Glass packaging allowed you to earn extra money – this is how collection points operated in Poland

  • Second-hand bottle pools were already operating in the interwar period.
  • In the 1950s and 1960s and even 80 percent of the bottles of alcohol sold were recycled.
  • Despite the fact that in the People's Republic of Poland there was a great number of bottle collection points, it was not easy to find an active point that accepted all types of glass packaging.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

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Bottle selling in the People's Republic of Poland was considered one of the few private initiatives available to children and adults. However, this low-budget "business" was not a bed of roses - sometimes you had to go through several collection points to get rid of the glass weight from the nets and bags.

Every home celebration in the People's Republic of Poland, and sometimes even the visit of a single guest, stirred the imagination of the youngest children, who quickly calculated in their minds how much they would "earn" on empty vodka bottles. Some kids didn't even wait until the bottle was empty - they poured the contents into the sink and ran to exchange the glass for a zloty. In those days, a parental scolding including the rod could be tolerated. Parties and balls, especially New Year's Eve or May 1st celebrations, organized at workplaces, where alcohol was poured in streams, were also a large source of bottled loot.

"The witness states that on the next day, while cleaning the rooms and corridors, he collected up to 20 vodka bottles, and he doesn't remember how many wine bottles he collected because he resold them for 25 zlotys. - The finale of the New Year's Eve party was described in one of the investigators' reports from 1953, quoted in the book History of Drunkenness in the People's Republic of Poland by Krzysztof Kosiński. A considerable amount of money was also hidden in garbage dumps, which were again and again combed through by collectors of waste paper, bottles, and various parts for everything. And it was not a shame. The state was involved in the action of buying bottles, calling for glass recycling through all possible media, despite the fact that the system of buying, to put it mildly, raised many objections. And in fact, it was based on a number of absurdities, often described by journalists.

The intervention of Monika Olejnik in the early 1980s, who, following a telephone call from a listener complaining about the selective acceptance of bottles, decided to talk to the manager of one of the bottle centers, accompanied by reporters of the Polish Film Chronicle, gained great popularity. The manager of the buying office admitted that bottles from Miranda, Pepsi Cola, and imported wines are rejected because they do not fit into the accepted parameters.

"Is it right that we do not buy all glass packaging?" asked Monika Olejnik.

"I don't know, I don't touch it anymore. I am only on salary, I have 4200 PLN plus a liability allowance. And that is all," answered the manager of the collection point.

With a spider inside

Bottle buying itself, associated with the Polish People's Republic, has an even longer history in Poland - it was already well known in the times of the Second Republic of Poland and was launched in the times when Poland was crossed off the official map of Europe. What is more, in the interwar period trading in used glass was considered an important element of the economy. Already in those days, there were collection points operated privately or by various social organizations. In 1934, the Ministry of Treasury even imposed by law an obligation on retailers to accept returnable bottles from their customers. These regulations were maintained until the end of the 1930s, despite the fact that they had many opponents. Here and there it was pointed out that used bottles could impair the quality of the alcohol poured into them. The examples of other countries, such as the USA, Germany, or the Czech Republic, where the bottle trade was forbidden and even punished at that time, were also cited. However, no one has managed to block bottle recycling in Poland. And rightly so, because modern experts calculate that one bottle can be used, on average, 25 times. It is only the purchase of bottles that is much worse in the 21st-century Vistula.

The situation was completely different after World War II. During the reign of the people's government, the system of buying used glass flourished at its best on the fertile soil of shortages and deficiencies, stimulating both the liquor and food industries, as countless quantities of jars also found their way to secondary trade.

