“What do bottle collectors have to do with human rights?” asked Kongens Have guard Jan Mardell (interview with Mardell).
What follows is an ethnographic case study of bottle collectors in Kongens Have (The King’s Garden), a park located in the center of Copenhagen that represents a microcosm of contemporary Danish society. A literature review and series of interviews with park guards and visitors, supermarkets, and outreach organizations for marginalized people reveals that bottle collectors rarely, in fact, register on the pages of newspapers or scholarly articles, nor in the minds of activists who advocate for Copenhagen’s most vulnerable residents.
Few interviewees drew connections between bottle collectors and minority issues. But as people who literally and figuratively stand on the periphery of public awareness, bottle collectors may constitute an “invisible minority” in Denmark. In a human rights context concerned with integration, inclusion, and exclusion, their presence at Kongens Have and elsewhere pose interesting questions: Who are they? Where do they come from? Why are they here? Why do they collect bottles? How do others perceive them, how do they perceive themselves, and ultimately, what does their presence reveal about Danish society?
History of the Danish bottle deposit system
Danish breweries introduced return bottles in the 1920s and set the precedent for bottle reusing and recycling. A deposit system created a financial incentive for Danes to return their used bottles. Breweries and detail shops founded the contemporary bottle return system, the Danish Return System A/S, in 2000. Its main goal is to collect reusable and recyclable bottles and reduce shops’ expenses.
Denmark returned 1.45 billion bottles in 2006, and the Danish Return System A/S projects that even more bottles will be returned in 2007. The average return rate continues to increase. For recyclable bottles, the return rate was 84 percent in 2005 and 86 percent in 2006. The reusable bottle return rate was even higher last year, peaking at 101 percent.
This high rate of return may be the result of several factors. First, massive television and radio campaigns encourage Danes to return their bottles. Second, government policy supports the environment, including a return-rate culture. Finally, the return rate per bottle is higher than in many other countries. For example, a 33-centiliter bottle earns 1,000 DKK (187 USD) in Denmark but only 28 to 83 øre (5 to 15 cents) in the United States. During the summer months in Denmark when many drinkers frequent Kongens Have, bottle collectors may earn a wage comparable to a minimum wage employee. A bottle collector who returns an average of 200 bottles a day will earn approximately 5,700 DKK (1,064 USD) a month. In comparison, after taxes, a pensioner living alone will earn approximately 6,062 DKK (1,132 USD) and a full-time employee working at minimum wage will earn only around 7,003 DKK (1,307 USD) (Borger [Citizens] Information). In the peak months of summer, bottle collectors appear to fare relatively well.
Although no official data exists on Copenhagen bottle collectors, many interviewees perceived a general demographic shift over the past thirty years from homeless ethnic Danes and children to “foreigners” and pensioners. Guard Mogens Iversen, who has worked at Kongens Have for 15 years, claims that bottle collectors have always worked in the park. However, the composition of the group has changed over the years. Whereas most bottle collectors were formerly alcoholics and homeless people, pensioners and “foreigners” now dominate the bottle collecting terrain (interview with Iversen). Jan Mardell, who has been a guard in Copenhagen’s municipal parks for the past 35 years, concurred that bottle collector demographics have shifted from homeless Danes to “foreigners” and Danish pensioners. “The Chinese have taken over in the past five years” (Interview with Mardell). As park visitor Philip Volmer Hansen also said, “I think the bottle collecting market has changed. When I was younger, it was the homeless—you know, the whites [ethnic Danes]. You’d leave your bottles and they’d come two hours later. Now the price of bottles has changed and there’s more competition” (interview with Hansen). Bo Jochimsen, an outreach worker for Projekt UDENFOR (Project Outside), explained that the homeless, including those who are mentally ill, still collect bottles. However, they do not do so systematically (interview with Jochimsen). Some of them argue that bottle collecting has become more difficult due to organized groups, which have taken over because they work more quickly and efficiently. Some park visitors even reminisced about collecting bottles as children or giving their bottles away to enterprising young Danes. “But now it’s different,” said Morten Vedersø, “these are grown-ups” (interview with Vedersø).
Contemporary bottle collectors
Historically, most bottle collectors in Copenhagen were homeless people and Greenlanders, many of whom exchanged used bottles directly for beer.
