Helping the earth through scavenging

(First published October 2010, last updated August 2012)

When you hear or read the term “scavenger”, what springs to mind?

Back in the days before recycling, I remember taking trips with my Dad to the local garbage tip and seeing so many cool things in among the refuse. How I wanted to explore that wonderland (albeit a smelly one)!

Alas, I was not permitted. I would watch with envy the people digging through these piles – scavengers looking for items to sell or use. To me it looked like great fun, but the general perception of scavengers back then weren’t very positive and most used to look down their noses at these people – some of that prejudice rubbed off onto me too after a while.

Back then, tip authorities used to turn a blind eye to the practice, but these days it’s banned and in most garbage dumps, enforced.

However, there’s also a lot more control over what goes into landfill in Australia now and recycling stations are set up at landfills to try and reduce what winds up as buried trash. Landfill operators have learned there are big bucks to be made from rubbish.

Scavengers are environmental pioneers and heroes of sorts; regardless of their motivation for scavenging.

The millions of career and part-time scavengers around the world must prevent a mind boggling amount of stuff from winding up in landfills. In some parts of the world, if scavengers didn’t exist, those areas would soon be a sea of garbage.

It’s a shame that the term “scavenging” is still so closely tied to poverty and being something beneath us. After all, there are many people who have made fortunes through scavenging; but it’s just given another name. For example, recycling plants operations where we take our trash directly to the scavenger – now that’s smart! 

While scavenging isn’t all that prevalent in landfills in places like Australia – these folks are still out there, fighting the fine fight using different methods.

I remember one  morning a neighbour put out a couple of chairs with a sign saying “Free”. By the afternoon, they were gone – the chairs had been quietly whisked away.

On what are called “hard rubbish” days in South Australia, the scavengers usually precede the council pickup trucks; scooping up whatever treasures are to be had.

Unfortunately, scavenging has also received somewhat of a bad name due to the way some individuals go about it – pulling stuff out of boxes and creating quite a mess.

“Career” scavengers tend to be more respectful; knowing that by being tidy and quiet in their pursuit can mean more opportunities from the same source at a later date.

Even the homeless in our cities who go through bins perform an important job. The cans and bottles they pull out means more room in the bins, which translates to less pickups and less recyclable material going to landfill.

Yet we tend to look down upon them doing this.

Scavenging isn’t confined to goods and packaging, it can also be food. I have vivid memories of the amount of food we used to throw out each day at our bakery and we would have welcomed someone taking it; as health regulations prevented us giving it to local charities.

Food scavenging doesn’t necessarily meant dumpster diving. Urban foraging is becoming more popular – this is where the bounty of fruit trees and other plants growing in public areas doesn’t go to waste. I’m currently eyeing a couple of fruit trees that have just started to blossom – but so are the birds. 

Urban foraging is sometimes referred to as “gleaning”; the very old practice of collecting leftover crops from fields after they have been harvested.

To learn more about the fascinating world of scavenging and gleaning, check out these articles:

What is a Freegan?
The Scavengers Manifesto
Foraging for Fruit