Why do people collect money

Bottle collectors and their everyday lifeFor a handful of euros

"I've been doing this for five or six years. At first it was just a hobby, then I packed a few bottles in passing and now I'm really going to start collecting bottles."

Birgit is sitting in front of a snack bar in Cologne, cigarette in hand, a coke in front of her. The cars rush past on the four-lane road. She has just thrown bottles into the deposit machine in the supermarket across the street. The end of a hot June day - that began in an emergency shelter for homeless women.

"I was out of the emergency shelter at 10 o'clock and then went back there to the church. Some of the trash cans were really well filled with bottles, empty bottles. It wasn't bad, about eight euros."

(picture alliance / Arco Images) Shameful, hidden, suppressed - homeless women
Around a quarter of all homeless are women. Many of them live in covert homelessness. But the situation makes you sick: the average age of death for homeless women is 49 years.

Birgit collects bottles in order to earn some extra money - in addition to social assistance of a good 300 euros per month, which she receives from the office. She doesn't have a regular job.

She goes to her shopping basket with wheels: "There are clothes in there, something to eat, tobacco, plastic bags, handbag."

She packs empty bottles in the bags that she has tied to the basket.

"I throw everything upside down and in Rewe, there is such a bottle vending machine, you can put all the bottles in there."

Income is often not enough for everyday life

Beer bottles usually bring a deposit of eight cents, reusable bottles made of glass or plastic 15 cents, cans and bottles with a one-way deposit cost 25 cents. There is a lot of work behind eight euros in earnings - that's how it feels for Birgit: "Yes, because I'm a bit older, I was born in '64 and you already have problems with illnesses, sick legs and back pain and so on. "

"Most of those who collect bottles are affected by some kind of poverty," says Alban Knecht, sociologist and research assistant at the university in Klagenfurt, Austria. He researches poverty, inequality and social policy - and deals with the phenomenon of bottle collecting, which is part of everyday life in many German cities. There are no figures from the authorities. But there should be thousands of collectors, from Germany and abroad.

Officially, people here are at risk of poverty if they have less than 1,000 euros a month for all expenses.

People like to grill in summer: there is a lot of rubbish left behind, but also returnable bottles (dpa / picture alliance / Guido Kirchner)

Alban Knecht found in his research and in interviews that most bottle collectors are not homeless. As a rule, they receive Hartz IV or an early pension. But according to Knecht, this income is often not enough to cope with everyday life. That's why they collect returnable bottles.

"In the interviews they often said, well, it's actually just a hobby because they don't take it too seriously as a job. But the idea is that I have a real job there, which is a bit like my job Many bottle collectors say that begging is out of the question for me, I would like to do something somehow where there is something in return. And the smallest solution is then collecting bottles. "

Many collectors use it to structure their everyday life and use their free time sensibly. When things go well, says Knecht, you earn five to ten euros a day. At soccer games or folk festivals, it can be significantly more. But that is not the norm.

World Cup 2006: How it all began

"It's really just about being busy and making life a little nicer with a few euros a day. Bottle collectors say, for example, that they can then afford a coffee, otherwise it wouldn't work."

The collection of returnable bottles is a development that Knecht can clearly classify in terms of time: "The collection of bottles began for the 2006 World Cup, and public viewing was one of the reasons."

Public viewing became popular with the 2006 World Cup - and with it the collecting of bottles (picture alliance / imageBROKER / Thomas Frey)

And the introduction of the one-way deposit. Since 2003, mineral water, beer and carbonated soft drinks in one-way packaging have been subject to a deposit of 25 cents in Germany. This applies to bottles and cans and is intended to prevent single-use packaging from ending up in nature. The quota of reusable packaging is also to be increased. The deposit made bottle collection attractive, says Alban Knecht.

Another reason, which the sociologist identifies for the emergence of bottle collecting, is: "Of course Hartz IV as well. The people just couldn't get by with their money anymore."

The "Fourth Law for Modern Services on the Labor Market", or Hartz IV for short, has been in force in Germany since 2005. The aim was to stimulate the labor market and achieve savings in state social spending.

Among other things, the duration of receipt of unemployment benefit has been shortened and support for the long-term unemployed has been reduced to the level of social assistance. The result, according to Knecht: Many people could no longer cope financially. Some started collecting bottles.

Increase in inequality and poverty in Germany

In principle, Stefan Sell also sees this development. But the professor of economics, social policy and social sciences at the Koblenz University of Applied Sciences looks back further, to the mid-1990s. Since then, Sell has observed a significant increase in inequality and, as a result, poverty in Germany:

"That has to do with the huge increase in poorly paid, i.e. low-wage jobs. They also have to do with the disintegration of collective bargaining agreements in many industries and Hartz IV acted a bit like a fire accelerator. that every, but also every form of employment, no matter how bad, became reasonable for people. "

Strong trade unions, good collective agreements, solid old-age insurance: the old welfare state model of the Federal Republic no longer worked in the 1990s. At the same time, the financial markets were deregulated, protective regulations were dismantled, and industrial jobs were relocated to low-wage countries. According to Sell, this led to an increase in the precarious living conditions of employees:

"They have either slipped into long periods of unemployment, or recurring unemployment, or they ended up in jobs in the service sector that are paid significantly less and are more secure than, let's say, the majority in the 70s and Many of the problems we see today are the result of developments that came over us back in the 90s and 00s. "

Behind these political developments, as well as the Hartz IV reform, there was a neoliberal idea with the idea: "That market forces per se will bring better solutions in the end than if the state, imperfect as it is, fiddles around."

