Scavenger's Manifesto: HOWTO be an urban scavenger

Salon's Katharine Mieszkowski went out foraging with the authors of The Scavengers' Manifesto, a book that explains how to live off the fat of the city: freegan, dumpster-diving wild-herb-harvesting life that lets you enjoy the good things without spending a penny. The econopocalypse means good finds for the pair, but it makes everything a little...grim.
Rufus is motivated in her scavenging less by any environmental ideal than by a deep abhorrence of waste: "I hate it when I see really good stuff in garbage cans. Just chucking stuff away? Junking it? That makes me really mad. It's going to go to a landfill, and some person, poor or not poor, could have had it." In their book, the couple outline a scavenger code of ethics, which includes the admonishments to "obey the law" and "don't eat gross things."

But Rufus and Lawson are acutely aware that scavenging is by definition a fringe activity feeding off the fat of the consumer culture it depends upon. After all, if everyone did it, there would be nothing but scraps left to fight over. But they're confident there's enough to go around for many more people who could be converted to their never-pay-retail mentality. Still, they recognize that the idea of wearing, eating or living with someone else's castoffs is not for everyone, which is OK, too. "We're not saying we're better than regular consumers. We're simply trying to remove the stigma from being scavengers. If you want to be wasteful, be wasteful, and I'll scavenge," says Lawson.

At the end of our afternoon of scavenging, we go just a few blocks past Lawson and Rufus' house to an oak-lined field in Tilden Park, a more than 2,000-acre oasis in the hills. The field is carpeted with so-called Miner's lettuce, a leafy native plant, which is the object of our urban foraging.

Taking in the trash

The Scavengers' Manifesto


  1. A large portion of my social group would be malnourished if it weren’t for dumpster diving. Yes: food from dumpster.

    But we also have a don’t eat anything gross rule.

  2. what a great sounding book! I hope someone throws out there copy so i can find it in the trash in the future.! is an interesting dumpster diving/freecycling resource & I urge everyone to get involved & edit some pages!

  3. Almost 4 years as a garbage man taught me that ppl will throw out anything. That was the life, getting PAID to scavenge!

    Plus, what gym pays you to do aerobics all day?

  4. Here’s what I’ve scavenged from the streets of Melbourne on hard waste days:

    Queen-size bed (quite nice but too big so I put it back)
    Components of a single bed (base, mattress, surrounding frame)
    Vinyl beanbag (ugh)
    Laundry basket
    Big honking wooden desk (had some grafitti on the top but a quick sand and varnish later it came up aces)
    4 stereo systems
    2 TVs
    19″ Trinitron CRT monitor
    Lava lamp
    Touch-sensitive cheapo bankers lamp
    Wire display racks (converted into shelving)
    Athlon XP 2000 (including case, motherboard, CPU, RAM, 2x CD and DVD burners)
    A few Playstation 1s
    Commodore 64 with some games
    Lots of PC games (including boxed copy of Doom 2, collector’s edition of Age of Empires)
    Series 2 of Deadwood on DVD

    The hardest part is finding out when hard waste days are; mostly you learn by happening to drive through the suburb and noticing the huge piles of garbage on the nature strips.

  5. Commodore 64? Man some guy is going to be pissed when he finds out his wife tossed that out. Lawl

  6. JestarJokin, check the website of the municipality that you’re thinking about cruising the night before big-trash day — most will post the pickup dates on their websites, so you can plan in advance what night to go looking!

    I’m all over picking up furniture, and have done so a few times, but I’ll only go so far. Food out of a dumpster? I hope to God I’m not ever hungry enough to even think seriously about it. Botulism just doesn’t sound like a fun perk. I know, I know — not everything is rancid…but there’s really not a good way to tell the good from the bad.

    Plus, I’m accident prone — if I were to even try dumpster-diving, I’d be a headline the next day — Dumpster Diver Impaled on Curtain Rod. St Peter would laugh his ass off when I had to tell him how I died.

  7. Standing chatting to a neighbour the other day I was eyeing up some black sacks in his garden, it was stuff thrown out by a tenant at his flat and was heading to the dump. I could see there were some bags in there that would be useful and to his amusement I started pulling them out. Followed by a glass vase, a travel plug, various other curios and £8 + ~€8 in coins. I left the rice cooker full of burnt rice, but I bet it still worked if you cleaned it up.
    Amazing that some people will throw away cash money!