Bottle collectors in Copenhagen are anything but a homogenous, organized group. To the contrary, this case study of Kongens Have reveals that even the small group of bottle collectors who frequent the park represent a wide spectrum of Danish society. They range from a homeless man with his sleeping pad to Clarisse, a Danish citizen who emigrated from Brazil 40 years ago, to a self-proclaimed tourist in need of beer money, to a group of Asians working together, to a Bulgarian woman attempting to find a job in Denmark. Each has a unique personal story. And although some perceive them only in terms of the bottles they collect, none are self-proclaimed “bottle collectors.” Thus, what does it mean when society defines them as such? The following profiles of three primary groups—the homeless, the pensioners, and the “foreigners”—provide a brief glimpse into their lives. Most importantly, however, they point towards the need for a more nuanced analysis that begins to account for the diversity of stories that Copenhagen’s bottle collectors truly represent.
Historically, most bottle collectors in Copenhagen were homeless people and Greenlanders, many of whom exchanged used bottles directly for beer. Even now, many receive social support from the municipality. This financial assistance, however, rarely provides for all living expenses. Some are not registered with the state and thus have no alternative sources of income; for others, mental illness inspires a fear of the authorities. Thus, many homeless people and Greenlanders in Copenhagen collect bottles in order to survive.
Ask Svejstrup, the Country Secretary of SAND, said he also observed a demographic shift away from homeless bottle collectors. Although he was unaware of any statistical data to support this hypothesis, he attributed the shift to HUS FORBI. Registered homeless vendors have the exclusive rights to sell this magazine, and it provides an additional source of income for this group (interview with Svejstrup). Few homeless people and zero Greenlanders were observed collecting bottles in Kongens Have in early June. One bottle collector who appeared to be homeless passed through the park twice. As an old man with a long white beard and a trolley carrying his necessities, including a sleeping bag and pad, he zigzagged through the main path in the early evenings and searched for bottles in the trash. However, he never interacted with park visitors to ask for their bottles. Relative to other types of bottle collectors in the park, his earnings appeared to be small.
“I’ve seen old women in fur coats and pearls collecting bottles,” said Clarisse, herself a pensioner who has been collecting bottles at Kongens Have for the past 14 years. Pensioners, or retired workers who receive financial support from the state, have recently become a much more visible group of bottle collectors in the park (interview with Clarisse). According to Bo, this phenomenon reveals that poverty among the elderly in Denmark is rather new (interview with Jochimsen). “I think it’s a good situation because [bottle collectors] are people who do not make a lot of money,” said Jan Mardell, the guard who has worked in Kongens Have for ten years (interview with Mardell). Two bottle-collecting interviewees were pensioners, including Clarisse, a woman who calls Kongens Have her “second home” (interview with Clarisse).
Clarisse is a 65 to 70-year-old Brazilian woman who came to Denmark “for love.” She met her husband, a Danish man, in Brazil 40 years ago. Fluent in Danish, Clarisse has been a Danish citizen for many years. She is a petite, strong-looking, and vibrant woman with a sunburned face, baseball cap, cigarette, and passion for Janis Joplin. Her children, a son and a daughter, live in Denmark and she has a third grandchild on the way. Though she worked for 15 years as an assistant in a Danish kindergarten, she now goes to the park every day. Regardless of the season, collecting bottles and socializing with her friends in the park is an integral part of her routine. “If there is only one and a half bottles, I’m happy,” she said. She “likes to talk to people” and quickly makes new friends, as she also speaks fluent English, Portuguese, and French. Every day she bikes from her apartment in Emdrup, arrives at the park around 14.00, and leaves around 22.00 when it closes (interview with Clarisse).
