Sane, Well-Dressed Bottle Collectors

When I was growing up, no visit to local outdoor theater in Houston, Texas was complete without an encounter with the Can Man, a middle-aged black guy who wandered by with his tottering shopping-cart full of aluminum cans, cheerfully chanting "Gib de can man a han’!" (Give the Can Man a Hand!). At the end of the day, he turned them in for recycling, gathering  some absurdly trivial amount like $.05 for a pound. You gave him a can and thought to yourself: "I hope I never get to the point at which traipsing around in sweltering weather for 9 hours to earn $3.21 seems like something worth doing."

Talking with another expat recently, I discovered that we’d both noticed the same phenomenon in Germany recently: lots of bottle collectors. And, unlike the Can Man, these folks are apparently sane and well-dressed.

There’s a deposit of about 7-8 Euro cents on every bottle in Germany, so there are plenty of bottle collectors out there. Leaving your beer bottle sitting on the park bench isn’t littering — it’s a small contribution to the less well-off. The problem is, stores are only required to accept for recycling bottles they sell at that store. When I pick up some strangely-shaped bottle at a farm or foreign train station, and have no idea where I should take it to get the deposit back. No problem: I just drop by a local park where unemployed beer enthusiasts hang out. They’ve got all day to figure out which local store will give them money for this bottle.

However, I’ve also seen high-functioning people who are not bringing their own bottles in for recycling but rather roving around collecting bottles from random trash cans and park benches. I was recently at a local Trinkhalle (kind of like a German bodega), when a well-dressed man in his early 20s, sober and speaking cultivated German, asked permission to look in the trash can. He shoved aside some ice-cream and magazine wrappers and found two mineral-water bottles. Gleefully, he explained to me and the guy behind the counter that everyone thought these bottles had no deposit on them (that’s why they’d been thrown away), but that they actually did have a deposit. My expat friend chimed in and said that he also had seen well-dressed elderly men out collecting bottles recently, with cloth bags full of plastic and glass bottles slung over their tweed coats.

We all understand why street-denizens would collect bottles, but well-dressed people? Considering that you’d have to collect about 12 bottles to earn 1 Euro in deposit money, you would probably be able to earn, at the very most, 2 Euro per hour this way. Plus, it’s hard work — you’ve got to carry a bunch of bulky bottles around for hours, and find the right shops to give you the money for them.

Have well-dressed bottle collectors just found a pleasant way to spend the afternoon making Germany cleaner and earning a little pocket money, or is this phenomenon a knock-on effect of long-term unemployment? Unemployment puts you in a situation in which the value of your time suddenly drops from whatever your hourly wage was before to near-zero. Only when this happens could it begin to make sense to spend hours wandering your neighborhood to collect a 30-40 Euro per week tax-free surplus to your unemployment benefits. Further, it signifies you’ve lowered your expectations of finding a new job, since you’ve essentially announced to the world that (1) collecting bottles is a better use of your time than sending out more resumes; and (2) you no longer care who sees you wandering the streets collecting bottles.

Is this the right interpretation? Or are there fully-employed Germans who collect bottles in their spare time, simply out of thriftiness and love for order?

7 thoughts on “Sane, Well-Dressed Bottle Collectors

  1. “The problem is, stores are only required to accept for recycling bottles they sell at that store.”

    Not anymore. Now it’s more complicated, er, simplified:

    http://www.bmu.de/english/waste_management/general_information/doc/35155.php

    Now every store has to take every bottle or can back. But: Only stores that sell cans have to take cans back. Only stores that sell plastic bottles have to take plastic bottles back. The same with glass bottles. Stores not exceeding a certain size still only have to take back what they sold. That’s the German way: “Einzelfallgerechtigkeit”. It’s just like baseball: To understand it, you need to see it (i.e. need to be rejected at the supermarket, carrying a bag full of the wrong bottles).

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  2. The deposit for those (mostly plastic) bottles and cans that were once disposable is not in the 7-8c range, but actually a whopping 25c, which goes a long way to explain the phenomenon. People with full-time jobs don’t just collect them in their spare time; some do *on the job*. I’ve heard that for example, train engineers and guards in the Marburg area have started laying out their schedules so that once in a while, each of them gets a chance to collect all those precious beverage containers that are left on the tourist-heavy weekend trains.

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  3. There don’t seem to be too many Aldi shoppers among your readers. At the beginning of the year they put in mechanical crushers with scanners (returnable bottles have a special logo) to accept returned PET bottles and print out receipts for the deposit.

    The 25 cent deposit is well under the cost of producing the plastic bottles. There was a recent case in Schleswig-Holstein where someone had 150,000 bottles produced in eastern Europe for under 5 cents each, slapped fake labels on them, and went from store to store collecting the deposit. He had returned 30,000 bottles before he was caught.

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  4. I’am a German street-denizen!

    I’am sane and well-dressed and speak cultivated German (English too, I hope).

    It doesn’t happen often that I am collecting bottles from bins (OK, due to a small job of mine it really never happens; but I usualy pick up bottles which are just lying around or maybe lying atop in an open, “clean” bin), but you wouldn’t recognize me as a street-denizen (the police even too – but that’s not to mention here).

    Maybe the collector wasn’t a street-denizen, maybe he was. (at least an empty reusable bottle is worth of 15 Euro cents, most one-way bottles, as already mentioned, 25 cents.)

    Some people say, that nowadays social things went a little bit wrong in Germany. There is also a debate starting about the “new under class” (with politicians trying to avoid that term as if you would get ill by just using it – they speak of “neues Prekariat” which means “new class of people with precarious labor relations”).

    The number of street-denizens is getting higher, the number of people without health insurance either – more and more former middle class people do or may have such problems.

    On the other hand: The social situation is not as nearly as bad, as it supposed to be i.e. USA with it’s “working poor” or wellfare system. But there is much angst, that we will also go that way …

    … step by step …

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  5. I’m a German myself who just recently discovered your wonderful, enlightening blog via Titanic. No, I’m not collecting empty bottles from dustbins or parks, but this habit is just typical for many of my compatriots. Their thrill is getting “money for nothing”. Most of us never learned to value time, just money. So many, even full-employed and reasonably-payed, Germans get a kick out of returning a bottle they haven’t bought and get their 15 or 25 Cent as a gift. It’s like a Christmas present to them. And they feel especially smart because they saved money others (dumb ones) threw away – see your Trinkhalle guy.
    An aunt of mine once spent at least three hours of time and 5 Euro on fuel to save 2 Euro on a special offer on coffee in a certain, far away located supermarket. This is typical German behaviour I guess: if there’s an occasion to save money or get something for free, you have to take it at any price…

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