Scavenging/Gleaning Then and Now, Here, There, and Everywhere

by cindy

Rogers provides an interesting historical insight into the process of scavenging as it relates to systems of waste management.  In 19th century New York City before mass waste collection began in earnest, squalid economies were built around sifting and sorting through refuse, and determining what could be either repurposed, reused or sold.  As waste removal systems became more mandated, systematic, and wide spread, these scavenging operations were re-located outside of the city to the landfills to which the waste was now transported en mass.  Depending on economic circumstances, scavenging – or gleaning as it is sometimes called – is/was alternatively viewed as either an allowable economic necessity or, in more developed mass consumer societies – as a threat to the engine of consumption which keeps the growth mandates of capitalism alive.  We can learn a lot about a society’s overall economic well-being, its relationship with global capitalism, consumption, systematic waste management, and human creativity by examining the state and nature of scavenging that exists within it.  Here are a few examples of scavenging/gleaning that came to mind when I was reading Roger’s historic account of the development of waste removal systems in 19th and 20th century America.

Film maker Agnes Varda looks at the French tradition of “gleaning” – literally in the agricultural sense, in her documentary, “The Gleaners and I”:

In today’s New York city, scavenging has an anarchist twist.  Brooklyn based organization the Freegans reclaims edibles from grocery and restaurant dumpsters from around the city:

In India, e-waste is treated as valuable for its re-use.  These electronic gleaners undertake the often toxic operation of removing valuable parts from the west’s computational discards:

Grandma Prisbery was born in the 19th century and grew up during the Great Depression.  She illuminates the creative mindset of thrift with the glorious “Bottle Village” waste art/shrine that she created from landfill scavenge in her home in Simi Valley, CA:,102

The new film Wasteland, is about the human ingenuity and creativity that producers art from the contents of the worlds largest landfill in Brazil:


1 Comment»

  jennykane324 wrote @

I think there’s still quite lot of gleaning/scavenging going on in the city today. There are the bottle/can recyclers, the book sellers and the scrap metal collectors who are all making a bit of money off the city’s discards.


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