  8. if u like this i recommend the book Evasion (tell me if uve heard of it)

    my mentionable dumpster finds –

    two perfectly good typewriters(just needed new ribbons)
    very cool purses (that are mentionable cuz they convinced my gf to keep dding with me)
    endless rolls of coax
    and my fav – atleast a dozen vid game ad cardboard cutouts and movie posters (vid and game store dumpsters rock)

  9. oh and not to sound mean or anything #7 – for some reason i dont think furniture items-(especially) or old videogames count —- maybe im weird but i usually pass that stuff up (must be weird)

  10. I love the book cover’s claim that dumpster diving can save not only the entire earth, but my immortal soul. Really?

    /silly hippies.

  11. So what dumpster do I get that book at? While people actually DO scavenge for things in the third world, here we are in developed countries idealizing scavenging as something inherently “cool”. Pathetic!

  12. I found my queen-size wooden bed neatly disassembled in a sidewalk. It is rock solid, in perfect shape, and I’ve been using it for years. But the matress is new, I wouldn’t use a scavenged one.

  13. paramax — is a philosophical choice to use less and subsist happily — its not “cool” in fact its downright uncool if not even subversive

  14. paramax — is a philosophical choice to use less and subsist happily — its not “cool” in fact its downright uncool if not even subversive

    Eh, I disagree. I go for a very minimalistic life. Granted, I don’t go to the extreme of dumpster diving for dinner, but that amount of “stuff” I have is pretty bare bones and basic. Most people that I know (and granted, I do live in Cambridge/Somerville, MA where people are not exactly “average”) are rather envious of my life style. I think most people like the idea of being free from “stuff”, they just have a hard time executing on it.

    If you look at the extreme stereotype, think of some eastern monk who has achieved detachment, contentment, and enlightenment. Most people might not choose that life style, but I think that most people admire it greatly. Granted, if are a dirty bleary eyed hippie rooting around a dumpster for dinner you probably are not going to have any admirers.

  15. I definitely generate boxes of “good things I no longer want” and know the feeling of waste. Our Goodwill stores get so many items they are picky about what they take.

  16. @ 11 Yeah, Evasion, I remember that book, part of the whole Crimethinc (sp?) thing, right? I am not a dumpster diver, but I get it. The window in my office faces the back side of a ritzy grocery store and there are always kids out there in tight jeans smoking hand-rolled cigs and leaning up against the wall with their fixed gear bikes waiting for the clerks to come out with the old produce and gently set it on top of the actual refuse in the dumpster with a wink and a nod so that it can easily be scooped up. I think the policy would change if there were some grimy homeless types lined up out there for a handout. Who knows.

  17. Rindan-you have articulated the very problem this book is trying to correct; the image of scavenging as something done by “dirty bleary eyed hippies”.
    The foods mostly pulled from dumpsters are cans that are dented but not out of date and still sealed day old breads, not the scraped out leftover deli salads and fried chicken.
    And that eastern monk mostly gets to enjoy his detachment because someone else brings him a bowl or two of rice that was grown somewhere else.
    Many of the scavengers will pull goods they don’t use to either give away or resell to thrift stores and charities. If you’re going to toss the baby clothes once they’re outgrown, why shouldn’t another baby get to wear them? After all, they’re probably in a plastic bag, and baby stuff is made to washed a lot.
    And the third world families who make their livings by scavenging off of industrial and electronic waste are first-responding recyclers. They are finding a resource which has value and extracting it from it’s surrounding dross, for which they get paid. Not enough, mind you, but still something. It just doesn’t look all technological and shiny, so it must be horrible and demeaning. But it sure beats starving.

  18. you can still have cable tv – and a jetta (just for example) and find useful “treasure” while getting exercise, having fun, and keeping stuff from ending up in a landfill — and the whole idea of practicing subsistence incase… oh… one day you HAVE TO – thats not a bad idea either – different degrees of philosophical choices here – remember… anarchy is a state of MIND

  19. and #22 – ur right – alot has to do with appearances — but when i worked at a pizza place we ALWAYS – saved the leftover pizzas for the homeless dudes that would be waiting in the alley (usually wede even make extra on purpose) – not trying to sound like im better than a grocery-store clerk – but most people do what they can… ide like to assume…

  20. I grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, my father was VP of Sales at his company, and my mother was a teacher.

