Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mudlarks, Dumpster Divers, and Pfand-collectors

A London Mudlark ankle deep in refuse.
As long as the big city has been around, there has existed an underclass of citizens that – out of sheer poverty and necessity – works to recycle the waste of those classes living above it. They create economies and markets in the deepest, darkest and rankest places, making use of the things the super rich, the rich, the middle class, and the 'normal' poor have tossed. The practice is as old as humankind, and it continues in the modern metropolis – even in Germany.

But let's look first at England. Early Modern London had it's proud class of 'Mudlarks', plodding the muddy and silty mouth of the Thames at low tide for anything that could be scavenged and resold. From half-broken corn cob pipes to discarded food to bones, the Mudlarks sifted through garbage, excrement, animal and human remains, and worse to reap their harvest. Most Mudlarks were robust youngsters (which shouldn't surprise us given that most never reached their 20th birthday even if they grew up in luxurious circumstances), often orphaned or deserted, or at least without a skilled trade. Their tales have been told in 19th century novels such as Poor Jack, and more recently in Neal Stephenson's stellar Baroque Cycle, where main character Jack Shaftoe begins his adventurous journey through life as a garbage sifter and general ruffian in and around the Thames River. Amazingly, this job was legitimately seen as having a set of advantages not enjoyed by other professions, such as freedom to set one's own hours, being one's own boss in general, and working outside in the 'fresh' air. Their story also comes up in a book I've already mentioned, Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map. Here, the author talks about the decline of the Mudlark profession as London city planners eventually decided to re-direct human and material waste away from the river. The decision notably had nothing to do with the fact that the planners were concerned that city's river had the consistency of a hearty Hungarian goulash; rather, they simply wished to monetize waste materials. This included collecting and spreading London's massive supply of human excrement over the city's surrounding fields. In doing so, planners vastly improved the health of the city's iconic waterway and it's populace (which drew it's drinking water from the river), but also induced the decline of the Mudlark trade.

So centuries later, the urban waste bins of yesteryear – rivers and canals – have given way to today's rubbish bins, and instead of the Mudlarks, we now have Dumpster Divers. Lucky for them, city-dwellers no longer discard excrement and corpses in the same places they discard their household goods, food and clothing, making dumpster diving a marginally less pungent exercise. "The Local", an expat magazine here in Berlin, recently did a piece on the growing popularity of dumpster diving as a kind of sport. The mission: recover, eat, and yes, enjoy some of the 11 million tons of food discarded annually in Berlin. The interesting development with dumpster diving is that people aren't really doing it because they must, but "because they should", according to the Local's article. They're simply trying to do their part in reducing the massive waste by food service industries and the population at large, and by strict laws guiding product consumption and expiration dates. As long as one doesn't care if his/her fruit is sharing space with egg shells, dirty socks and half-eaten steaks, one can probably live solely off dumpster-dived rations.

A Pfand-collectors wet dream.
This brings me to my final example of the modern-day urban recycling economy, and it surrounds the Pfand system I describe in my previous post. Nearly all glass or plastic products are sold with a return fee, which can be redeemed by using Automaten in every grocery store. Now, most true Germans among the Berliners obediently return their own bottles on a schedule as timely as the Deutsche Bahn used to be. However, being a city with an enormous number of tourists, non-Germans and party-goers, many of these Pfandflaschen get discarded in bins or on the ground all over the city (there is no open-bottle ban in Germany!). The result: an extremely robust and efficient bottle-recycling program headed by those in need, but increasingly by not-so-poor hobbyists. These two groups are joined by many of Berlin's seniors, who have recently borne the brunt of fundamental changes in the German social security programs, and are thus left trying to supplement their insufficient retirement support from the state (the viability and effectiveness of the Hartz reforms are the subject for another blog post).

This brings me to my personal experiences with the Pfand Collectors: The last time I was at the ever-popular Görlitzer Park having a beer with a friend, the packed public park felt like a full-service outdoor bar, where empty beer bottles were promptly cleared by roaming collectors toting their bags on rollers. It even began to border on the overly attentive service one often gets in U.S. restaurants; collectors began to pester you for your bottles despite the fact you were in mid-swallow. I would venture to guess that any Pfand bottle in Berlin really only spends around 10-20 minutes in the garbage, on the ground, or in one's hand before the next collector comes along to swipe it. The best place to observe the sheer scope of the Pfand industry in Berlin, though, is to go to one of the few supermarkets that are open on Sunday (e.g. at the Hauptbahnhof or Friedrichstrasse) – following a long night (and morning) of revelry at the myriad clubs. Like trick-or-treaters with garbage bags full of candy, collectors wait in the queue to cash in their haul.

Treasure hunting in Wedding.
In the end, regardless of the motivations behind those participating, the recycling economies of big cities will certainly continue on. As long as there are rich and wasteful people who have more than they need, there will be those to swoop in, happy to make use of discarded goods. I don't see this changing anytime soon. Though the poorest cities in the world doubtless have much more complex and elaborate underground recycling markets, I find Berlin's particularly interesting if for no other reason than – despite having an ample population of people living in poverty – so many seem to be engaging in it purely for sport.

Update: it seems that New York has also become a popular spot for can collecting, in this case due to job losses in the industrial sector. Listen to this interesting and sad story at NPR.