Clarisse works alone and spends the money she earns to supplement her pension, although her earnings vary widely. She competes for bottles with other collectors and acknowledged some antagonism between herself and the organized group of Asians who arrived about three years ago. “The Chinese are…never tired…Of course” there is tension she said. However, she works only in Kongens Have because it is safe and she knows many of the visitors who frequent the park. “There are a lot of crazies out there. My life is worth more than one Danish krone.” Clarisse walks quickly around the entire park looking for bottles, picking up trash, and chatting with visitors. She never returns to a group after they have refused to give her bottles. “I never beg for a bottle. I have my pride,” she said (interview with Clarisse). To the annoyance of some guards who enforce the “no biking” rule in Kongens Have, she also periodically rides her bike on the grounds as she moves between groups of drinkers in order to keep up with the “Chinese.” Every so often she also travels to a nearby Netto supermarket to exchange the day’s bottles. The sales manager there, Lisbeth, called Clarisse a “fantastic” customer who is on a first name basis with all the employees. Since she comes into the shop almost every day, during the winter season she also helps out by completing small tasks around the store. Lisbeth chuckled and recalled an incident when a new manager came upon her in the storeroom and kicked her out because only the staff is allowed there. Clarisse was very upset, began to cry, called for Lisbeth, and asked her to explain to the new manager that she was a “special” customer (interview with Lisbeth).
The largest and most talked about but inaccessible group of bottle collectors is the “foreigners.” Although their citizenship statuses and nationalities are ambiguous, there appear to be several different groups of “foreigners” in Kongens Have, all of whom are subjects of much speculation by park visitors and guards. The only “foreign” interviewee who spoke either English or Danish was a Bulgarian woman who wished to remain anonymous. A house cleaner in Bulgaria, she left her husband and came to stay with her sister-in-law in Denmark three months ago. “I want to work here [because] Bulgaria is a very small country, the government is mafia…and the money [in Denmark] is very nice” (interview with Anonymous). She purposefully walked between drinkers in one end of the park. Although she approached several groups of guests, she seemed hesitant to interrupt conversations in order to ask for bottles or engage in an in-depth interview.
Although they could not be interviewed due to a language barrier, a constant and visible presence on sunny days is a group of three to six Asian bottle collectors. Many park visitors and both guards believe they are Chinese, although such speculation could not be confirmed. This group was far more organized than the other bottle collectors. They stored their bottles at a bench near the Gothersgade entrance and seemed to keep at least one group member as a lookout as the others covered the rest of the park grounds. Standing and talking together when few park visitors were present, they rarely exchanged words with park guests or guards. Also eager for bottles, they appeared to race Clarisse and other collectors to bottles when the park was busy. The Asian group also seemed to call for reinforcements when many new drinkers arrived. According to Lisbeth, they exchange their bottles at Netto and interact politely with the store employees. One representative takes the group’s collection of bottles to Netto up to three times a day when the weather is nice (interview with Lisbeth). Thus, the Asian group may earn up to 600 DKK (112 USD) on a good day—perhaps to be shared between them.
Bottle collectors’ role in Danish society:
Although bottle collectors are a diverse group in terms of of nationality, ethnicity, income level, and language, the vast majority all share one thing in common: they seem to be nearly invisible to the public consciousness. Although some interviewees had personal relationships with bottle collectors, very little is known about this group. For example, Copenhagen’s bottle collectors are rarely mentioned in the media. Very few articles in the past five years mentioned bottle collectors, five of which reported attacks on them. Bottle collectors are also almost entirely absent from academic scholarship, and organizations who work in the streets of Copenhagen know very little about them. In addition, police and human rights groups have minimal contact with them. “It’s not illegal to collect bottles,” said Cecelia Decara of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, “I don’t think the police really interact with them” (interview with Decara).
Although bottle collectors are a diverse group in terms of of nationality, ethnicity, income level, and language, the vast majority all share one thing in common: they seem to be nearly invisible to the public consciousness.
But do bottle collectors really stand on the periphery of society? Many interviewees disagreed, describing a “symbiotic relationship” between bottle collectors and Danish society. For example, bottle collectors play an integral role in the social fabric of the park. Thomas and Scott, two Danes who have frequented Kongens Have for the past ten years, have a close relationship with Clarisse. Fondly calling her “our bottle collector,” they said she “has been coming here ever since we can remember.” As such, they have become embroiled in the “turf war” between Clarisse and those they term the “Chinese Mafia.” They seem to resent the more recent arrival of “foreign” competition, claiming that the Asian group has attempted to displace Clarisse. Futhermore, whereas Clarisse cleans up trash in the park and socializes with visitors in exchange for bottles (even sharing a soda with Thomas and Scott), the other bottle collectors rarely exchange a word, perhaps due to a language barrier. Despite frequent requests from other collectors, Thomas and Scott saved all their bottles for Clarisse (interview with Thomas and Scott).
