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Do bottle deposits draw Europe’s homeless to Denmark?

 
Copenhagen’s mayor wants to make the bottle deposit system cashless to deter Europe’s homeless. But experts argue they will keep coming as long as poverty persists across the continent

Bottles and cans rarely end up in Danish landfills, thanks in large part to the pant deposit system. At between one and two kroner per container, it’s enough of an incentive that Danes turn in just over a billion recyclable and single-use glass and plastic bottles and aluminium cans every year.

In the summer, you’re likely to see bottles and cans abandoned in parks and beside bins on city streets. But it’s not simply because Danes are too lazy to turn them in – it’s because they know that someone will be around to pick them up.

Often, Danish homeless perform this service to earn a meagre living. But in recent years, they have been joined by foreign homeless, who subsist almost entirely on the redemption of pant deposits.

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Copenhagen’s Lord Mayor, Frank Jensen, thinks the situation is unsustainable, and has called for a reform of the pant system to make Denmark a less attractive destination for Europe’s homeless.

“They camp out in the city’s streets and parks, where they live miserable lives and create insecurity. Collecting pant is a business for many of them,” Jensen, a member of the Social Democratic party (Socialdemokraterne), told Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

“The pant system is a brilliantly-conceived way to support recycling and reduce pollution. But it was never meant to be a way of supporting Europe’s poor migrants and the miserable street life they live.”

New pant system
First introduced in 1947 to encourage recycling, the pant system has been a great success and has won international praise. Now managed by the non-profit company Dansk Retursystemet, around 90 percent of all pant-labelled cans and bottles are turned in each year, amounting to around 450,000 tons of glass, plastic and aluminium.

Besides encouraging Danish consumers to recycle, the pant system has also become a means of subsistence for the homeless.

The solution, says Jensen, is to make the system cashless. Currently, discarded cans and bottles can be delivered to automatic pant machines in supermarkets that print out a receipt that can be exchanged for cash in the shop.

Instead, Jensen argues, the receipts should count only as store credit. If the sum spent in the store is less than the amount of the receipt, the remaining sum would be lost. Changing the system requires an act of parliament, so Jensen has asked the government to look into his proposal.

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Copenhagen deputy mayor for health and care, Ninna Thomsen of the Socialist People’s Party (SF), agrees that the city needs to address its growing population of foreign homeless. But in a post on Facebook, Thomsen writes that she isn’t sure that reforming the pant system is the solution.

“The foreigners who end up becoming homeless in our city have come here for various reasons and they stay in the city for various reasons. No doubt about it. It’s a human tragedy and an expression of Europe’s poverty problem. That’s why we need common EU solutions,” she wrote.

“Frank Jensen’s proposal is an attempt to find a solution, and I approve of that. I approve of it because I can see that the problem is getting out of hand.”

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Photo: Aleksander Klug

Scapegoating pant
According to the homeless organisation Projekt Udenfor, the free movement of labour within the EU, its expansion in 2004 and 2007, and the ensuing economic recession all contributed to the increase in the number of homeless migrants in Copenhagen.

The employees of Projekt Udenfor support the city’s homeless by making contact with them on the street and offering relevant services to address their psychological or addiction issues.

Bo Heide-Jochimsen, one of Projekt Udenfor’s outreach workers, doesn’t think Jensen’s proposal will do much to reduce the number of homeless foreign migrants in Denmark.

READ MORE: Designing homelessness away

“Pant is being scapegoated. The truth is that these people will come here either way, and pant has nothing to do with it. It’s a social problem, one which no reform or proposed law offers a real solution to,” says Heide-Jochimsen, adding that increased anti-homeless legislation introduced over the past six years has done nothing to bring down numbers.

“More people have actually come. Worsening their quality of life has no effect.”

Lack of work
DanChurchSocial (Kirkens Korshær) provides an information service, Kompasset, for undocumented migrants in Denmark. Nikolaj Thorborg, a staff member, argues that Jensen’s proposal relies on a misunderstanding of who the foreign homeless are and why they are in the country.

“The assumption that they come here simply to collect pant bottles and cans is wrong,” he says.

“They come because they don’t have a job, and they hope to find one here. When they don’t, they have to live on the street. But they come with the simple goal of becoming self-supporting,” he said, adding that they will continue to come as long as the EU has free movement of people.

“Reforming the pant system won’t solve the issue of poverty in Europe. Instead, it will make these people more desperate. Taking pant from them only denies them yet another opportunity when they have so few.”

READ MORE: Neglected and invisible – Life as a Greenlander in Denmark

He explains that one of the central problems of homeless people is that they don’t have any rights until they get a job and start to pay taxes. While they look for work, they can find it hard to find a place to live, which makes them even more vulnerable.

“They don’t have a right to a roof over their head, no health insurance and no meals. They need help, especially in the form of access to information – information about the job market, their rights and their opportunities, help to become a stable citizen, or help to go somewhere else.”

After working closely with migrants, Thorborg argues that what is most acutely needed is a basic service where migrants can seek advice about finding work.

“A lot of information is only available in Danish, which makes their situation even worse. Help is vital so they can avoid ending up on Danish streets.”

Heide-Jochimsen agrees.

“These people who are so poor that they will cross borders to live on the street – they will keep doing so even when there is no pant system to give them money. It’s an expression of poverty and desperation, not organised criminals exploiting a system,” he says, calling for investment in institutions that can help the homeless get off the street.

Ultimately, tackling the problem of foreign homeless in Denmark will require cooperation between EU states in order to prevent migrants being shuffled from country to country – and in that, Denmark should take the lead.

“We actually have solutions here in Denmark. We know from years of experience how to help homeless people get off the streets. So why not use that knowledge to make life better for more people?” M

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By Sophie Stenner Frahm

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