    We still shopped at thrift stores, garage sales, and flea markets, and my mother was an unstoppable curb-picker. I think she’d probably draw the line at dumpster diving, likely only because climbing in and out of the dumpster, and dragging her finds out, would be too hard.

    She eventually had to “curb” her habit because the family home was quite full, but when I bought a house with my husband she went berserk and furnished the whole place for under $200. We’re even well decorated – admittedly we look a little like the 70’s are still going on, but everything matches and the house has original 70’s parquet flooring anyways.

    I think mom actually has an edge because of the neighborhood she’s in – well off people buy some expensive things that can last through lots of use, and then throw them out when they’re still in good shape because the color isn’t trendy any more.

  21. I nearly bought an overpriced designers’lamp when someone left one in my apartment block’s dumpster. There was nothing wrong with it either!

  22. does this book cover the opposite end of the spectrum? How to effectively rid yourself of stuff and pass it on? I hate throwing still usefull stuff out and yet don’t always know how/where to pass it on. Putting it on the curb is not a good option where I live. Ideas appreciated.

  23. I love the concept of finding things and reusing them. As I move from a long term living situation, I’m really embarrassed at the amount of crap I’ve accumulated. The problem is, there’s nothing I can do about a lot of it. I rarely purchase stuff, but when I do, it comes with a whole bag of wonderfully useless goodies (packages, plastic bits, do-dads) that you can’t give away or do anything with but throw away. Still, taking the time to look for things that other people don’t want, that you can use, could save your soul, considering how crushing owning crap can be over time.

    I’m also a little incensed at the bleary eyed hippy statement as a pejorative. I knew a group of hippies whose daily activities where to dumpster dive for groceries, sort the good stuff from the bad stuff, then redistribute it to the poor and homeless in their communities. Sorry if you look at their lifestyle on the surface as ‘dirty’ and distasteful, but they’re doing the world a service, in their own little way.

  24. When in college, I befriended a homeless man who had a degree and could have been quite affluent but chose instead to be a kind of Sufi mystic, conscientiously not participating in the economy. I let him have a broken bathroom in our coop to live in that no one would fix and he was quite happy with it. I would give him all the fruit that was too ripe for general consumption and he would wait several more weeks before eating it. He had the dumpster diving down; knew exactly where to go and when, and it was always amazing to see what he’d pull out of the someone’s trash. One time I challenged him to produce a meal for us that would be as good as any we might buy at the store, and he did it in just a few hours! How did we know the food was good? He pulled out steaks, still frozen, in their original packaging and well within the use-by date (he knew where the condos were where people would throw out the contents of their fridge rather than move them.) We ate very well that night and I happily lost the bet. He knew all kinds of hatha yoga and shiatsu massage and contributed to everyone’s well being with his wisdom and non-sequitor interjections. It was quite fascinating to watch him at work.

  25. @27, see if there’s a freecycling group in your area ( It’s basically classified ads for free stuff!

    If it’s outdated electronics, you could investigate recyclers who will accept the goods (though you usually have to pay for them to take it, which is a bit daft). Whitegoods can always go to a scrap metal merchant.

  26. The field is carpeted with so-called Miner’s lettuce, a leafy native plant, which is the object of our urban foraging.

    Be careful – the urban ground your plants are growing in could be toxic, and some toxins get drawn up into plants. Legally acceptable levels of toxins in the ground may be higher if an area is not zoned for residential use. This makes me sad, because otherwise I love the idea of urban foraging. Maybe just do a little research into previous uses of the land you’re foraging on first? Perhaps this is even mentioned in the book.

  27. I’m all for scavenging in theory — I *love* finding something cool and weird and integrating it into my home.

    But now that I’m a New Yorker, I am terrified of bedbugs. One person with one infested couch can unleash months of itchy parasitic pain on an apartment building.

