Ukraine, May 18, 1999
Psst! Pass me that empty bottleYou see them all the time, I know you do. You watch them scurry about, looking in trashcans, under park benches, and behind trees. You wonder why they eye your beer so closely, judging by the angle you drink at, how close you are to what they want: your bottle. Yes, I'm talking about the babushki and random dadushki who collect bottles all over Ukraine. Last night, I went wandering around Kyiv talking with the collectors, when they would pause a moment from their search, about their "hobby," as on collector called it.
First, there is money in them there bottles! Each, clean, unbroken and unchipped bottle is worth 10 kopecks, or 2.5 cents, USD. Not much in the great scheme of things, but it adds up for a pensioner making 50 grevner a month. As Anna Petrovna explained to me between dashes for a bottle or two, she's given 50 grevner a month as a pensioner, and her apartment costs 56 grevner a month. She did make a point of telling me that butter was 11 grevner for a kilo, but I'm not sure what she does with all that masla, I don't even eat the stuff myself.
With her apartment and masla costs, she goes out two or three times a week to Independence Square, with her two granddaughters to collect bottles. Anna does all right, collecting around 50 bottles in a few hours, for her and her grandchildren to carry to one of the collection points in the city. Her clothes were not new, she is thinner than most babushki, and with that masla addiction, she doesn't seem like she gets ahead of her expenses and she sure wasn't gonna tell me even if she did!
She did tell me that Independence Square was open to all comers though, which surprised me. I would've bet a few bottles that there would be a "Bottle Krisha" that would control prime locations around the city, doling out times and days to babushki in exchange for protection from the police and local thugs. When I asked Anna if she had a set time and place, and if there was a set order to who proceeded and followed her, she just laughed. Just then, she reached her quota for the night, and she handed me a packet. "Why don't you work for your next beer," she said as she walked off into the night with her two granddaughters, each loaded down with bags clinking as they walked.
Later, I followed Ivan down Khreschatyk, as he used a lighter to look in trashcans for discarded bottles. When I told him I was writing about his hobby, he was adamant that I point out that he did not spend his bottle money on booze. He actually had several good recommendations for those who do and are happy to support the efficient recycling program involved:
- Don't throw your bottles into the trashcans, they can break, cutting the collectors or the sanitation workers.
- Do leave the bottles next to the bins, but out of the way of other pedestrians.
- Don't stuff trash into the bottles, the collectors have to dig it out to be paid for the bottle.
- Do drink all the beer, or pour it onto the grass, so collectors don't get a wet surprise.
- Don't tease a collector, or walk around with an empty bottle. They have dignity and tempers too.
- Do set your bottle on the ground, or had it to a collector when your done.