Original article written for The Local Denmark, available here
With over one million litres of beer consumed at your average Roskilde Festival, the mess from empty cans and bottles left behind is an issue that draws attention every year. Yet the revenue that can be generated by collecting and recycling the receptacles is significant, thanks to the Danish deposit system.
That promise of money literally being tossed on the ground draws hundreds of can collectors – many from Africa and the Roma community – to the festival each year. It’s estimated that a single collector can make up to 60,000 kroner in deposit money over the course of the full eight days.
Collectors can make good money, but they have to navigate an unregulated environment. Photo: Bobby Anwar
Yet the life of a can collector, whilst well-paid and tax free, is anything but comfortable. Amongst the maddening crowds and mosh pit frenzies they bend, laden with plastic bags filled with empty soda and beer containers. Theirs is a life amongst an underclass in an world whose rules are far from fairly regulated.
Invariably, their work is not without racist abuse from time to time. Yet despite the grumblings of some festival guests, these collectors keep the Roskilde grounds and their environs far cleaner than they otherwise would be.
Like many a festival-goer, I will admit that it can be annoying to have bags of dripping beer spilled on one’s clothes whilst enjoying a good show or relaxing on the camping grounds. And the pressure of having a can collector waiting anxiously for one to down their beverage does create some frustration. All the same, the mess from all the merrymaking needs to be cleaned by someone at some point.
Meet Peter from Nigeria
In an attempt to understand the world of can collection, I spent some time with Peter, a bottle collector from Nigeria, who collected cans at Roskilde for the first time this year. I followed him around the camping grounds for a short while, as he introduced me to his working routine and shared some of his thoughts on the nature of his work.
Peter from Nigeria spends up to fifteen hours a day collecting cans. “Some festival guests are aggressive,” he says. Photo: Allan Kortbæk
“The festival is amazing but at the same time I’m working a lot, sometimes up to fifteen hours a day,” he said. “There’s good money to be made here but you have to work a lot for it.”
“What is the most difficult part of your job?”
“Sometimes when you approach people – I can’t call them clients because we’re not selling, you know – some are aggressive. This is normal, somehow we are inferior to them. We have to be strong so we don’t feel the impact of this.”
“There is also the fact that we have to return a maximum of 50 pieces per empty sack. When you’re out collecting, you don’t have time to think about this so you have to sort thing out a lot afterwards.”
I shadow Peter for a short while as he makes his rounds in the Roskilde Festival West camping area. On this brief journey, we manage to gather a few isolated cans and the odd bottle. The camping area is at its quietest, so this is fairly straightforward and without trouble. Peter remarks that this is not always the case, however, stating that it is obviously more difficult to collect cans when the party is in full swing.
The collectors work all areas of the festival, from the campgrounds to the areas right in front of the stages. Photo: Bobby Anwar
Collectors get their own VIP lounge
So the life of a can collector, at least from Peter’s perspective, is not without its challenges, even though, as he contends, there is good money to be made.
This year, Roskilde attempted to mitigate some of the challenges posed by the can collection process. I took a look at one of them, the VIP can collector lounge in the Art Zone. A product of the well-known artistic group Superflex, the Flagship Shelters/Bottle Collectors VIP project features several shelters made on designs based on the flagship stores of major fashion brands such as Prada and Miu Miu. The shelters are made from cheaper materials and downscaled from the original extravagant designs, in an aim to create a discourse on matters of consumption, social injustice and resource prioritization. The area is well staffed and frequented by many a bottle collector though the main lounge area does have more tired festival-goers than bottle collectors lying around.
Photo: Bobby Anwar
The bottle collectors were given their own VIP lounge in the Art Zone, which doubled as an art installation at night. Photos: Allan Kortbæk
On the surface, some of the issues of can collection are indeed raised by this installation. However, most of the festival-goers I met here seemed comfortably unaware of what it was and the palpable gap between can collectors and Roskilde festival’s guests was still painfully apparent.
This is not to say that the efforts of the festival should not be credited. Compared to previous years, Roskilde has indeed made significant attempts to address the issue of can collection, for example by ensuring that refund points are well staffed and that the process is more regulated. The issue is indeed in focus, but can more be done to address the fundamental problem areas?
Throughout the eight-day party, the guests and the collectors complete a symbiosis as can after can is opened, drank, disposed of, collected and returned.
While Roskilde’s 100,000-plus crowd kept the good times rolling, can collectors like Peter continued to earn their keep beneath their dancing feet.
Collectors can earn as much as 60,000 kroner over the course of the festival. Photo: Allan Kortbæk