    Whenever I see an abandoned piece of furniture on the side of the street I fantasize about being Kurt Russel with a flamethrower in “The Thing,” and performing a valuable public service.

  28. Living in Africa I perhaps have a different take on the entire idea of ‘scavenging’. You see in this part of the world this idea is not a new one, we have had scavenging for decades but we have had scavenging due to necessity. There are literally hundreds of thousands of poor and destitute people in Africa who are forced to scavenge on a daily basis.

    Unfortunately though there are still massive income disparities and far too many people who are wasteful even when they are fully aware of the levels of suffering other people they share the continent with live with. Having seen how many people are forced to scavenge though I find it hard to accept that there are people who would do it willingly – though maybe scavenging is not quite as off putting when you actually have a house to return to after your nightly forage.

  29. @#27, LakeLady,
    Allow me to introduce you to the joys of Freecycle, which is basically an internet free garage sale. It’s great. I’ve gotten rid of TONS of great, but not useful to me, stuff and actually gotten a few goodies too. I put a post saying I was looking for a water bath canner (to do fruits and jams) and a guy said he had one. I’ve been using it about a year and a half now and it’s been a gem.

    Also, I belive Craiglist has a free section.

  30. One of the first libraries I worked at hosted a used book sale. Mainly books that had gone beyond repair or were radically out-dated non-fiction (“One day our Astro-Men will walk upon the surface of fair luna!”) plus many donated books.

    At the end of the book sale we had a bunch left over. Being librarians, we did not want to throw out even the most grotty of materials. You don’t throw out books.

    So we tried to donate them to a brown elephant, who did not want them, then a university library (historical purposes?), even just giving them away in the vestibule, no dice.

    Finally found a home for them in the Book and Paper arts program at Columbia College. Those old books have been mutated, shredded and transformed into countless works of art. Wonderful.

    The lesson learned, Artists always need raw materials.

  31. Bravo to the minimalists, but I love having stuff :D Although it’s gonna be a pain when we move later this summer.

  32. @ 36- Yeah, the Craigslist ‘free’ section is unreal. Seriously, anything that you are possibly thinking of throwing away that you think *might* be of some value to someone will definitely get snatched up right away (at least in Chicago I guess). In the past year I have gotten rid of half a garage full of stuff to thankful people, rather than cramming it into the dumspter at the end of the block. I also traded an old oak desk for a big jade plant – yahtzee!

  33. “”We’re not saying we’re better than regular consumers. We’re simply trying to remove the stigma from being scavengers. If you want to be wasteful, be wasteful, and I’ll scavenge,” says Lawson.

    Translation: We’re not saying we’re better than regular consumers, but really, we are.

    Without coming down one way or the other on scavenging, this single sentence makes me cringe at the hipper than thou attitude. And this from someone who regularly grabbed the sealed, perfect day-old baguettes from the dumpster of the bakery next door for years.

  34. #34 Thank you for the moment of sanity!

    Before jumping enthusiastically into the lifestyle of reuse (which is a good thing) please remember: While people can be lazy, often if something has been thrown out it’s for a reason.

    Lamps and other electronics that “seem to work” may have faulty wiring and are dangerous fire risks.

    In large cities, assume that furniture, clothing, mattresses, rugs and upholstery are infested! Bedbugs are a growing problem and it’s -because- of dumpster diving.

    Any of the above that have been outside long enough to attract pigeons or other urban birds may have lice as well.

    Still sound like a good deal?

  35. Lectroid@40: Yeah, I agree. I was with him til he decided that either you are a scavenger or are wasteful.

    Speaking of day-old baked goods: When I did deliveries for a local bakery, they didn’t really care what I did with the day-olds, so I would hand them to all the homeless people I saw on my route (and tied bags of them sometimes to my friends’ doors for a surprise when they awoke.) It got to where some of the folks got to know my route and waited patiently for me, shouting: “Here comes the muffin man!” when I would arrive. It made me glad to get up at 3am. =D

  36. @ Flaminica: “…often if something has been thrown out it’s for a reason.”

