For pensioners and the unemployed in Berlin, summer marks a particularly welcome time of the year for making a spot of extra cash. As Berliners head to the park to enjoy sunshine, barbecues and a casual drink with friends and family, the hunt for empty leftover bottles begins.
Introduced in 2003 by the then Social Democrat/Green coalition government, the ‘bottle recycling deposit return scheme’, known as the Deutsche Pfandsystem (or ‘Pfand’ for short) in Germany, requires large drink retailers to charge an additional €0.08 to €0.25 for every drink purchased at a store depending on the material of the bottle. The consumer can then redeem that money by bringing their emptied bottles back to the shop and recycling them instead of simply throwing them away.
The rationale behind the scheme is both to reduce waste and encourage recycling of single-use products, as well as to develop an environmental consciousness among the German population. In a world where more than 100 million plastic bottles are used everyday worldwide, and with only one out of five being recycled (the rest becoming litter buried underground or ending up in our ocean’s waters), mindfulness about current global consumption patterns is a vital step towards a sustainable future.
Thanks to Pfand, over 97 per cent of plastic and glass bottles are now recycled in Germany. At first sight, the scheme appears to be a resonating success. However, the motivation behind the bottle collection scheme has increasingly become driven by economic and social factors rather than genuine environmental concerns. As such, Pfand is bringing to light the challenges faced by the least privileged part of the German population every day.
When Pfand started operating in 2003, it was mainly homeless people, alcoholics and drug addicts that would rummage the bins in the search of this ‘bottled gold’. However, by 2005, unemployment rates had soared to 13 per cent and an estimated one out of every seven Berliners was said to be living on the verge of poverty. Since then, an increasing number of jobless people and pensioners have been spotted engaging in bottle-collecting activities in the hope of making ends meet. Sabine Werth, head of Berliner Tafel, a non-profit organisation that distributes food donations to local charities comments: ‘The number of unemployed collectors has probably doubled in the past few years. This is a symptom of an inadequate social system struggling to cope with a rising number of elderly people and unemployed.’ Recycling plastic bottles is being seen as a way to provide a cash boost to those with under-performing pensions.
However, fighting poverty does not seem to be the only reason bottle-collecting has become increasingly popular. ‘For the older generation it provides a sense of purpose,’ says Werth. ‘They see it as a reason to get out of the house and come into contact with people.’ Günther, a former mechanic who had to retire early due to illness, adds that this new-found activity helps him fight loneliness as people on the street often strike up conversation with each other. ‘I get to meet all sorts of people, which can be fun,’ he says. ‘I had a job in a museum for a while, but I nearly died of loneliness in that place.’
Many Berliners are supporting the practice. Residents and party-goers often leave empty bottles in lines along the pavements or in a pile next to bins, allowing collectors to seize the coveted goods without having to rummage through waste. Communication design student Jonas Kakoschke took things one step further. In July 2011 he set up the website Pfandgeben.de. Two types of people can sign up to this online platform: collectors and disposers. The site allows residents who have bottles they wish to dispose of to find details of local collectors in their area and to contact them to arrange for a pick-up. The initiative became so popular it ended up expanding to Cologne, Augsburg and Essen. However, Werth admits that this new system only targets those who already have certain means (such as a mobile phone), leaving the most marginalised and destitute once more on the sideline.
This increase in collection numbers is turning bottle recycling into a competitive business. Nowadays, collectors are not only having to fight for resources among each other, but are also needing to stand up to government and industrial backlash. In Stuttgart, the city council introduced bins that keep waste underground, allegedly to increase storage capacity, but social workers have been accusing the authorities of implementing defensive architecture in order to to push certain parts of the population out of the city centre.
Another downside of the German bottle scheme according to environmental pressure groups is that it reduces the incentive to introduce genuinely green reusable drink containers to the market by framing the recycling of single-use bottles as a sustainable alternative. Finally, because discount giants such as Aldi or Lidl need to keep prices low to stay competitive, they have been reintroducing non recyclable bottles to their shelves in order to avoid charging their customers the extra green deposit. Consequently, it is estimated that the number of recyclable bottles on the German market has dropped from 80 per cent to 50 per cent since 2003.