Bottle collectors play an integral role in the social fabric of the park.
Many others echoed the sentiment that bottle collectors are integral to their social networks. A local ALDI cashier described the bottle collectors who frequent the store as “quiet, nice, and polite.” Lisbeth also interacts with the bottle collectors from Kongens Have and perceives them as industrious and polite. Although customers are sometimes annoyed when collectors come in with many bottles, they have developed strategies to minimize a long line at the deposit machine. For example, members of the Asian group step out of line when other customers are waiting, and Clarisse keeps change in her pocket to exchange with customers so they don’t have to wait for her to deposit all of her bottles. Lisbeth thought that, in general, “[bottle collectors] have a function in the park” (interview with Lisbeth).
Cecelia admired the bottle collectors for their ingenuity. “Whenever I see a bottle collector, I don’t feel ashamed. They’re not homeless. They choose bottle collecting. It’s quite smart, actually” (interview with Decara). Others appreciated their role in keeping Copenhagen clean. “I think it’s rather nice they collect bottles,” said university student Elizabeth Haarsted Gramerson. “I would just throw them out otherwise” (interview with Gramerson). As Jan said, “they’re like garbage men” who keep the park clean (interview with Mardell).
In contrast, some interviewees had nearly the opposite perception of bottle collectors: annoying, intrusive, and aggressive. “It’s annoying when they take the crates at festivals because they make good seats,” said university student David Rønnov (interview with Rønnov). One gymnasium student claimed to always refuse to give away her bottles “just on principle” even though she rarely deposited the bottles herself because bottle collectors are too annoying and aggressive (interview with Anonymous). Christian Von Huth, another visitor, resents bottle collectors because he has to hide his empty beer bottles in a plastic bag in order to avoid being asked for them (interview with Von Huth). His friend Philip claimed that he sometimes refused to give away any bottles simply because collectors interrupted conversations by distracting his attention from a good time. “When I’m sitting with eight people and bottle collectors come, they interrupt an interesting conversation. We just want them to come back later, but they don’t understand that they’re stopping an entire discussion because they don’t speak Danish. But when people come to you with their poverty, then you have to discuss that afterwards. The discussion just can’t continue as before. You have to discuss the development of bottle collectors” (interview with Hansen).
Others believed that the bottle collectors are at the bottom rung of the Danish social hierarchy and drew connections between bottle collectors and other marginalized people in society, such as homeless people and immigrants. “They don’t have any money” said gymnasium student Emilie Petersen. “They’re not from Denmark so maybe they have to earn money by collecting bottles.” Several of her friends also speculated that bottle collectors must be Greenlanders or “foreigners” because they rarely speak Danish or interact with park visitors aside from bottle-related transactions (interview with Petersen and friends). “[The language is] important,” said another park visitor, Morten Vedersø, “they don’t speak Danish.” He implied that a language barrier inhibited bottle collectors from becoming integrated into the rest of Danish society, thus forcing them to make a living on the margins (interview with Vedersø). Guard Jan agreed that a language barrier prevented meaningful communication with the Chinese bottle collectors in Kongens Have, since they have been especially shy and reserved whenever he has attempted to approach them (interview with Mardell). Gymnasium student Mathias Sprogøe speculated that a lack of language skills might indicate that many bottle collectors are in Denmark illegally, a hypothesis that many interviewees shared (interview with Sprogøe). Although Clarisse confirmed her citizenship status, mere rumors among park observers cannot provide any serious insight into that of other bottle collectors (interview with Clarisse). Nevertheless, such speculation about the citizenship status of bottle collectors in Kongens Have shares an undertone of fear and xenophobia with other debates about “foreigners” in Denmark such as Muslim integration and asylum policy.
