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


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.

Some scavenge to revolt.

Some scavenge to survive.

Some scavenge for the sake of spontaneity. That is another primal ecstasy that consumer culture has quashed. Consumer culture wants consumers to imagine themselves free and democratic, decisive and bold. Consumer culture teaches that choosing the color of your phone is creativity. Up to a point, it is. A tiny calculated creativity comprising elements designed and sold by corporations. Control disguised as creativity. A short-leashed independence based on your ability and willingness to buy. But what is missing from this picture? 

It's funny: Consumers think they're free.

How do we tell them how it is for us? How do we tell them that, for us, old stuff and stuff that has been previously owned attains a patina, almost a soul? How do we say that every find not only saves us cash but makes us wonder whose it was, our minds skittering down the years of all those whens and whys. How do we tell consumers that mass-produced new merchandise bores and depresses us? How do we say that it is we who pity them when they spend $90 on the same shoes that cost (or will, soon) $6 at the thrift shop? How can we describe the size of landfills, the islands of trash — ten million pounds' worth, experts say — floating at sea? Do we cite findings by the Clean Air Council that every American alive discards fifty-six tons of trash per year?

I last bought an umbrella thirteen years ago in Hong Kong. Since then, I have found them: striped ones, plain ones, plaid ones, flowered ones, large, small, fold-up or not. One replicates a painting by Renoir. Their former owners left them behind on benches and buses, leaning against walls under pay phones and ATMs. I buy my groceries at discount stores, bruised fruit marked down. Faced with a choice, I always ask: Is there a way to do this/get this/eat this legally for free? I have been this way all my life. It is a reflex. Not scavenging feels unnatural.

To me, ten dollars is a lot.

How can I tell consumers this? Here's what they see: In one sense, nothing. In one sense, we are invisible. But when they search, they see: Scavengers touch the ground. How gross. Who dares finger the sidewalk and the street? The scavenger as vector. Roaches, rats and vultures spring to mind — and football teams are not named after them.

We do not spend enough to please consumers. Worse, we do not spend at all. Consumer culture hates this. We touch trash. Consumer culture fears this. We think for themselves. Consumer culture hates and fears this most of all.

Scavengers are the last scapegoats in an almost-open-minded world.

We're freaks.

No matter how or why we scavenge, even if we’re just re-using Christmas ribbon or picking fruit from branches that overhang the sidewalk, we are radical. Without half trying, we are capitalism's naughty children, sprinting through the gate. By rejecting the standard retail cycle, scavengers reverse the basic order of consumerthink, which is: want-get. From infancy, consumers learn that whatever they want, they get. Must. Will. Right now. For scavengers, however, it's get-want. We find whatever, then decide whether we want it. Then — take it. Or leave it for a later scavenger. Committing yourself to not buying things full-price mandates having to wait. That is: waiting until something approximating your desire surfaces at the local thrift shop, yard sale, swap. It might mean waiting for the seeds on those strawberries and tomatoes you buried in your backyard to sprout. You just get used to waiting. While you wait, you realize how little you really need.

We do not expect to get everything we want.

Thus we want less.

We always get something, sooner or later. But in flipping the equation, in embracing want-get, scavengers trade choice for chance. We trade control for the lightning flash of surprise.

We sing their anthem backwards. No wonder we scare them.

Broke a shoelace? Ran out of giftwrap? Consumers replace lost or broken things right now with perfect replicas, brand-new, full-price. Not us. Scavengers improvise. For us, absent and broken things are hassles but brain-teasers too. Wrap presents in calendar pages. Knot the shoelace, or replace it with wire, yarn or dental floss.

Repurpose. Found something you think is useless? Use it. Cut-up mousepads become coasters. Doors are tabletops. Trophies, bolted to walls, are coat-hooks. Bandannas make dandy halter tops. Ever resourceful, scavengers plumb inner strengths. I am emerging from the rummage sale with seven white porcelain sake cups, a map of Uruguay, a pillowcase embroidered by someone sometime somewhere, and a baking pan shaped like a guitar. What will I do with these, and when? Scavenging links us to each other, to all former owners and all future owners of whatever we have now.

Yet ultimately we are on our own. Scavenging forces us to feel and act and think. I was out walking when a thought occurred to me which I longed to write down. I had no utensil, no pad. I was miles of sterile suburban sidewalk from the nearest store. I found a paper clip. I tore part of an outdated announcement from a phone pole. Unbending the clip, I scratched my thought with it into the blank side of the paper. Later, held up to the light at home, the letters revealed themselves like cuneiform.

 I know: absurd. I do not ask you to admire this. I only ask you not to mock it.

The dictionary defines economics as the study of "the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services." What's missing from that picture? Um — what comes after consumption? Mainstream economic theory has glossed over this bothersome detail for centuries. It went like this: Consumer buys product. Consumer brings product home. Consumer consumes product. The end.

