Paper long abstract:
Today it is inevitable to walk through a German city without noticing people rummaging through trash cans. Even though this behavior is associated with poverty and homelessness, the appearance of these people, at first glance, do not conform to the homeless. They are looking for returnable bottles and cans. The legal context for this activity is a law that came into effect in 2006, concerning the organization of the return and compensation for every kind of bottle or can. There is almost no research on returnable-item collectors for welfare states like Germany, even though recycling is well studied in the context of less developed countries.
The project explores the collectors strategies of "doing-being-inconspicuous" during their activities by using ethnography. These strategies can be explained, besides others, as a reaction to neoliberal urban policies. Growing tendencies to keep commercial areas free from undesirable intruders, i.e. people who lack purchasing power, are prevalent in almost every German city these days. The motivation for bottle-collectors to act inconspicuously is furthered by trying to avoid the social stigma. Nonetheless, bottle-collecting remains highly visible. As bottle-collecting relies on the public space, wherein valuable trash is discarded, the highly frequented inner city areas form a social space of an interface between bottle-collectors and bottle-consumers. This interplay in the public space between people of differing classes, discloses modern phenomena of urban inequality: the case of bottle-collectors touches upon attempts of masking poverty in the public sphere.
Shaping urban inequalities: space and power in the city