In the 1950s and 1960s, up to 80 percent of spirits were sold in recycled bottles. Not always clean, and sometimes there was a dead insect floating in the vodka, like a butterfly larva in Mexican mezcal. Although customers buying vodka and spirits were required to return empty bottles, liquor stores and breweries relied solely on human hands to wash the bottles. So when they received used glass containers, the results were easy to predict. Complaints about dirty and unwashed glass were common. What is more, before the bottle was collected, its temporary owner often kept solvents, gasoline, kerosene, or other harmful liquids that contaminated alcohol in it. Often the bottles were not washed at all. Sztandar Ludu" (a daily newspaper of the Provincial Committee of the PolishUnited Workers' Party in Lublin) made fun of this in one of its articles published in September 1952, after an inspector from the Lublin Food Cooperative brought to the editorial office a bottle of vodka straight from the store with a large spider and a web preserved in it.

It was not until the sixties of the twentieth century that plants began to install special machines for washing returnable bottles. However, the problem of dirty bottles has practically never been solved. In his book, Krzysztof Kosiński points, among others, to the report of the Central Commission for Combating Speculation at the Council of Ministers from February 1987, in which there is a note that alcohol bottles - before they reach the collection points - are still used (by some enterprises) to store other liquids, which "causes a change of smell and taste".

Photo: Roman Kotowicz / Forum Polska Agencja Fotografów

From collection to collection

Glass packaging could be sold at collection points or in grocery stores and samosas in the People's Republic of Poland. Buying points usually paid less than the official deposit for bottles, but sometimes they offered a barter currency that was priceless, especially in the 1980s - toilet paper or other "bonuses".

"[...] I stood [...] laden with two bags, each containing fifteen washed and reliably counted bottles, and behind and in front of me stood men [...]. Behind and in front of me stood men [...], carrying bags, sacks, nets, suitcases, baskets, and pushing various carts full of washed and reliably counted bottles, the number of which was always a multiple of fifteen. In front of me stood a man pulling a baby bathtub with carefully attached wheels. This vehicle, elaborate and fragile as an elaborate stanza, also contained bottles and, of course, the number was divisible by fifteen [...] because it was for fifteen bottles sold that you received a voucher entitling you to buy an additional half-liter bottle" - this is how Jerzy Pilch, in Spis cudzołożnic [The List of Adulteresses], so aptly described the queues winding in front of collection points in the 1980s.

Buying points in the era of communist Poland were numerous and easy to locate in every big city and town. However, it did not mean at all that an expedition with bags and nets in order to collect empty bottles was immediately successful. There were many dangers. One of them, for example, was the frequent shortage of plastic crates for transporting bottles, so-called trusses, which were eagerly stolen and melted down into toys. The lack of crates meant the inability of the collection point to fulfill the task. Ergo, the customer was not accepted. The situation was similar in the case of numerous inventories of stores or points. Then there was nothing left to do but to continue wandering in search of a point that would accept bottles. Or to the editorial office.

"A customer visited the editorial office yesterday with a net full of bottles. She visited three points. All of them were closed. This is not the first time this has happened to her." - This was one of many examples of bottle pilgrimages, for which scarce access to information was responsible. It was mainly from sheets of paper attached to store windows that one could find out if, what and when to return the bottles. The matter was further complicated by different and often changed rules of bottle collection. For example, the collection points accepted wine glass of 0.75-liter capacity only and refused to accept slightly smaller bottles of 0.7-liter capacity. In some points only bottles with prepaid deposit confirmation were accepted, in other points, only bottles with labels were accepted, and in some places, glass packaging could be returned only without labels.

In the 80s, on the wave of hyperinflation, the prices of bottles started growing so fast that buying bottles ceased to be profitable. In the 90s bottle collection points started to disappear - the system of trading with glass packagings became too burdensome both for stores and for clients. Nowadays, we can only dream about them - admittedly, from time to time we can hear information about another initiative, either business or local governments, aiming at converting the society to this communist custom. For example, starting in 2019, the nationwide campaign "Give a bottle a second life" was launched by the Żywiec Group, creating a map of points where bottles can be returned without a receipt, and in recent months, accepting bottles on a trial basis, started CarrefourThe chain does not give cash back, but exchanges it for shopping vouchers. However, it is still difficult to talk about a bigger trend in this area, and bottles are still lying on garbage cans, in parks, forests, or street gates.

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