But hey: Will that consumer utilize that product forever, until the end of time? Of course not. Eventually, in five minutes or fifty years, the product — providing we are not talking about food or drink here — will become broken and/or outdated and/or unwanted and/or its owner will die, and/or sundry other eventualities could occur which land that item in the trash.

And then?

Welcome to the world of scavenomics.

To paraphrase Kristan Lawson, who coauthored The Scavengers' Manifesto with me: Scavenomics picks up where economics traditionally leaves off. Scavenomics is that other, too-long-ignored half of the cycle: the part that occurs after consumption. And just how do products find their way back to "production" at the so-called beginning of the cycle?

Scavengers are the driving force for this hidden half of the story. We are the ones who take society's trash and either re-use it, introducing it back into the middle of the standard economic system (i.e. trash is rechristened as goods for distribution and consumption), or recycle it, introducing the material back at the starting point of the system (i.e. trash is reprocessed into raw material for production).

Modern economic theory is not as blind as it used to be. These days, recycling is regarded as a valid economic activity, as yet another way to make money. (Re-using and re-purposing, however, are pretty much still off the radar screen.) But to the extent that it's been considered at all by economists, scavenging is regarded as a behavioral problem, a sort of consumer dysfunction that prevents people from properly purchasing and consuming their fair share of stuff. If too many people scavenge instead of buy retail, then the economy won't grow and a disastrous recession ensues. (Sound familiar?) But the reverse can also be bad: mindless, endless over-production, overconsumption, and then overdisposal. Hence, those endless tons of trash. Scavenging as a naturally occurring method of acquisition puts the brakes on what otherwise might be a runaway train of capitalism; by opting out of the consumer cycle, scavengers slow the system down to a reasonable pace.

If there is over-production, and everybody buys too much stuff, then sooner or later some of that stuff will be discarded, and if enough gets discarded, then an increasing number of people will see that the products they used to buy can now be scavenged for free. Once a sufficient number of people become scavengers, they stop buying new stuff, and production thereby slows down to sustainable levels. But the opposite is also true: If everybody starts scavenging, then production ceases entirely because no one is buying. But if nothing is being produced, then the inventory of scavengeable goods will shrink and finally disappear, and then (after scavengers harm or kill each other while fighting over the last few scavengeables) demand will rise again for new stuff, and production will restart. When a society such as Japan's in the 1980s engages in reckless overproduction and overconsumption, the principles of scavenomics dictate that a collapse is bound to happen. When a society such as current-day sub-Saharan Africa depends too much on scavenging (in this case on donated goods and food), that too portends economic havoc. Scavenomics is the economics of self-regulating moderation.

One of the principles of scavenomics is to unleash the creative power of scavengers. Often we, and only we, can find ways to use discards. A real-world example comes from the realm of chocolate production. For centuries, cocoa farmers simply threw out the husks left over after shelling cocoa pods. But in recent years, entrepreneurial scavengers thought of selling the otherwise worthless cocoa husks as gardening mulch, because so many consumers love anything that smells like chocolate, as the husks do. So today, many nurseries sell scavenged cocoa-husk mulch. Multiply that scenario by thousands of times and the power of scavenomics becomes clear. So green economics and scavenomics are not always in opposition. Often they are complementary, and scavenomics can be viewed as a subset or a variant of green economics.

Economic activity is not a line, but a circle. A continuous cycle. The missing steps are: this manufactured or refined material, whatever it might be, is eventually used up or becomes broken or obsolete or unwanted, and is then discarded. And then somewhere, somehow, by somebody or something, it all gets fed back into the beginning of the system and the cycle begins all over again. This can happen on a very short time-scale (the discarded product is immediately scavenged and re-used or re-purposed) or on a medium time-scale (discarded products are broken down into their original constituents and recycled back as the raw material for manufacture) or on an extremely long time scale, in which everything is at first just unceremoniously "thrown away," which essentially means returned to the Earth far from its point of origin in a new place such as a landfill or a dump, and perhaps a million, or ten million, or who-knows-how-many years in the future, some distant civilization will discover a rich "deposit" of iron ore in a location formerly known as Melvin's Salvage Yard and U-Find-It Car Parts Emporium.

The goal of scavenomics is not simply to focus attention on this missing step of the economic cycle, but to minimize the time frame and energy expenditure of that step. So, from a scavenomics point of view, waste disposal is the least desirable and least efficient behavior, because the raw materials contained in the trash become lost to us for an extremely long time. Recycling is one step better, because the aluminum molecules or cellulose fibers are reintroduced into the human ecosystem as raw materials fairly rapidly, with a moderate amount of energy expended. But scavenging is the gold standard of economic  efficiency, or at least of this part of the economic cycle. Because when anything that is unwanted and discarded gets scavenged and re-used or re-purposed, it immediately re-enters the global economy with practically no energy expenditure at all. It doesn't need sit around for a million years turning to rust or topsoil. It doesn't need to be shipped to China and melted down and recast as ingots and then shipped to a factory and turned into a simulacrum of whatever it was in the first place, to be then transported to other continents in pollution-spewing ships, trucks, trains and planes. Without having to travel anywhere, or use any energy, the scavenged object once again becomes useful to humankind, without any processing or time-wastage whatsoever. You can't get more efficient than that.

