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Collecting Empties in Copenhagen

Collecting returnable bottles and cans to make some money on the side is a popular sport in Denmark, peaking on hot summer days, with the City Hall Square in Copenhagen as its foremost arena.

The spacious shell-shaped square is lined with green benches, 80 in total, every other one equipped with a circular trash bin. That means 40 possibilities of finding empties that once contained beer or mineral water, fizzy drinks or alcopops. Most people don't care about the deposit they paid, especially after drinking alcohol, the intake of which is another traditional Danish sport.

Searching for empties is a free-for-all. What it takes is a plastic bag or two. However, many work on a larger scale making use of rucksacks and little trolleys. A certain degree of discretion is appropriate, but that comes automatically, as collecting is not exactly prestigious, although recycling is one side of it. Often, it's a sport you choose out of necessity, due to unemployment and low welfare payments.

People on the benches react differently when the collectors approach: some look the other way, displaying embarrassment and disdain, others get irritated because the relentless collectors never tire and also empty out residue on the flagstones. A third group curiously follows the collectors' endeavors, while a few drink up and hand them their beverage containers. Gathering reusables is definitely not a spectator sport.

Sun versus Rain

The City Hall Square is perfect for taking a break on a sunny day, surrounded by fine old buildings up to 5-6 floors high plus a few modern exceptions. Most spectacular is the City Hall, inspired by Italian Renaissance and completed in 1905, with the tallest tower of all in this city of slender towers. The dark glass building opposite is an oversized ticket-office for the yellow local busses. But its most important function you will find downstairs: public toilets.

Good weather is not a matter of course in Copenhagen. On wet days, the City Hall Square is dominated by the flow of cars on either side of it and a stream of umbrellas moving across it between the pedestrian mall Stroget and the street of Vesterbrogade opposite. A large thermometer, adorning one street corner, fails to climb up to two decorative golden ladies, one on a bicycle, the other under an umbrella. The figurines are supposed to be out one at a time depending on the weather, which is so ever-changing and unpredictable that they often decide to stay in their doorways.

The picture changes completely on a warm and sunny day, when the Square is invaded by happy faces thirsting for beer and sunshine, to the delight of those collecting bottles and cans. The empties originate from two open-air cafes, three hot-dog stands, an ice cream vendor and a 7-Eleven across the street. Despite the alcohol consumption, the overall atmosphere is peaceful, except for an unsettled battle between evil and good in the water-spouting Dragon Fountain.

Eye for Business

The collectors might be expected to circle around searching the trash bins one by one, but they do not. Each has his or her special strategy, depending on where the crowd is and where their fellows are in action. One of the most faithful is a short elderly woman, possibly from Greenland, wrapped up in dark trousers and a long grey jacket, a scarf on her head and a straw hat on top of it. She is always mumbling, either because of her apparently aching feet, discontentment with her yield or Danish society in general.

Carlsberg, the renowned Danish brewery, does its best to stimulate people's thirst - by advertising on the building facades and by having two strong horses, with long fair manes, slowly pull an old-fashioned brewer's dray past. Others are more modest in their money-making efforts, like three boys who unfold a black-and-white dance floor for their breakdance routine, soon outdone by three Latin American men on flutes and guitar and a girl selling their CD's. Others still are probably paid by the Municipal Summer Entertainment, like the folk dancers and Ronny Ronson's "Maximum Rock 'n' Fun" scheduled later.

If champagne bottles brought in a deposit, the collectors would certainly approach the newly-weds, two of them a male couple, leaving the Wedding Hall with their wedding papers in a red envelope. Family and friends receive them with flying rice and champagne. Even Hans Christian Andersen greets them as they drive away, some in a white limousine. Looking dreamily up from his plinth - his head turned towards Tivoli, the amusement park nearby - he seems happily unaware of how exploited he is this particular year, his 200th anniversary.

Collecting with Style

Climbing the City Hall Tower is incompatible with alcohol consumption. Nor is ascending it recommended for those collecting bottles and cans, as seeing their colleagues in perspective, digging into the trash bins, could ruin their own self-esteem. The view is impressive, though, and includes the entire Copenhagen area and the Oresund Bridge to Sweden. The huge clock right above is a national symbol whose bells take over every Danish radio at 12 a.m., and makes everybody stand up in front of their TV on New Year's Eve to sing and drink to the coming year.

Suddenly one day, Christmas carols are heard. Santas from Denmark and abroad gather every summer for a convention at Bakken; the oldest amusement park in the world, situated north of Copenhagen. Led by a band, they now emerge from Stroget, heading for the City Hall to eat pancakes with the Chief Mayor. Far more generous than the Santas, when it comes to leaving empties behind, are the "roligans", thirsty football supporters who invade the square whenever the nation's honor is at stake, equipped with red and white claphats allowing them to clap without interrupting their intake of beer, while watching the match on a huge screen.

Collecting empties can actually be done with style and without losing one's self-respect. A middle-aged lady, accompanied by her tiny dog, seems quite pleased with the way things are. Sporting dark-dyed hair, lots of gold in her ears and dressed in purple trousers and an elegant dark jacket, she roams the square with a trolley and two big cases. She knows that collecting bottles and cans, like any other sport, requires enthusiasm to give results. "G'day!" she beams, truly proud that one case is already full. "I did that in just one hour!"