Having moved to Germany five years ago, I noticed this story in yesterday's New York Times: "Germany Gleefully Leads List of World's Top Recyclers."

Heck, yeah, they do.

It's one of the first things I noticed--partly because I've been a fanatic recycler for years. My wife, who's part German, still laughs about the fact that I religiously wash out plastic yogurt cups before throwing them into the bin. I can't understand why anyone would do otherwise.

But as a nation, Germany takes it to another level.

As reported by the Times:

"According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Germans happily sort 65 percent of their waste into an array of color-coded bins to be collected for reuse or incineration. South Koreans come in second, recycling 59 percent of their refuse. The United States recycles 35 percent; that's only slightly above the average for the developed countries that belong to the organization, but it is miles ahead of Turkey, where 99 percent of all trash ends up in a landfill."

Yes, even before the good little German children begin preschool--or as it's called here, kindergarten--they learn how to properly separate refuse. Here where I live, it's green for biodegradable waste; blue for cardboard, paper, and plastic; and silver for everything else. (Glass gets three containers: one for green, one for brown, one for clear.)

I still don't understand what machines could possibly separate plastic from cardboard and paper, once it's all thrown together. A German friend quipped to me that many believe in the end it all goes to the same place: "But we all continue to separate trash anyway--because that's what you're supposed to do."

The Secret Weapon

But to truly understand the clever nature of German recycling, you have to look at the plastic bottle industry.

If you recycle a plastic bottle in America, you're doing well to get back a nickel. Here in Germany, it's a whopping twenty-five cents!

That means that depositing the twelve empty bottles from water, juice, or soda that you bought last week nets you three euros off your next grocery bill. Doesn't sound like much? That's 156 euros of savings per year. And, of course, every grocery store has a bottle return machine right up front, so it just becomes part of your normal routine.

In the end, it appears the Germans have stumbled across the best strategy for motivating environmental friendliness.

If you want to get people to recycle, just pay them.

How did we miss that one, America?