    While I gather you are simply expressing your role as the necessary, balancing, cautious Voice of Reason, here’s some counterpoint:

    these are true, common reasons I’ve seen personally via family and people I’ve known at dorms and apts:
    -didn’t like the color
    -moving and don’t want to bother with transporting or storing it
    -got bored and bought something new
    -neat-freak and can’t handle owning anything that shows the slightest sign of usage
    -a continually upgrading gadget geek
    -too lazy to find out where to recycle e-waste

    Anyway as an aside, an interesting, non-American perspective upon food “dumpster diving” is the French documentary “The Gleaners & I”

  37. I live near a university, so there is a constant inflow and outflow of people and their stuff. As a result, we have regular junkmen and freelance recyclers who go through the alleys the night before garbage pickup every week. People know to put out “good” stuff separately or on top of the closed garbage bins to signal “hey, look at this…it’s yours if you want it” and to ensure that the usable items don’t get mucked up by all the real garbage. They’ll even pick up used appliances to tinker with or else sell for scrap. It’s a great system.

  38. My rules are:

    – Don’t even consider food. My guts are way to sensitive to take the risk.

    – Nothing with any kind of stuffing or upholstery that a bug could get into

    – Nothing that’s been exposed to rain

    Best place to scavenge is the rent-a-locker places at the end of the month when they throw out all the stuff in the lockers whose rent hasn’t been paid for in a long time. Also when people empty out their lockers to move away and don’t have room for some stuff. Highrise apartment buildings do the same thing with their lockers and stuff that people just leave behind when they move.

    My notable hauls:
    – A red-leather, swivel, high-back, coastered bankers chair. One small ding on the base. It was sitting on top of a massive oak desk in the dumpster that was easily worth several grand but that I would have needed a crane to get back out of the dumpster.

    – Two identical halogen floor lamps from different parts of the city. People throw these out because they have some crazy European wattage bulb that you can’t buy here. However, we do have bulbs that fit the (standard) socket but are just 10W lower.

    – $400 worth of Lego including the deluxe undersea base still in the original box. I broke the “no rain” rule for this and rinsed the bricks off in vinegar in a colander: standard day-care operating procedure.

    – Banker’s green-shade lamp

    – Enough shelving to line the walls of my locker

    – A 1960’s leather perambulator with wacky metal strip suspension.

    – 1949 Remington typewriter in mint condition

    – Working 16 port Ethernet hub

    – 2 Faux-leopard-skin cushioned wooden frame chairs that just needed a tiny paint fix.

    – The contents of local radio personality Peter Gzowski’s office: presumably put in storage, and then eventually not paid for, after he died. I took his coffee mug. Tossed all of his interview preparation notes and the invoices from all of the musicians that ever performed on his show. The latter had way more than enough information for some serious identity theft.

    – A Digital Equipment Corporation pack of cards with pictures of PDP-11s and the motto “The Future is NOW!” on the back.

    – Box of “BBC Canada” (??) Dr. Who sound effect tapes on reel-to-reel. Sound like they were from the Pertwee or Baker era.

    – 2m by 2m trophy case, circa 1980 I’d guess, that I’ll use as DVD storage.

    – 2m long solid maple boot/shoe rack with brass studs that I use as DVD storage

    – A 2.5m high metal cabinet with a roll-down front that was originally used to store 2400 ft. computer reel-to-reel tapes. Holds my graphic novel collection now.

    – Metal printer table that now has my turntable on it.

  39. Recent finds of note:

    Dell 19″ flatscreen monitor. I guess someone upgraded to a larger widescreen flatscreen and didn’t know what to do with the “little” monitor that came with their computer.

    Biostar iDeq 210v computer. 2.2 Ghz, 512 mb ram, nvidia 6100 grafix. Worked fine. I put a larger drive (320 gb SATA, scavenged) and a DVD burner (also scavenged) in it and installed Mythbuntu. A co-worker is turning it into a PVR.

  40. #40 Flaminica

    “Lamps and other electronics that “seem to work” may have faulty wiring and are dangerous fire risks.”

    A multimeter and a screwdriver are useful items, so much so that I’ve never found a working multimeter on a skip (dumpster). Plenty of screwdrivers and other tools though.

    I have stuff from skips I’d hesitate about whether I could afford to buy or not, for example a Mart Stam chrome and leather chair, and the seriously heavy duty paper shredder I found the other day thrown out by the Department of Health – about two years old, list price £700.

