A mother of two young children spends two hours a day roaming the streets of St Paul’s Bay, collecting discarded plastic and glass bottles.  

She will then deposit them in a machine that provides a 10 cent coupon for each container, which helps her buy her family’s groceries.

The woman is one of “many” who pay for necessities through the bottles they collect on the street, according to a charity that helps the homeless.

“Although the income is not much, I can buy more food that my children like,” she said. 

Since the Beverage Container Refund Scheme (BCRS) began last year, anyone who buys a bottle or can pays an extra 10 cent deposit. When the empty container is returned via a reverse vending machine, the deposit is refunded through a coupon that can be used in supermarkets or grocery stores.

“I pick up probably a hundred bottles a day. I can usually get a €10 voucher in exchange. A little more if I’m lucky,” said the woman, who spoke to Times of Malta after picking up a plastic bottle from a bin on a beach. 

Speaking through Google Translate, the woman, who moved to Malta a year-and-a-half ago, said she has noticed an increase in other bottle collectors since she first started collecting bottles two months ago.

“I calculated that I can only earn €3 per hour, or even less now, because more and more people are starting to collect bottles,” she said.

“Usually there are more bottles on Saturdays and Sundays, but there are also a lot of people picking up bottles every weekend. Many people who come to Malta to work also pick up bottles on their days off. So, although there are more bottles on Saturday and Sunday, I still get more bottles from Monday to Friday.”

Her husband sends over money for rent and other needs, but the woman pays for her family’s groceries with BCRS coupons. 

She said that she cannot find regular employment because she does not speak English and must look after her children. 

Collecting these bottles improved my life and that of the children

“I could have a good job in my country with a better income, but my country has poor education and, most importantly, our government does not allow my children to go to church,” she said. 

“Collecting these bottles improved my life and that of the children.”

Anthony Camilleri, chief executive officer of the YMCA, said that it has become a common practice for people finding it hard to make ends meet.

“Many people are collecting bottles as a way to survive and buy necessities,” he said.

The organisation specialises in the support and reintegration of the homeless in Malta while also providing services to the underprivileged and socially disadvantaged.

Camilleri said that many bottle collectors have a job but their income is not enough, with the average client earning €630 a month and unable to afford their own accommodation.

“Some who are homeless and roofless come to the YMCA’s drop-in centre to shower and have a cup of coffee before going to work,” Camilleri said.

Supplementary income

One man, who spoke to Times of Malta on condition of anonymity, said he works 10 hours a day as a construction worker but still spends between six and eight hours a week collecting bottles to pay for his groceries.

“I have a lot of debt with banks in my country, so I have to do extra work to cover my expenses by collecting bottles,” he said.

He said that he is paid €5.50 an hour and is often paid late, meaning he sometimes relies on the coupons he is able to use from bottle deposits to get by.

On good days, the construction worker said he can find some 200 bottles in two hours – netting him €20 in coupons.

“We have more chance of finding bottles on the beach and weekends are more crowded, meaning there are more bottles,” he said.

But the man also looks for bottles in garbage bags throughout the streets of Sliema too.

If he feels a plastic bottle from the outside of the bag, he removes it and moves on in search of his next 10 cents.

“I collect the bottles without harming anyone or anyone’s property,” he said. “Life doesn’t smile on everyone; some are rich, some are poor; I am poor, but I am proud.”

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