Bottle Collectors in Public Urban Space –Berlin/ Kreuzberg

Part1_3by Malve Jacobsen and Tebogo Ramatlo

The exchange program between two cities – Berlin and Johannesburg – called The [In-]Formal City is a project which researches and unpacks the term informal practices within the formal cities. The aim is to understand the term informality in its broader sense and how it impacts or rather co-exists within the formal structures. One central aspect of (in-)formal practices occurs around economic interaction. We therefore searched for a common economic practice which can be found in public urban space of our two cities.

The first part will describe our understanding of informal economies, and give some background information as well as a short insight into media and scientific discourse. The second part (which will be published next week/ URL) will deal with our research and findings in the park.

Man collecting bottles in a bike trailer

Man collecting bottles in a bike trailer

The informal economy is one that exists within the void of the formal economy. This void is mainly caused by a missing link within a formal structure and the participants will practice within it for financial gain but indirectly filling the void within the formal with the informal. This economy is known but has no formal policies and structure set by a group of individuals or corporations. Our interest in the research topic is sparked by the phenomenon of informality in and around the formal and how the two dual spaces co-exist.

Starting to talk about informal economic practices, we realized that there is a much broader presence of informal economies in Johannesburg than in Berlin. Finally, we decided to focus on bottle collectors as a typical example of informal practice that can be found at both places of research. In Berlin, we concentrated on deposit bottle collectors since this is the most present group of collectors. Since several years a growing number of these collectors can be registered for diverse reasons especially in and around public spaces in German cities. In Johannesburg, we will have a look on waste collectors and get an experience of how many items are collected including deposit bottles which are transferred to recycling stations for exchange of money.

The deposit system in Germany is a nationwide system for non-refillable and refillable beverage containers which applies almost all bottles and cans in a range of three prices (8, 15 and 25 Euro cents per bottle or can).

In this process, th

Empty bottles in a plastic bag – most of them are beer bottles which have a deposit of 8 Euro cents

Empty bottles in a plastic bag – most of them are beer bottles which have a deposit of 8 Euro cents

e collectors and accordingly the bottles get out of the highly formalized circle of the deposit system (see pink box). Buying a bottle and paying deposit for it in a shop, consuming it, bringing the empty bottle back to the store and getting the paid deposit back.

Circle of deposit bottles

Circle of deposit bottles

In Germany, a rising number of newspaper articles and even increasing scientific attention on bottle collectors over the last few years can be observed. This growth goes parallel with the real expansion of bottle collectors in public space. Due to pauperization, especially of elderly people and persons without German nationality, more and more people are living under precarious conditions and searching for new ways of generating a basic income. This assumption exits also in media and scientific publications on bottle collectors. As a consequence, in public debate they are mostly connected with the ‘poor’, and their activity became a symbol for precarious working and living conditions. Especially academic interest concerning this phenomenon and its protagonists rises constantly and first empirical studies concerning bottle collectors are getting published (unfortunately all in German language[1]).

[1] Bröckling, Ulrich: Der Flaschensammler. Portrait eines urbanen Entrepreneurs. In: Schweizer Monatshefte (2009).

Franz, Aron: Informelle Ökonomien in Berlin – das Phänomen der Flaschensammler (2013) – M.A. thesis (Geographic department, Humboldt-University Berlin), unpublished.

Moser, Sebastian: „Die Rückkehr der Sammler: Konturen einer neuen Sozialfigur in deutschen Städten.“ (Promotionsvorhaben Universität Freiburg, 2013)



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