(Wolfram Steinberg / dpa) Welfare state under pressure: Of benefits and gaps The debate about Hartz IV is a constant topic with great potential for outrage. Critics complain that the state is not fulfilling its duty of care. But how can the social imbalance be balanced out again?

This has also changed the model for the welfare state. Hartz IV focuses on people's personal responsibility - keyword: "Promote and challenge". And those affected are sanctioned if they violate obligations and requirements. A social policy that, in the opinion of many experts, promotes poverty.

There are often bottle collectors at major events such as music concerts and football games (picture alliance / dpa / Julian Stratenschulte)

"Hello, empty bottles? - I think there is no deposit on it. - Yes, I'll take it. - Then gladly, thank you very much, have a nice day."

The two young women are helpful. You are sitting under a tree in the park on a hot Monday evening and give Hajo, 78 years old, two returnable glass bottles. He dumps the last drops and puts the bottles in his shopping trolley.

What are they worth? "15 cents one, beer bottle only eight cents. But the amount counts. Saturday and Sunday we had the car full. That was 42 euros - deposit money."

Hajo and his wife Ingrid have been collecting returnable bottles in a park in the south of Cologne for over three years. Ingrid is 75 years old and is walking down the other end of the meadow with her trolley. Competitive situations and frictions with other collectors, as they can happen in busy places, do not exist here.

1,600 euros income per year through deposit collection

Route and logistics are well established for both. Like many other regular collectors, they have become more professional and take care of their equipment: "My little cart here, this is from javelin waste, I made the handle myself. Every now and then you have to turn the wheels down, put a little fat on it so that they don't start to squeak, no. "

Hajo is a trained brewer and then worked, among other things, as a painter, insurance salesman and real estate agent. He likes collecting, likes to chat with people. They even told friends and neighbors about it.

Ingrid is a retail saleswoman and was employed by a bank for many years. She took early retirement at 58, so she had to accept deductions of 18 percent.

Ingrid has meanwhile arrived at her husband's: "My husband was self-employed for many years, he only gets a pension of 500 euros. And of course we're lucky because we have a cooperative apartment and pay a cheap rent, otherwise we wouldn't be able to get the pension."

Bottle collecting - a kind of income for many people (imago stock & people)

But big financial jumps are not possible, so they collect bottles. Sometimes Ingrid still drives senior citizens to go shopping or to the doctor and earns a little extra. With the money they go about their everyday life:

"When we go on vacation, we take something out, or go here and there, then we take something out, but otherwise we always have money in the house. That means you can simply afford a little more. I have my granddaughter who is studying , you support there too. "

They earned 1,600 euros last year, they say, just by collecting deposits. Neither of them think about quitting.

But it remains an arduous business. The many bottles collected are heavy and the deposit has to be returned. Ingrid and Hajo regularly drive their car to a large supermarket on the outskirts. In smaller shops, they would have had trouble with other customers because they had to wait to return the deposit.

"Good and Bad Arms"?

The supermarket is a public place next to the street and the park, where collectors usually have to identify themselves clearly. A place of shame. Sociologist Alban Knecht:

"Many bottle collectors report that it was an issue at the beginning, that you somehow get along with it, that you don't get confused when people are watching. On the other hand, the bottle collectors have told us again and again that it is difficult is and also needs a certain overcoming when I go into the supermarket and say, so, here are my bottles, I would have liked to have paid out some money now. This is also a moment that is full of shame. "

Always on the go: bottle collectors at Rathenauplatz in Cologne (picture alliance / Arco Images / Joko)

In general, both self and external perception play an important role. Collectors often justify themselves, point to the protection of the environment, regard their activity as a job, say that the money is on the street. They want to show that they are proactively trying to make the best of their own situation, which is often associated with poverty. You want to belong to society.

On the other hand, there is perception from the outside. And the twofold view of society on needy, poor people. Social scientist Stefan Sell: "There are, so to speak, in quotation marks, good and bad poor. Good poor, in quotation marks, are people who came in through no fault of their own or who have achieved something, are now poor and that is unbearable."

This includes the elderly, people with disabilities and small children.

"Meanwhile, for example, the long-term unemployed, i.e. adults, it is often assumed - whether consciously or unconsciously - that they have maneuvered themselves into this situation and are therefore to blame for the poverty themselves."

According to Stefan Sell, the result: the willingness of the individual to ensure redistribution and dignified security is significantly lower than when the long-term unemployed are understood as a social problem. For Sell, this development has been observed since the 1990s and is inextricably linked to the neoliberal spirit of that time.

