Bottle Collectors in Public Urban Space –Berlin/ Kreuzberg (Part 2)

Part2_1by Malve Jacobsen and Tebogo Ramatlo

One central aspect of (in-)formal practices occurs around economic interaction. We decided to work on the aspect of collecting things in order to generate income. Therefore, we did a short empirical research in Berlin on deposit bottle collectors. Collecting bottles is a prevalent economic practice which can be found all over the city, particularly in public spaces like parks, metro stations and streets of the inner city.

The first part (see here) described our understanding of informal economies, and gave some background information as well as a short insight into the media and scientific discourse. The second part will deal with our research in the field and what we experienced there.

For our investigation we took a closer look on a public park called Görlitzer Park which is situated in the heart of the lively district Kreuzberg. This park is a special area with quite an intimate atmosphere. Even though it is public it is not really opened to the streets due to bushes and walls around. The park is a former railway property that contains fourteen hectares and is located near subway station Görlitzer Bahnhof. Especially in summertime the activity and density of drinkers and, as a consequence, of collectors is very high in this park. It is a park that residents and visitors use to relax and meet with friends over drinks. The social activity in the park has opened a gate for bottle collection at a high number.

Görlitzer Park in Kreuzberg: (source: Google Maps; modified by the authors)

Görlitzer Park in Kreuzberg: (source: Google Maps; modified by the authors)

In the park we spent several days and did non-participatory observation and four guideline-based interviews. Our research was divided in general questions (e.g. Who are the collectors? What is their motivation? How are they organized?), questions concerning their position in (in-)formal economic structures and questions concerning their representation (e.g. Do they feel accepted by the public?). We need to allude that this research gives only a slight insight into this practice and its protagonists and therefore it has no claim on generalization. Concerning many questions, the collectors we spoke to made heterogeneous statements which shows once more how complex and diverse this practice is.

The time that we went there, we met every day the same collectors, all together about ten persons. They varied in nationality, age and gender. Noteworthy, most of them had an East European background and spoke broken German. The language barrier was a big challenge, especially concerning more abstract questions like their grade of formalization and willingness to formalize their business. The collectors ranged from teen ages to old ages (assumable 13-80 years). Nonetheless, the majority of them were elderly but also few children and young people were collecting. Some collectors lived nearby and others came from other districts to this park. They told us that they bring the bottles either to small shops or supermarkets nearby and thus, bottles re-enter the formal deposit circle again (see Part 1).

Interviewed collectors in the park

Interviewed collectors in the park

We found out that the collectors have no obvious territories or routes, but two hotspots of consumption and collection exist. Generally, there is a deep inter-dependency between drinkers and collectors: Collectors only come when drinkers come which is mainly on warm summer days, especially during evening and night time on weekends. This can also be seen in regard to seasonal fluctuations. One woman told us that during wintertime she is not collecting at all and a man told us that he does not collect in the park between November and March but only in metro stations and dense night club areas.

Bottle collection between masses on a sunny evening

Bottle collection between masses on a sunny evening

Not only this indirect inter-dependency is very interesting in this context but also the direct interaction in terms of communication between consumers and collectors: Collectors go and ask drinkers whether they could take their bottles. All collectors told us that they feel absolutely accepted by the drinkers. Everybody gives them his/her bottles and short conversations run respectful and friendly.

Asking people for empty bottles

Asking people for empty bottles

But collectors also search for bottles in garbage bins. We noticed that a bottle stays only for a very short while without a person, due to harsh competition between the collectors. The collectors know each other but normally they do not cooperate and everyone has his/her own trolley.

These different aspects led us to the assumption that their activity – and as a consequence the (financial) success of their business – depends strongly on three external aspects: Weather and season, time (daytime and day of the week) and the grade of competition (relation of bottles and other collectors).

Bottle collecting in rubbish bins

Bottle collecting in rubbish bins

Furthermore, the collectors told us that they see collecting as an alternative to formal work, partly even the only alternative. They collect because they see no possibility (due to different reasons like insufficient language skills or missing work permit) entering the formal labor market. Their earnings vary from a few up to 30 Euros per day (which means that they collect up to 300 bottles a day). Most of the collectors had no other income. But even though they were all unemployed some collectors got social welfare from the state and collected in order to earn extra money. Another motivation lies in social and psychological terms: Through collecting, people get in interaction with other people, they participate in public life and achieve the feeling of working and having a structured life.

To conclude, bottle collectors have different (economic, social and psychological) motivations and needs behind their activity. Even though financial concerns predominate and collecting is a form of income maintenance it is not a question of survival, with regard to the following research which will be done in Johannesburg.

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