Posts Tagged ‘scavenge


saucepans, bonnets, and umbrellas

In Dickens’ David Copperfield, trash is a marker of class. When David goes in search of his irrepressible old school friend Tommy Traddles, for instance, he finds a street strewn with scraps of food and broken belongings, an index of Tommy’s straightened circumstances:

I found that the street was not as desirable a one as I could have wished it to be, for the sake of Traddles. The inhabitants appeared to have a propensity to throw any little trifles they were not in want of, into the road: which not only made it rank and sloppy, but untidy too, on account of the cabbage-leaves. The refuse was not wholly vegetable either, for I myself saw a shoe, a doubled-up saucepan, a black bonnet, and an umbrella, in various stages of decomposition, as I was looking out for the number I wanted.

Dickens ascribes a certain carelessness to the inhabitants, but the real difference between this street and a more upscale one would have been a lack of servants or other resources to have the trash cleaned up and carted away.

William Rathje, who analyzed and quantified residential garbage in Tucson and elsewhere in the US, showed that, in our own time, the wealthy create more garbage than the poor. Before we can throw something out, we have to buy it, after all. And the more money we have, the more we buy, the more we throw out. The effect may be magnified by consumerism, but there’s no reason to assume the state of affairs was essentially different in Victorian England.

The association of trash and poverty is by no means unique to Dickens, although its exact inflection varies from place to place and time to time. Phrases like “trailer trash” and “a trashy neighborhood” ring just a few of the many changes on this theme.

Calcutta Apartment Building

Calcutta Apartment Building

By and large, people distance themselves from garbage if they can afford to, but they do it in different ways, developing elaborate rituals for making it invisible or, on the contrary, refusing to handle it at all. In his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins tells the story of how, in the 1970s, there was a lot of evident garbage in Saudi Arabia, only diminished by roving goats. A local source explained that Arabs considered themselves above handling garbage, so it was just thrown out of doors. I think perhaps in India a similar way of thinking produces such large amounts of putrescibles in the streets, in conjuction with and in immediate proximity to an intense devotion to personal cleanliness. I’d venture to guess that more per capita washing goes on in India than in any other place in the world.

In many places, the poorest of the poor live on and off garbage dumps. I assembled a brief list in a post about scavenging. Scavenging is for many practitioners an economic imperative, and the activity tends to brand them, functioning as a social shorthand for marginal status. One of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs shows that it is nevertheless possible to make a life on the dump in terms clearly reminiscent of prevailing norms. The photo shows an endless stretch of open dump in Mexico City with a little dark clump near the horizon, which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a village. An arrangement of makeshift houses is made complete by a parked VW Beetle, apparently in working order.

Advertising Poster for The Gleaners and I

Agnes Varda’s gentle documentary The Gleaners and I, about scavengers in France, points to other motivations besides economic necessity. Some gleaners don’t like the general wastefulness inherent in commercial farming, by which a good part of the harvest is dumped or simply never reaped. These gleaners follow a moral impulse diametrically opposed to the dominant econonmic mores of capitalist society, but perhaps there is also a certain waywardness in their behavior. Although there’s a general preference for orchards and fields over dumpsters among Varda’s heroes, there’s a general recognition that when the harvest is truly over in the fields, there’s another treasure waiting in the trash.

Varda also finds some who are simply fascinated by garbage, including the artists who scavenge their materials and build new things out of old in a way that exploits all the meanings adhering to the new and the old identities at the same time, the pathos and the courage both at once. Varda herself is one of these, and she shows up in the movie as a subject as well as the maker. What drives Varda, specifically, is a connection between trash and the tragic irreversibility of time, the entropic imperative by which all things progress to disorder. Her hands and her hair. Her ceiling with its leak, blossoming in frightful cabbage roses. Her carefully selected heart-shaped potatoes, from the poster, which show up several months later in an extremely disordered state.

Death and the end of time are foretold in garbage, and some prefer to make war on it, not by denial, but by careful inspection and, wherever possible, delight.



Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article about the global food crisis, illustrated with images of Haitians scavenging for food on an open garbage dump.

Girl on the TrashA girl in a pretty pink dress, all ruffles and flowers, stands in a wasteland of trash, trying to keep herself separate. A man sits with his head between his knees, a picture of despair, a study of a million shades of grime. Another man almost disappears in the infernal exhalations of vapor and smoke that rise from the dump.

Over the past few years, since I started paying attention, I have found numerous reports of poor people living on and living off garbage dumps:

– People in Shanghai diving into deliveries of garbage ahead of the Australian operators meaning to bury it, because they can make more money scavenging than with a regular job. (Story)

– A whole community of Coptic Christians in Cairo still taking care informally of all the city’s waste, after efforts to modernize sanitation failed. (Story)

– Palestinian boys in the West Bank haunting the local garbage dumps looking for the discards from Israeli settlers, as shortages in their own communities become more severe. (Story)

– Somalian children searching for food on the garbage dumps of Mogadishu. (Story)

– In Manila, the Philippines, whole villages sprouting on the garbage dumps, one of which was buried in an avalanche of trash in 2000, when a typhoon toppled its unstable garbage mountains. More than 200 people perished in the trash. (Story)

– Whole families living on the garbage dump of Steung Meanchey outside Pnom Penh. Again children are overrepresented. (Story)

– In Baghdad, Iraq, women (many of them widows who can’t find work) taking to combing through other people’s garbage cans to feed their children. (Story)

– In Luanda, Angola, the poor scavenging a livelihood off the city’s dumps.

– Roma children picking through the rubbish on the dumps in Ano Liosia, outside Athens.

– In Paraguachon, Venezuela, a whole community living on the garbage dump.

– in New Delhi people routinely scavenging collected garbage, at least what the dogs have left them.

– In Shkoder, Albania, an army of children swarming over the dump to extract whatever small value it contains as their own way to survive.

What exactly makes all these stories so deeply pathetic, so compelling–and so popular with photographers? Is it the sheer fact of defenseless children living in the middle of garbage, exposed to disease, stench, filth, and smoke? Is it the eloquence of the contrast between their innocence and the filth of the dump, the distance between their experience and anything we’d want for any children we know?

Is it about inequality–the fact that some are so poor that they must survive on what has no perceptible value to others? These stories gain some edge, I suspect, from the perversion of sharing and empathy that they embody. Do those leftovers have to go to the dump first before they can become available to the poorest of the poor?

In that regard, the images mutely ask us who we are. They are so dense with meaning and personal implication, in fact, that they become difficult to look at, at least for me. They make it very hard to continue on, blithely, with my everyday concerns in an everyday American context, in which it is easy to think that nothing is ever quite sufficient. At the same time, it’s not as if they offer an easy answer to the question of how to live instead.

For me, personally, that means living more modestly–with less stuff, a smaller footprint, less busy work. More thought and less running around. More structure and less convenience. I’ve come to think we make ourselves up every minute of the day, and I think I would like to do that a little more on my own terms, going forward.

Postscript June 16, 2008 – NPR has a story about Miroslava Enciso Limon, a young woman from Tijuana who visited the local garbage dump while in high school and saw the people who lived and ate off what they found there. She went on to become an engineer with the idea of building a machine that would mechanize their labor, offer protections from direct contact with putrescing garbage, and give them a regular income. She has succeeded in her plans, and the former scavengers are now city employees operating the machinery and still sorting trash by hand but with increased protection against disease and injury. To listen to the story: Recycling Plan Catches on in Tijuana

July 2018
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