When you scavenge, you absorb other people's pollution as would a sponge. Not only do you lower your carbon footprint, but you also consume less and thus lower your "economic footprint." When you reuse or recycle other people's trash, you decrease their economic footprint as well. It's nice to help strangers.

But scavenging is work. Getting stuff, getting enough stuff to survive or to even call yourself a scavenger requires discipline. Skills. Special knowledge, as does any other profession or sport — and scavenging is both.

First, see. Scan every surface, every crevice of every landscape for telltale colors, shapes and signs that literally or figuratively say: TAKE ME. Scavengers sleep with eyes half-open. For us, this is basic math: The more you see, the more you save. Observe, retrieve.

Experiment. Forever ask: What's this? A public trained to demand brand-new brand-name products is a public drained of curiosity. Consumers are brainwashed to replicate the same exact sensations time after time as if that was happiness. They do not wonder how another product by another brand might taste or feel or what would happen if I went without this? In consumer culture, such thoughts are anathema. Enough such thoughts would smash the system. Industries bank on incuriosity.

Accept. Taking what comes, scavengers tolerate what comes. You've never worn a poncho or listened to Turkish techno music? If that's what you've found, that's what you do. For us, diversity is a necessity.

Each act of scavenging is one step out of safe, clean, streamlined social normalcy. We take trash home. Thus we must overcome some primal instincts, drilled into us all our lives. First we must overcome our fear of misbehavior, those imaginary angry-mommy slaps on our hands, angry-mommy voices in our heads hissing Don't steal, because scavengers are not stealing — the first Scavenging Commandment is Thou shalt not take what rightfully belongs to someone else. Then we must drown out Angry Mommy snapping Don't touch that, it's dirty, because yes, it is, but it won't kill me and I want it and I'm grown-up now. Most scavengeables are not clean or perfect when we find them. Some are dirty, just as Mommy warned, and they're dinged-up or scuffed or past their sell-by dates. So we must overcome another reflex, the age-old terror of contagion, once legitimate but now unwarranted in an era of hot water and antibacterial soap. I can wash this, and I can wash myself after taking it home. Until that washing, we must tolerate the presence of this unclean, damaged thing in our hands, pockets, purses, backpacks, cars.

Collecting castoffs keeps us humble.

Watching, waiting, going with the flow means scavengers are accidental Taoists.

So is this religion?

Well —

How do you define religion? As a source of values? Check. Source of hope? Check. Source of compassion? Check. Compassion in the sense that we cannot help but wonder about those former owners: Who were they? How and why did they part with this? On purpose or not? If so, in anger or in apathy? Did they regret it afterwards? Where are they now — happy or sad, alive or dead?

Standard consumption affords no such touchstones. Brand-new full-price items just reflect consumers back upon themselves.

Is religion a source of charity? Check, albeit mostly inadvertent. Strangers transfer souvenirs into our safekeeping without intending to, neither knowing nor caring who we are. By becoming their beneficiaries, we transform them into benefactors. We transform their loss and their waste into generosity. Thus we redeem them from themselves.

Is religion a way to heal the world?

Is religion surrender? Check. In a consumer culture, choosing not to choose is brave. No towels in your bathroom match, and some who visit you might actually care. The scavenger surrenders to the magic and, depending on your level of commitment, the cruel humor of the random. One day when you are out and it turns very cold and you are unprepared, you notice, through the window of a laundromat, a box of items which, unclaimed after a few weeks in the lost-and-found, the manager put out. The box says FREE. Along with insubstantial slips and single socks you find a heavy sweatshirt. It says FIREMEN HAVE LONGER HOSES. It is clean. You're cold. Six hours remain before you can go home. You put it on. Another day, two guys are handing out free bookbags on the college campus near your job. The bookbags bear the logo of the college polyamory club. You are not polyamorous. But these are well-made bags, the right size and shape for your gym gear. Passersby will misread you and misinterpret you, based on the bag.

You might not mind. The most committed scavenger would say: I must not mind. Is this religion?

Other scavenging commandments:

Don't break laws.

Don't be aggressive or abusive.

Don't leave messes in your wake.

Don't harm plants, animals or people.

Don't endanger your safety or health.

Don't gross yourself out just to prove a point.

Don't be a parasite.

Don't mooch.

Consumer culture is a shiny sparkly whirling waste-producing world-engulfing pick-your-favorite-product fusillade at hyperspeed, nonstop.

We wish not to participate. Except to follow, gathering detritus, in its wake.

We might look like consumers but no: We are the fringe-dwellers, the bottom-feeders, living in the realm of never-knowing. We are the revelers and rescuers out here among the lost and the abandoned and the trashed, the designated-worthless which we pluck and scrub and sometimes love.

We know what is worth what.

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