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?