“Bottle collectors are a new phenomenon,” said university student Lasse Scheby Johnsen. “They seem to represent a new underclass in Denmark.” Although Lasse had himself collected bottles as a sixteen-year-old festival attendant, he drew a distinction between himself and the bottle collectors in the park. “I collected bottles because beer in the festivals was expensive. [The bottle collectors] remind us that there are people who are poor” (interview with Johnsen). Cecelia noted that bottle collectors would not be legally considered a vulnerable group, albeit they may be socially vulnerable. She speculated that pride might be an issue because “bottle collecting is one of the lowest jobs” (interview with Decara). Morten speculated that a person would have to find a bottle every two minutes just to make an “okay salary.” However, he implied that it might be worth it for poor people with a low opportunity cost. “It might be okay for people on a low income,” he said (interview with Vedersø).
What do human rights have to do with it?
This paper began by asking if bottle collectors truly constitute an “invisible minority” in Denmark. Although it found that, in fact, bottle collectors often do occupy the periphery of public consciousness—literally waiting outside the groups of drinkers in the park—it also found that many of those in Kongens Have are integral to the park’s social networks and everyday operations. In some cases, such as Clarisse, bottle collectors are truly integrated, in contrast to the vulnerable groups society might otherwise identify them with. In other cases, such as the non-Danish-speaking “foreigners,” some bottle collectors do seem to be a socially marginalized minority.
Regardless of the bottle collector’s status, two things are clear. First, Copenhagen’s bottle collectors are a seriously underresearched group. Very little is known about them, and there is much opportunity to better understand their personal stories, their interactions with others, and their positions in society. This investigation attempts to ask who the bottle collectors are, and to examine whether a trend towards invisibility reveals fault lines in Danish society. Even if bottle collectors are not a minority in the legal sense, does a position on the periphery threaten to allow less visible members of the vulnerable groups they include—homeless, pensioners, and “foreigners”—to fall through the cracks? A week and a half devoted to bottle collectors in only one park during a Danish summer monsoon revealed far more questions than answers. Despite this, ironically, everyone seems to have an opinion about them. Ranging from fierce loyalty to deep suspicion, bottle collectors elicit strong opinions and great curiosity when others do pay attention.
Perhaps bottle collectors don’t have much to do with human rights, especially as traditionally defined. But in a country like Denmark, where respect for fundamental human rights tends to be the norm, understanding the dynamics that affect social inclusion or exclusion of vulnerable communities enables Danes to be vigilant against potential human rights abuses. Whether or not bottle collectors qualify as a minority group, omission may lead to negligence. And in order to maintain a norm of respect for fundamental human rights in Denmark, that means being especially attentive to those on the periphery.
Borger [Citizen] Information, http://www.borger.dk, June 27, 2007.
“Children Round up Roskilde’s Refuse,” The Copenhagen Post Online June 29, 2005, http://www.cphpost.dk/get/88947.html.
Dansk Retursystem, http://www.dansk-retursystem.dk, June 26, 2007.
“Kiosk canned drink deposit rip-off,” The Copenhagen Post Online July 7, 2002, http://www.cphpost.dk/get/64066.html.
Infomedia Database, http://www.infomedia.dk (June 22, 2007)
“Unemployed to be used as clean up squads,” The Copenhagen Post Online June 25, 1998, http://www.cphpost.dk/get/55524.html.
Anonymous, ALDI cashier (June 21, 2007)
Anonymous, Nyhavn bottle collector (June 24, 2007)
Anonymous, Kongens Have bottle collector (June 26, 2007)
Ask Svejstrup, SAND Country Secretary (June 22, 2007)
Bo Jochimsen, Projekt UDENFOR (June 26, 2007)
Cecelia Decara, Danish Institute for Human Rights (June 25, 2007)
Clarisse, Kongens Have bottle collector (June 21, 2007)
David Rønnov, Elizabeth Haarsted Gramersen, and Lasse Scheby Johnsen, Kongens Have visitors (June 25, 2007)
Emilie Petersen, Mathias Sprogøe, and friends, Kongens Have visitors (June 26, 2007)
Jan Mardell, Kongens Have Guard (June 26, 2007)
Lisbeth, Netto Sales Manager (June 21, 2007)
Mogens Iversen, Kongens Have guard (June 21, 2007)
Peter Halkjær, Ældresagen (June 28, 2007)
Philip Volmer L. Hansen, Morten Vedersø, and Christian Von Huth, Kongens Have visitors (June 26, 2007)
Scott, Thomas, Joe, and friends, Kongens Have park visitors (June 20, 2007)