a rigorous cleaning process before the materials are put on the shelves so don’t worry).

Vocabulary: papel (revistas, periódicos, tíquets, católogos, etc) cartón (cajas de comida para llevar, cajas grandes, sobres y cajas de cereales y arroz, pasta y legumbres).

Yellow

Different sized full plastic products to be recycled
Plastic containers of all sizes go in this bin but I would recommend trying to reduce your plastic use overall.

The contenador amarillo or the yellow bins contain the most common products we use on a daily basis.

This is where all the different types of plastic go and even where those odd-looking brik items go, too. (See I told you they have a place!)

Plastic containers, bottles and metal cans go in this bin but a few other not-so-common items also go here.

You can put all types of plastic containers here including: yogurt cups, butter containers, cleaning products, plastic bags and soda bottles (both 2L and smaller bottles). Canned drinks and tun cans and other fish tins (sardines, oysters, anchovies, etc) go in here as well. Plus, boxed milk and soup (check the box as a very small amount of these types of boxes go inside the blue bins) and Styrofoam and aluminum foil and plastic (cling) wrap. You can also recycle bags of fresh pasta and rice and candy wrappers in this bin.

These materials are then collected by the city and sent to a recycling center where the workers separate, compact and distribute the plastic for other purposes. A lot of beauty products that I’ve recently seen (and even trash cans!) are using recycled plastic when making new products.

It’s a good sign when it comes to reducing plastic usage but I do feel like we have a long way to go, not just in Spain but in the world, too.

Vocabulary: envases de plástico (botellas de plástico, bolsas de plástico, envases como los de yogur, de mantequilla, de gelatina, de productos de limpieza), latas de bebidas y latas de conservas, briks, bandejas de porexpan, papel de aluminio y film transparente e incluso bolsas de pasta y arroz y envolotorios de caramelos.

Brown

Brown bin for food and compost materials

Some of these bins come in smaller versions but I’m just showing you photos of ones that you will most likely find on the street in any given city. If you live in an apartment building with a doorman (even if he/she works part-time), it’s likely that they will be in charge of taking the bins out of a storage closet and then putting them on the curb when it’s their day to be picked up.

(Side note: regular pickups in Madrid consisted of plastic collections on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and all the other bins were picked up every day.)

It wasn’t until 2019 that the compost bins were mandatory across the entire city of Madrid but I had seen them in some neighborhoods ever since I settled into an apartment here in late 2016/early 2017. (It’s because the city distributed these containers in phases.) This bin was green and gray in other parts of Spain (mainly Galicia) so I had to adjust to seeing brown ones for residuos orgánicos (leftovers and organic material).

City wide organic bin poster in Madrid metro
The city of Madrid was so enthusiastic about Phase 3 of its compost campaign that they even put these posters all around the metro last fall!

What goes in the compost bin, then?

It is fairly straightforward when it says restos de la comida (food scraps and leftovers) but there are a couple of items you wouldn’t think to drop in.

Here’s the full list:

-Fruit and vegetable scraps and peels
-Leftover pieces of meat and fish plus bones
-Coffee grounds, filters and tea bags (or grounds if loose leaf tea)
-Used paper towels and napkins
-Shells from food (from nuts, eggs and seafood)
-Corks, used matches and sawdust
-Any other food scraps or leftovers
-Pet food
-Garden or plant scraps (especially wilted plants or flowers)

This material is then collected and made into compost and fertilizer which will be scattered mainly in city parks. It’s also sometimes used as material for natural gas (biogas).

Vocabulary: contenador de tapa marrón, restos de la fruta y verdura, restos de carne y pescado, posos de café e infusiones, papel de cocina y servilletas sucias, cáscaras de huevo, de marisco y de frutos secos, tapones de corcho, cerillas y serrín, otros restos de la comida, comida para mascotas y pequeñps restos de jardinería.

Orange

Orange bin for non-organic materials
List of non-organic materials to go in orange bins
An illustrated list of what is allowed inside the orange containers (as seen in the lobby of our apartment building). For more info see the website that’s listed on the post. It has some fun activities for children too!

While you would think everything else that can’t be reused or doesn’t break down naturally would go in this bin, right?

Not exactly.

Unlike the other sections in this post, I’m going to emphasize the items that you will not be able to put in this bin.

Do not put light bulbs, hazardous materials (think paint, bleach or other toxic chemicals) and used olive oil in the orange bin.

Some cities have a specific bin that’s used to collect old olive oil and other oils but not every city has them. Old oil won’t be used for cooking or manufacturing new olive oil (gross) but instead it’s used to make biodegradable fuel sources. Pretty neat, huh?

Anyway, you will throw items that are considered non-organic into this bin.

Things like:

-Diapers
-Feminine products (pads, tampons)
-Wet wipes (for bathrooms and kitchens)
-Cigarette butts
-Dust (from sweeping)
-Animal feces
-Litter sand (kitty litter)
-Hair and pet fur

Vocabulary: pañales, compresas, tampones, toatllitas húmedas, colillas, polvo de barrer, excrementos de animales, arena de gato, pelo. (No reciclar: aceite de oliva usado ni quimicos tóxicos ni bombillas)

You can also take a look at this handy guide (and save it) for recycling in Madrid if you live here. Or visit your region’s website and find out more information how recycling is done there.

Recycling Inside the Madrid Metro

Recycling zone with three bins inside the Madrid metro
The recycling bins in select metro stations in Madrid, color coded and conveniently located right next to the platform.

If you do happen to live in Madrid and commute to work or school, you’ve probably been in a position every so often where you have something you’d like to throw away or recycle.

It is a bit gross (and somewhat of American habit) to eat on the run or eat while on public transportation (bus, metro or tram) but sometimes you can’t avoid it! And with that issue at hand, you will most likely need to find a bin to toss your apple or banana peel in. The Metro de Madrid has improved its stations a lot over the years and has even installed some machines that will pay you to recycle bottles and other materials, but the campaign is still in its early stages.

Well, if you ever are in a station and need to get a plastic bottle or food scrap off your hands, find one of the stations marked punto limpio (recycling zone) where you can deposit plastics (yellow), leftover food or other biodegradable items (green, in this case) and paper (blue).

Normal trash can for paper on street
Don’t wait to leave the metro station and toss what could be recycled somewhere else into one of these trash cans. They’re for general waste and paper only (as a city worker scolded me for throwing regular trash in it one time).

And last but not least…trash bags!

Biodegradable bathroom and kitchen bags
Carrefour, a large supermarket chain based in France, has a great line of BIO products from food to household items.

While you can find bags that match the color of the container they’re supposed to go in (pretty clever, eh?), I would strongly recommend only buying bolsas biodegradables (biodegradable bags) for your house or apartment. Sure, they are about double the cost (or more) of other brands but with the amount of things you will recycle and put in other bins, you won’t be using them as much you would think.

Today my husband and I store all of our trash and recyclable materials in specific types of bags. The regular trash goes in a green bag (see above), trash from our bathroom goes in a brown bag (but it can be used for compost), plastics go in a plastic bag (that we eventually recycle too) and then paper and cardboard go in a paper bag, that we also end up recycling after a while.

It’s all cyclical, isn’t it?

So, there you have it! That’s my guide to recycling in Spain, though it is very Madrid specific at times. And because it is more specific for Madrid, I would encourage you to do research about the region or city you are in (or will visit) in order to find exact info on bin colors or any extra recycling methods that aren’t practiced here.

Is there anything I missed or that you would like to comment on? If you live in a different country, what is the system like there – is it different from or similar to recycling in Spain? Tell me about it!