Many people voluntarily pass on empty returnable bottles

Statements by politicians about the abuse of social benefits have also contributed to this: "We cannot secure the future by organizing our country as a collective amusement park." - Helmut Kohl 1993.

"More individual responsibility, less social hammock." - Wolfgang Schäuble 1994.

"Those who can work but do not want to, cannot count on solidarity. There is no right to be lazy in our society!" - Gerhard Schröder 2001.

"The link is there so that the bottle collectors, by presenting themselves as someone who works, can, so to speak, free themselves from these clutches of abuse. And that is actually a strategy that works," says sociologist Alban Knecht from the university Klagenfurt, who examined the consequences of abuse discourses.

Bottle collectors are often treated positively. Many people voluntarily pass on empty returnable bottles. The motives are different: giving away small amounts doesn't hurt financially, you don't have to return the pledged goods yourself or you have the feeling of doing good and helping hard-working people.

Bottle collectors have little trouble with the police. It is usually forbidden to take bottles out of public garbage cans. Because their content belongs to municipal waste disposal companies. But most of the time it is not pursued.

Social scientist Stefan Sell (dpa / picture alliance / Horst Galuschka)

Searching waste bins is also often not allowed at airports, train stations and in shopping centers. There are regular reports about collectors who are expelled from the site by the respective security staff and in some cases also reported. Theoretically, there can also be conflicts with the job center if deposit money is viewed as income and offset against Hartz IV payments. However, almost no cases are known.

Bottle collecting has become a broad social phenomenon in recent years. That is why there are always initiatives to make it easier to search for a deposit - such as "deposit belongs next to it" or the website "pfandkommen.de". Gürhan registered there some time ago. Now the 40-year-old is sitting on the stairs on the Rhine in Cologne and says: "Pfandiegen.de has the advantage that you don't have to walk around on the streets. You get calls from there, people who just want to get rid of their returnable bottles, you leave just go there and pick them up. "

Returnable bottles that are not recycled pollute the environment

Because pledgers can easily contact registered users like Gürhan. Gürhan is a trained IT specialist, but is only able to work to a limited extent due to epilepsy. He is currently receiving Hartz IV, a good 600 euros per month including rent allowance. Last year he started collecting deposits sporadically.

"I didn't do it, I would say, out of my own pleasure, because at the moment I have a bit more debt. And that is also one of the reasons in particular why I started collecting. And it's not exactly pleasant."

That's why he's mostly going at night. But the yield wasn't high, he didn't want to take any glass bottles with him, too heavy and of comparatively little value. His illness made the corridors difficult. After a few months, Gürhan stopped actively collecting and registered with pfandhaben.de. So far, no referrals have been made via the Internet portal, but maybe that will change, says Gürhan, he remains optimistic.

Projects like "pfandhaben.de" or the so-called deposit rings - which can be mounted on public rubbish bins in order to deposit returnable bottles in them - have not only social but also ecological requirements. Because returnable bottles that are not recycled pollute the environment.

Pfandring in Karlsruhe: This makes it easier for deposit collectors to take the bottles and cans with them (dpa / picture alliance / Uli Deck)

This is where the collectors come into play: "In any case, the bottle collectors play a major role in the collection of these one-way bottles on deposit," says Philipp Sommer, deputy head of the circular economy at Deutsche Umwelthilfe. An interest group for the packaging industry also confirms this.

But there are no precise figures on the relevance of collectors for the deposit system.One thing is clear: because of the high one-way deposit compared to other European countries, bottle collecting is primarily a German development.

Bottle collecting will remain attractive

Several studies show: Almost 98 percent of the PET plastic bottles that are subject to the one-way deposit are returned and recycled in Germany. The collection rate is similarly high for cans with a one-way deposit and reusable packaging.

An environmental protection goal associated with the one-way deposit was achieved: The littering of the environment has decreased significantly. Another goal was missed: the promotion of reusable reusable packaging. "In the Packaging Act there is a quota for beverages in environmentally friendly returnable bottles of 70 percent. However, this is not adhered to at all, currently we are around a little more than 40 percent. We have many retailers who do not sell returnable bottles at all."

An environmental protection goal associated with the one-way deposit was not achieved: Consumers like to use PET products for reasons of cost and convenience. (dpa / picture alliance / Bernd Wüstneck)

For them, disposable is often more worthwhile. Because the empty plastic bottles and cans are simply shredded and recycled and do not have to be stored like reusable bottles and later transported on for refilling. Consumers also like to use disposable packaging - often because they do not recognize the difference between one-way and more environmentally friendly reusable, say environmental and consumer advocates.

This means that the one-way deposit in Germany will remain in place for a while. And because of this, bottle collecting will continue to be attractive. Nevertheless, politics must start here, says Philipp Sommer from Deutsche Umwelthilfe: "I think that issues of social equality and environmental issues must be resolved separately. It is important that we fundamentally fight poverty and social inequality and not through food donations, for example or collecting single-use plastic bottles will alleviate the problems. "

(The post is a repetition from 08/20/2019)