Medina: Scavenging in historical perspective
Scavenging in historical perspective
Scavenging has existed for many centuries and there is a strong connection between scavenging and the mainstream (formal) economy. Rag pickers played a key role in paper making for hundreds of years until paper moved from cotton- to pulp-based production in the 20th century.
Waste is a valuable resource throughout history. Scavenging has been a response to resource scarcity, which was the driving force of informal collection, recycling and disposal up through the 19th Century (in the developed world). It has also been an adaptive response to poverty and lack of economic opportunity, particularly for migrants in rapidly urbanizing cities, not just recently (as seen in the developing world) but throughout American history (see p. 42). Scavenging in this period of industrial and urban development is also a response to resource shortages as industrial demand increased. Three factors drive the informal waste economy: increased urban population leads to increased waste; increased population density means there are fewer places to put the waste; lots of people are willing to do this work (scarcity of other options and potential economic gain from scavenging).
5 types of activities in 19c:
- informal, unorganized unregulated collection from public areas and streets
scavengers as refuse collectors (cities lacked formalized collection). this has two contexts, resource recovery/recycling and public service (maintaining public order)
sorting plants (NYC - built plants between collection and disposal where people would sort the waste - at first they did this for rights to the trash at no fee, eventually a fee was charged for access to the waste).
itinerant waste peddlers
at open dumps (scavengers paid to pick over the garbage, recovering up to 35%, saving disposal costs and providing revenue through the fees).
Scavenging/informal sector participation in waste management fell out of favor in the early 20th century in the developed world. In the argument between sanitation (public health) and resource recovery, given the technology available at the end of the 19th century and scientific knowledge of the time, sanitation won out. Cities banned or discouraged salvaging, particularly on open dumps, and the strong ties between scavenging and resource dependent enterprise became weaker, especially as it became cheaper to use primary (virgin) feed stocks, and uniformity of inputs became more critical in mass production.
At the end of the 20th century the environmental impact of resource extraction and wasted resources became more known. Recycling is now seen as a critical piece not only of resource recovery, but cost savings as municipalities divert waste from filling expensive landfills, and recover costs by selling valuable commodities such as paper and aluminum. Integrated waste management (informal collection and scavenging along side techno-managerial approaches) is now seen as a very effective means to resource recovery and waste reduction.
High market rates for recovered materials drives municipalities and scavengers to resource recovery at the end of the 20th century. Aluminum and paper, in particular, have a high market value. Municipalities in developed countries build up expensive capital (technology) in the form of MRFs, collection vehicles, sanitary landfills, and look at recycling as a way to recover costs.
Scavenging increases during crisis such as war or economic crisis (see p 46-47 for specific examples).
Given the technology that we now have available, scavenging has once again become a viable option, particularly for low-income cities that may not have the municipal budget to set up costly collection, recycling and disposal facilities. In these areas scavengers can facilitate collection, can provide valuable feedstocks to local industry and can help divert wastes from rapidly growing landfills.
In modern cities, scavenging poses a threat to cost recovery. Cities invest large sums of money in establishing the facilities for recycling, and scavenging renders these facilities useless, and removes valuable materials from the cost recovery stream.
This sets up an adversarial (competitive) relationship between informal and formal sector actors and those with power (the city) often win out. Cities enact laws to limit scavenging from public and private bins. In many ways it is in the developing world's "best interests" (cost recovery/profit) to advance and perpetuate the image of scavengers/dumpster divers as dirty, scary, marginal people, and promote the use of low-labor high-capital approaches.
If the context for scavenging is as a response to lack of economic opportunity/poverty, then as poverty decreases there is no reason to scavenge. For integrated systems, there has to be both short term goals (poverty alleviation) and long term ones (resource recovery/environmental protection) to drive policies that will have a long-term effect on waste reduction while also meeting economic development goals.