One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

Every day and night, a silent and untrained work force takes to the streets in what is perhaps Berlin’s most efficient and effective recycling system. These individuals are collectively responsible for one of Europe’s best glass and plastic recycling operations. So what is it like to be one of the faceless thousands who contribute to cleaner streets and a more environmentally-active city? And just how sustainable is a life recycling someone else’s garbage?

When I first arrived in Berlin I was compelled to commend the recycling system adopted by the country. There I was at the park enjoying a beer when as soon as I’d finished it there was someone waiting to take the empty from me. The sensation of drinking a beer just kept getting better, moving from the realms of an extremely enjoyable beverage to that of a small charitable donation. Feeling particularly altruistic that day, I continued to drink several more – I had acquired a taste for giving back.

But was that taste bittersweet? Naturally curious, I was inclined to learn more - I had to be sure it was a positive thing that the country had implemented rather than an exploitative one. To better understand the mentality of those who collect bottles, I decided to take to the streets and speak to the people directly involved.

Friday 11.05pm, Neukölln: Venturing over to an event in Neukölln we cross paths with an angry-looking man collecting bottles by the canal. I’m fortunate enough to have a good friend and native German speaker in my company to translate the questions I’ve prepared. However, there is a problem; my Dresden-born friend is unable to decipher if the man makes five or fifty euros a night. Confused, we leave with just one seemingly implausible detail, that he makes eighty euros per night. This would require a mammoth effort of finding, transporting and depositing 1,000 glass bottles.

Friday 11.53pm, Neukölln: Outside Loftus Hall, I approach another gentleman collecting. With a veneer of sweat rippling over his brow, he appears to be working hard. We adopt the same technique as before; I ask and my friend translates. Just as before, things are getting lost in translation. I’m seriously starting to doubt whether my friend is in fact even German.  A small discussion ensues, and Freddie (my friend), believes the man is foreign, most probably from Russia. I am too drunk to be sceptical.  To show my thanks, I neck the remainder of my beer and give it to the man as a physical representation of my appreciation. In turn I ask if I can lift his bag of bottles, presumably as some form of fieldwork.  It is extremely heavy. As the man walks off we agree that he probably said sixty euros, and that he could only really achieve this on a Friday or Saturday. Our discussion is punctuated by a smash. A precarious bottle has escaped the confines of his bag and dived for freedom, only to be met by concrete. I feel bad. I hope it wasn’t the one I just gave him.

Sunday 1.36pm, Görlitzer Park: An old woman stops before us with her bike. The bike has clearly been modified so that its primary purpose is now some kind of bottle-collecting system.  With a keen eye she has obviously spotted our near finished Sternies. Testing out my German, I try to ascertain the lifestyle of someone who recycles glass and plastic bottles for money. She lets out a little smile and responds in English. It is physically demanding work, she whispers. With it being so strenuous it limits her to just a couple of times a week. But she claims it is a good way to get outside and speak with people. Without trying to offend her, I ask how much she can make per day. From what I can make out, it's between two and four euros. I’m hesitant - her bike appears to be holding more than that already. I thank her profusely and we walk off, the mystery of just how financially viable a job it is continuing to evade me.

With such disparity between the figures I had been uncovering, it was time for a change in strategy. Armed with an open LIDL bag and an open mind, I took to the streets in pursuit of bottles.

I was initially concerned that the underworld of bottle collecting, although appearing to be an individual endeavour on the outside, may in fact be more of a collective enterprise, with many boundaries and territories between those that collect. My fear was unfounded. As I languidly strolled between urban area and park collecting bottles, I relished the freedom. When met by someone who was on the same mission as I, but appearing to be doing it out of necessity rather than just curiosity, I gave them my bottles. Initially believing myself to be selfless, this soon gave way to the realisation that I was merely doing it to relieve the strain on my fatigued arms.

I was collecting at a rate of sixteen bottles per hour, roughly converting into 1.28 euros per hour. This number could almost certainly triple, I believe, during a weekend. Although I didn’t contemplate quitting my job for a life of bottle hunting, I could see how it was certainly a viable means of gaining an additional income. It can be a physically demanding role, but there is a freedom to it, and plenty of opportunities to converse and stay social.

As Germany continues to top the league of European countries for its recycling merits, I have found the experience to be an overwhelmingly positive one. It does give rise to an alternative means of making some extra income no matter what your position. And beer drinkers can rejoice in the knowledge that each beer carries with it a small donation to a fellow human being.

By Liam McGuckin

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