Giving the homeless a helping ‘pfand’

Germany's Recycling Scheme
Germany’s Recycling Scheme

Traveling can truly open your eyes to the extraordinary, and often overlooked differences between supposedly similar regions. Take for example, the different drinking cultures to be found in my homeland of England, and my current home of Germany. Here in Deutschland, the cheapest beers will set you a back a mere sixty cents, and, conforming to strict quality standards, (unlike K Cider), they will not fill you with an intense urge to head for the nearest porcelain bowl. The German ‘Prost’ must be accompanied with eye-contact; whilst in England, we chink our glasses with our eyes fixed firmly on the glass at hand. More importantly, drinking in Germany also serves a not insignificant social purpose, through the institution of the Pfand, or a small supplement on the price of a glass bottle designed to encourage recycling.

Recycling of beer bottles is by no means unique to Germany: but what I haven’t failed to notice is the way in which it has been completely integrated into drinking culture. In my city of Leipzig, from the moment winter finally came to an end this year in mid-April, at any time of the day you would be certain to find crowds of bubbly revellers throwing open air parties throughout the city’s extensive forestlands, hitting bottle after bottle of Sternburg, Ur-Krostitzer and Club Maté. In supermarkets and off-licences, practically all alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are sold in glasses – indeed, any German will be happy to inform you how this is the only acceptable way of consuming liquids, rather than our brutish habits of tin cans. As the festive detritus piles up on the grass, homeless and unemployed people can be seen hoovering up bottles for collection. On a sunny day you can even expect to be approached, mid-gulp, with the sort of pestering attentiveness usually expected from American diners, waiting to take the freshly emptied container.

No one pretends that such solutions are the golden bullet in tackling poverty. Indeed, even with a bicycle overburdened with bin bags full of bottles of beer, one can expect at most ten euros for several hours of work combing the fields. Indeed, I am just as suspicious as the next person at the idea of fighting poverty by turning the poor into a class of bottom-feeders, meagrely supporting themselves with the discarded waste of those above.

But then again, this notion can be turned on its head: for as long as people are consuming over and above their material needs, it seems wasteful not to, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, “include the cure in the poison itself.” This solution seems most appropriate for a town like Oxford, where obscene College budgets for fine wines and never-ending cocktail events occur side by side with one of England’s largest per-capita homeless populations. As Günther explains, “People just throw away the bottles anyway, so why not make a bit of money out of it?” For many of Germany’s worst-off, the Pfand can mean the difference between going to sleep hungry or with a belly full of Bratwurst: and that’s the most significant difference between Leipzig and Oxford.