Returnable bottles: a new informal economy is emerging


In Germany and in Denmark, but also in Brazil, new kinds of workers are using the flaws of the recycling industry to make a little extra money and fight poverty.


Denmark may not be taking part in the football World Cup, but the city of Copenhagen does things right anyway: on one quay of the Southern Harbour is a giant screen for people to watch all the World Cup games lying on the grass… and drinking beer. Men walk among the cheering crowd, carrying large plastic bags filled with empty bottles and beer cans. When they spot an empty, or suspect someone is about to finish their drink, they come closer and ask if they can take the can. These men are not paid by Copenhagen Council to collect waste, and they are only interested in bottles and cans: they gather them to sell for a little extra money.

In Denmark, most beverage packaging is returnable: glass bottles have been since 1970, and plastic bottles and cans have been since 2002.

For these men, mostly underprivileged immigrants, the system means a small income – provided their quest is fruitful, and that becomes easier around big sports events. Similar systems exist in Germany, Brazil and Mexico, and France is looking to adopt one too. Everywhere, returnable bottles become a source of revenue for people in need and contribute to the emergence of an informal economy.

Making the most of waste

In Germany, most bottles and cans have been refundable since 2003, and “Pfansdammler” (“returnable collectors”) are multiplying in the streets and parks in the cities. According to sociologist Sebastian Jan Moser, who wrote a thesis about them (Pfandsammler. Erkundungen einer urbanen Sozialfigur, Hamburger Edition, March 2014), this activity involves a variety of people: homeless people, retired people and immigrants, but also civil servants, workers and garbage collectors.

The economic crisis has brought money worries even to people who do have jobs, and in this activity they find both a way to make a little extra income and, for those who are unemployed, the means to structure their day and remain active.

French newspaper Le Monde met a Berlin-based Pfansdammler who works at Deutsche Bahn sduring the day for a modest salary, and collects bottles for a couple hours before he goes home. He says some of his “competitors” spend their entire days searching the garbage cans of the city, working long hours on an activity that does not pay very well: 8 cents for an empty beer can, 15 cents for a recyclable plastic bottle and 25 cents for non-recyclable packaging.

Initiatives are emerging in Germany to make their “job” easier. The city of Hamburg launched a publicity campaign in 2011 to encourage people to leave their bottles and cans by waste bins instead of in them, to save waste pickers the humiliating task of searching through the rubbish; they also installed bins dedicated to refundable bottles with the support of Lemonaid a german producer of organic soft drinks; the city of Cologne just installed a dozen Pfandring, bright yellow plastic structures placed around waste bins where people can leave their empty bottles; the website, launched in 2012 by a student, helps German consumers contact waste collectors when they have a handful of bottles they need to get rid of, etc.

Supporting the waste pickers of the world

Even though these initiatives have been criticised for acknowledging and encouraging poverty rather than fighting it, the German and Danish collecting systems have helped recycle more glass and plastic – and, somehow, created a parallel economy for people who only have one foot in the system.

This example demonstrates how the crisis brings situations that used to be worlds apart closer. In Brazil, where there is no structured system to sort recyclable waste, the “catadores” (who pick waste in the landfills and then sell it back to the recycling industry) enable the country to recycle 98% of cans. The European average is just 67%. The World Cup and its thousands of waste-generating tourists create an opportunity to structure the sector and improve the collectors’ working conditions. Germany and Denmark may be ahead of Brazil when it comes to recycling, but there are similarities between the catadores who walk the aisles of the World Cup stadiums, the collectors in Copenhagen and the Pfansdammler. Public authorities need to take more notice of them, and that is also what international events such as the World Cup are for, when they bring to light problematic situations like this one – and the solutions created by the citizens themselves.

Photo © imageshunter

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