“Can the last one out please turn off the lights?” – It’s not just street paper selling that’s hindered by COVID-19

By Annette Woywode, Hinz&Kunzt

When you ask Uwe Tröger (on the phone, of course) how he is doing and how the coronavirus is affecting his work, he’ll answer “not bad”. He works for ‘Spende Dein Pfand’ (‘Donate Your Empties’), an initiative encouraging people to ‘donate’ their recyclable bottles, allowing the proceeds made from the bottle deposit to fund jobs like Uwe’s. Yet, describing his current day-to-day routine, he says that: “I wake up between 7 and 8am. Then I drink coffee for two hours. That makes me sleepy, so I have a nap. Then I go shopping, which also makes me sleepy, so I have a nap then too.” The 58-year old laughs when he talks about himself, and he even has a word to describe his constant need to rest: ‘Fluchtschlaf’, which translates literally to ‘flying sleep’.

Uwe collects empty bottles with three other ex-Hinz&Kunzt vendors at the airport. They usually collect 1,800 bottles daily, but since the outbreak of the coronavirus airlines have continued to reduce the number of flights. Travellers are staying away, and with them so are the people who, by donating their empty bottles, fund three full-time jobs and one part-time job for people with lived experience of homelessness.

At the airport it was “really spooky”, says Uwe, who has been working for the initiative for four and a half years. “All the sounds, the hustle and bustle of people, are gone. You could’ve shot a zombie movie here with everything empty and everyone away hiding.” When the time finally came to lock the deposit collection room, “that’s when [he] wanted to say, ‘can the last one out please turn off the lights?”

The spookily empty Hamburg Airport on Uwe’s last day of work for the time being. [Credit: Mauricio Bustamante]

Uwe has been worried about his job. “Who knows if I’ll come back? You can’t expect Hinz&Kunzt to keep paying us for months and months. No one knows what might happen to them.” However, 57-year old social worker Stephan Karrenbauer is taking care of at least some of these concerns. “To start with, we have applied for reduced hours compensation (‘Kurzarbeitergeld’) so that everyone will continue to receive their pay. He doesn’t need to be worrying about that. We have everything under control.”

Despite that, Uwe misses his job – and his exercise. He plays table tennis at FC St. Pauli, but that has also had to take a break. At least there’s still football on the TV. “This is the most I’ve ever had in life. If that goes, there’ll be barely anything left.”

But he hasn’t lost his humour. “When I’m not sleeping, I’m doing what everyone else is doing right now – sitting around and keeping an eye on my toilet paper supplies,” he jokes. “I’m armed, too. If I need to, I’ll chuck a tin of ravioli at you.”

Translated from German by Heather Davies

Find out the other ways street paper organisations are supporting people like Uwe here.