Bottle Collectors: Advancing Self and Society
A decade ago, while gathering data for her dissertation on the culture of recycling in her native Germany, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Judith Pajo would “follow the garbage,” tracing its path from households all the way to composting and recycling facilities. At the time, she did not think much about the collectors, the women and men rummaging through urban waste collecting the bottles and cans later to be exchanged for cash.
Although she did not notice them before, that changed when she moved to New York, and apartment living and the sights and sounds of the city inevitably drew her to her apartment window. It was a perfect vantage point from which to observe her neighborhood’s bottle and can collectors, their patterns, the informal economy of sorts around the refund value of beverage containers, and the spirited individuals at the helm of these enterprises.
Why study this population? Says Pajo, “As an anthropologist, I feel it’s important to talk to people and give a voice to those who are misunderstood and misrepresented.”
Her current research has thus centered on challenging the negative societal beliefs that the can and bottle collectors are scavengers who live on trash and neither contribute to society nor possess any skills. These beliefs, according to Pajo, fail to understand the true nature of their economic activity. Instead, her fieldwork revealed them more accurately to be recycling entrepreneurs, who not only pursue money, but also social standing and human dignity.
Pajo maintains that their entrepreneurism had traditional business tenets at its core. Namely, a creative pursuit of opportunity and an assumption of risk. They exhibited creativity, for example, in charting out strategies on the most advantageous timing of collection and sequencing of streets to cover. During the course of their efforts, they assumed the risk of being labeled as scavengers, or worse.
Agents of urban sustainability
“These individuals make a choice,” says Pajo. “They want to contribute to society, not be apart from it.” In interviews with the collectors, she found that many took pride in earning their keep, as opposed to relying on social assistance programs.
Her studies also found that recycling entrepreneurs were agents who advance the cause of urban sustainability. They, in fact, make a difference, removing refund value beverage containers from society’s waste stream that would otherwise end up in landfills or incinerators.
Pajo’s work has inspired students who are interested in doing research on recycling practices, and she has received funding from Dyson College and the university for undergraduate student research with them. For example, AliReza Vaziri ’14, Film and Screen Studies, conducted participant observation with dumpster divers, and Jessica Lagoutte ’14, Environmental Studies, researched recycling laws. She continues to work with students on independent research projects revolving around problems of recycling and urban sustainability.
Pajo’s research certainly places a different light on the activities of bottle collectors, society’s most unexpected of entrepreneurs. We look forward to hearing more about her and her students’ research on this topic, and the evolution of recycling entrepreneurship as it relates to urban sustainability.