    I usually leave scrap metal / wire unless I have an immediate use for it, there are people who go round after it for a living, and they need the money more than I do.

  41. I learned all about the new and used books industries when in the late ’70s I saw SF’s Howard St. Goodwill threw dumpster loads of books into trucks destined for the city dump.

    When I asked the manager how they sorted out the salable books from the trash books, he said: “We keep the new and shiny ones for the store.” In other words, primarily mass market shit books. The manager didn’t allow me to sort through the bins, he’d only sell them by having them dumped into a pickup. So I purchased a ramshackle pickup for $200, rented a lockable dumpster, put it in a shitty out of the way area, and got dumpster loads of books for $10 a haul.

    I learned the used book industry by selling the sorted loads in Berkeley and SF, and soon enough reached the stores’ breaking point. Too much, too cheap. But all a great lesson.

    BTW: why do some BB posters feel that they deserve other people’s work for free? Do some BB posters feel that other people need to be their intellectual slaves, to spend their lives writing, editing and posting for nothing? Or filming? Do you think the advertising model works for entire books? If BB readers want books cheap, they can wait until the book is remaindered…

  42. I have to admit that I will not dumpster dive for food and most furniture is out of the question (though I will usually take freebies from people I know). On the other hand, my local walmart has a “day old” bakery section that I raid everytime I’m there.

    Just got a pretty decent gas grill that could use a little work. Will be interesting to see how much is actually working (the previous owner was using it with charcoal)

    I work at a tech firm so i’m always bring home oddities from the scrap heap :D.

  43. It is good to hear that others like myself do not exist to consume mindless technology or things,things,things!

  44. After just last night watching the “Dumpster Baby” episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” I find this post and comments especially hilarious.

    Yes, you can spend countless hours of your time scavenging for things you don’t really need, or spend a more reasonable amount of time working, earning money, and buy the things that you need.

    Scavenging can be an enjoyable hobby, but it is no way to live.

    1. Scavenging can be an enjoyable hobby, but it is no way to live.

      Anything that keeps that crap out of landfills is a great way to live.

  45. How about not buying that crap. You don’t need to fill your life with crap to make the world a better place.

    Scavenging is not recycling. It is collecting. If you want to collect crap, more power to you.

  46. i didnt realize these things would get out of order – i refuse to make any effort to clarify who i was talking to – sorry everybody

  47. I’m a scavenger, maker, fixer & dumpster-diver. I’m also a renter, and someone who travels often. I have some possessions that are important to me (photos, clothes, shoes, computer), and a whole lot that aren’t (all of my furniture).

    I think of curb-crawling, dumpstering & freecycling as ‘dipping in’ to this great river of objects that flows through the world. Rather than factory -> my house -> rubbish dump, objects go from factory -> rich person’s house -> rich person’s younger cousin’s house -> younger cousin’s university friend’s house -> footpath outside the university -> my house -> my friend’s house -> my friend’s kid’s sister’s new place -> etc etc, until it disintegrates and it’s component parts are scavenged to create something else. I don’t own it so much as borrow it, for a moment, on it’s travels. At the times in my life when I need a desk, clothes racks, chests of drawers etc, there is no need for me to purchase them or cause them to be manufactured. Someone, somewhere, will be desperately needing to get rid of those things, and we just need to cross paths and they’ll be mine. I can release them just as happily once I no longer need them anymore, and take pleasure in providing for someone who has need of them. I am not attached to my objects. They are only mine for as long as they are useful in my life, and then- they’re someone else’s.

  48. It’s all fun and games until you bring home something full of bed bugs. Do yourself a favor and leave the furniture at the street. Seriously, who’s bringing used mattresses into their house? Ew. 1,000 x grosser than eating tossed food.

  49. If you like the Scavenger Manifesto you should check out Steven Zelin’s song “Free Furniture Day,” which is about finding furniture on the street on garbage day in New York City! Free listening sample is available at

  50. hopefully, none of the posters here need to DD as a way of survival, but more for the thrill of the hunt and the fun of getting something cool for nothing. Thats the reason I enjoy it!

    Have fun and dont take it too seriously.


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