comments_image Comments

The Scavenger's Manifesto: Why Dumpster Diving Can Save You from Going Off the Deep End

While consumer culture drowns us in debt, you can count every cent you save while liberating would-be trash.

The following is an adapted excerpt from The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009) by Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson.

My eyes are lighthouse beacons. Enroute to a family gathering, I spot a box marked FREE on a curb. This, right here, is the meaning of life. Swim goggles: Yes. Pink T-shirt: Yes. Blender: I already have one, so no. "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" apron: No. Six bars of hotel soap, sealed in their wrappers: Yoink. Into the backpack pops the salad fork, the crocheted scarf. Assess each in a nanosecond. Do I want this? Do I need it? Does my friend?

When they ask at the family gathering why I am late and I say I was garnering a stranger's discards, they laugh. When they realize I am serious, they flinch, their faces masks of pity, fear, disgust. They ask: But why? Weren't those discards dirty? What if someone bled on that T-shirt? Can't you afford a salad fork?

Oh, that. Scavengers hear it all the time.

And more:

What if it doesn't fit?

What if it's dented/scratched/stained/faded/ripped?

Wouldn't you rather pick the exact color/style/size/features you want?

Um, no.

In consumer culture, the very idea of getting stuff by any means outside the standard retail channel at any speed but warp speed is sacrilege.

A sin.

In corporate America, not-shopping is treason.

An abomination.

Yet a confluence of factors — style, politics, technology, ecology and the economy — is making more and more of us seek more and more alternate (but legal) means of acquiring stuff. We're scavengers. We're consumer culture's cleanup crew. Goods and services circle the world, connecting strangers: not a penny spent.

The Book of Genesis damns us. And the Book of Leviticus deems us untouchable.

We are thrift-shoppers, coupon-clippers, bargain-hunters, beachcombers, trash-pickers. We are treasure-seekers, recyclers, freecyclers. 

We don't steal.

We don't scam.

But we don't pay full-price. We don't pay at all if we can help it.

Two thousand years ago, half the world's population survived by hunting and gathering. With the rise of civilization, old-fashioned hunting and gathering became virtually obsolete. But all modern-day scavengers are hunter-gatherers. Define hunter-gathering as foraging, taking what comes. Define it as sublimating choice to the bigger thrill of chance. It translates to saving money and potentially working less. It translates to dodging whatever market sector some genius thinks you belong to. Modern scavenging means wearing, using and eating castoff goods from countless strangers, thus you cannot be predicted, tracked, deciphered. You are the mystery. With lighthouse eyes, you find furniture, fashions, art, appliances, jewelry, food. You scavenge seeds. Sometimes you do not know what they are when you plant them, and find out only when plants rise: My garden grows parsley, purple tomatillos, three kinds of bok choy. You never know.

That is the point.

That is the challenge and the payoff and the thrill: the never knowing, then the waiting, then the finding out. Can you handle uncertainty?

This is the magic, the apotheosis, of the random. In a paved world, modern scavengers reclaim discovery. Adventure. Self-reliance. Self-sufficiency.

The modern scavenger reclaims the quest.

Some scavenge for fun. Some scavenge to save. Money. The world. Their souls. While consumers around us drown in debt, we liberate ourselves with every cent we save while liberating would-be trash. We know the difference between brand-new, full-price products and their dented, scavenged counterparts is —


Some scavenge to recycle. Repurpose. Reduce. Reuse.

See more stories tagged with: