Collecting Empties in Copenhagen: Recycling or Sport?


Good weather is not a matter of course in Copenhagen. Precipitation is evenly distributed over the year. 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 Vesterbrogade Street. A large thermometer, adorning one street corner, fails to climb up to two decorative golden ladies — one on a bicycle, the other carrying 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 cafés, 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.

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 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 world 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.

If champagne bottles brought in a deposit, collectors would certainly approach the newlyweds. Two of them — a male couple — are just leaving the Wedding Hall with their wedding papers in a red envelope. Family and friends receive them with flying rice and champagne.

Climbing the City Hall clock tower is incompatible with alcohol consumption. The view is impressive, though, and includes the entire Copenhagen area as well as the Øresund Bridge. The huge clock right above is a national symbol whose bells take over every Danish radio at 12 a.m.

Nearly 1.7 million people live in the greater Copenhagen area, making this Danish city a bustling metropolis.
Nearly 1.7 million people live in the greater Copenhagen area, making this Danish city a bustling metropolis.

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!”

If You Go

The Official Travel Guide to Denmark