Unlikely economies exist around everything in India. Including empty liquor bottles.
I’m not talking about recycling—the economic forces that transformed our empty plastic water bottles into full plastic cooking oil bottles are interesting, but fairly straightforward. I’m talking instead about the afterlife of our empty liquor bottles, which we were told is driven by a different imperative than cutting corporate costs: it’s driven by people’s desire to show off their wealth without actually spending it.
Back in college in the upstate New York, our only use for empty bottles was displaying them in our dorm room to signify how cool we were vis-à-vis how much we drank. If I’d known then about the peculiar demand in India, I might have gone into the export business, because empty liquor bottles, we were told, are bought by certain Delhiites for a very clever reason: so they can pour cheap swill into fancy bottles that flatter their guests into thinking they’re being served the good stuff.
The guest’s eyes pop when he sees the green Johnnie Walker label; presumably he’s too bedazzled to notice that the first sip is making his eyes water and tear.
Liquor is big in India, and foreign whiskey is especially coveted. India drinks 40% more whiskey than the US and the roads leading to and from the tech hubs like Gurgaon are lined with ads showing how classy, refined, and sophisticated you could be if only you drank the right whiskey. Everyone is aspirational, but not everyone can afford it. Which is why we one day discovered that our trash was quite literally someone else’s treasure.
We were recreational bottle emptiers in Delhi, reliable for producing a bottle of wine a week and a bottle of harder stuff once a month or so. We’d put all our empties on the shared terrace along with the rest of our garbage for Sheila, the building’s maid, to remove in the morning. One day, while hanging our laundry, we stumbled upon a cache of our bottles hidden under a ledge, behind some bricks. Sheila had been stashing them.
Our neighbor Amba, who helped us understand so many of our neighborhood’s mysteries, told us why. Our trash was Sheila’s revenue stream, Amba told us. The 300 rupees a month ($6) each of the four flats paid her was well supplemented by the money she made going through our bags and selling the good stuff to the kabadiwallahs who bicycled around every morning, shouting in slow Hindi to announce their presence and drum up customers and wake up anyone who wanted to sleep past eight AM.
Sheila was stashing the bottles, Amba said, because the more she sold at one time, the better the price she’d get for each one. Obviously Sheila had recognized our consumption patterns and was holding out for us to fulfill them; or maybe she knew Christmas was coming and that our holiday party would be a party for her as well.
“You didn’t peel off the labels before you threw them out, did you?” Amba asked. “If you did, she couldn’t have resold them.”
We actually found a liquor bottle wallah in one of our aimless walk around the city, sitting in what appeared to be a market devoted to buying and selling waste products (newspapers, rags) somewhere near South Moti Bagh market. He was surrounded at his table by empty bottles of booze: haphazard piles that once contained cheap vodka, rows of former mid-range rum, and, in the spot of honor, well-preserved bottles for whiskey, shielded from the sun, labels intact and clean, often complete with the fancy printed cardboard tube in which they were originally sold.
I especially hope that Sheila negotiated for the full value of that empty 18-year-old Glenfiddich single malt I brought in from the duty-free. Because somebody at the demand end of the empty bottle economy would pay a lot of money to serve 200-rupee plonk from it next time his father-in-law paid a surprise visit.