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It’s Not Just When the SHTF.

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Author of The ULTIMATE Survival Gear Handbook and  Street Survivalism

Here’s a fun fact. Approximately one percent of the urban population in developing countries makes their living from scavenging. And more than 15 million people get their income from waste picking worldwide. Scavenging is a multi-billion dollar industry and a way of living for many, even in wealthy nations.

It’s also one of the oldest economic activities known because living is consuming. Therefore we produce waste simply by existing. The type and amount of waste generated are constantly changing. The more wealthy and urbanized a society becomes, the more waste it will produce. A lot of folks think of scavenging as an activity that only happens after the SHTF, but it’s a way of life for many on the planet.

Waste management is crucial. Most people are just content to have their trash magically disappearing from the front of their houses every day and give this no second thought. I suspect society, in general, would be a lot more discerning and restrained (and respectful) about consumption habits if a more significant number of people became more aware of this process and its implications, but I digress.

What’s happening out there

Judging from what I have seen, the numbers above have grown rapidly since 2020. The social agents I speak with corroborate. The news is bad but still doesn’t show an accurate picture.

Tents are everywhere.

I’ve been meeting a lot more families that lost jobs, income, and homes. They are now in the streets and are scavenging their way to survive. Most people I spoke with admit they never thought they’d come to this, but insist that thinking like that is a mistake. It can and does happen anywhere, to anyone. Also relevant, it affects everyone, not only those who get evicted. This situation has developments that will impact the entire society.

I confess that despite forecasting a more severe slump since 2008, I always hoped we’d never come to this point and for so many. But now it seems that it won’t stop there and get worse before it turns again, unfortunately.

Why and how scavenging connects to prepping and survival?

When resources become scarce, people look everywhere for stuff. We naturally go from the easiest to the hardest when it comes to getting what we want or need. In other words, we start shopping at the nearest grocery store and end up scavenging as the situation worsens.

People scavenge for food to eat, for clothing to wear, and for appliances to use. Many make their living from collecting and selling scrap and recyclables. Scavenging takes place everywhere and at all times but grows exponentially during a crisis or some other SHTF. So, yes, it’s genuinely a survival activity.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

A lot of still-in-good-condition and usable stuff gets discarded all the time. Some of the stuff thrown away would be viewed as pure gold by the have-nots. Scavenging is a productive way for urban preppers to acquire items that can be used, recycled, repurposed, or sold.

Most people don’t even want to think about it

Understandably so: scavenging deals around trash and waste, and no one likes that. We instinctively know it’s unhealthy. But mostly, it’s seen as unpleasant and somehow detached and far from their reality. And yet, it’s so close at the same time.

So, there are serious mental and social barriers right there. I advocate thinking in different terms. Scavenging is a last resort, yet a legitimate and dignified activity, in my opinion – especially when compared to the option taken by many (crime, in case it isn’t clear). It’s hard and brings some risks, but it can come useful during difficult times.

“I’ve done so much with so little that now I can do anything with nothing.”

We hear that quite a lot when we’re in the streets, especially among the have-nots. Those who are (or have) hit rock bottom and reside on the fringes of society know all too well. For years, I followed and interacted with scavengers (or “catadores,” as we call them here). Still do on occasion. I’ve rummaged trash for food, “stuff,” and even tried a hand at collecting and selling recyclables. I faked trash-picking a couple of times to get out of trouble (I will go into this below).

Most scavengers are thick-skinned fellows hardened by years of street struggle

Some scavengers steal mostly metal parts from public lighting fixtures, manhole covers, handrails, electrical wires, even parts of statues and plaques from civic patrimony to sell as scrap or to vendors in second-hand or black markets. Cast iron, steel, or brass parts, especially copper, weigh quite a bit and are of high value.

But that’s a crime in most places and can be punished by law or by “popular justice.” It’s not uncommon for someone to get shot or badly beaten when caught stealing from private property or public appliances and utilities. It’s also risky: thugs do get hurt and even electrocuted when trying to steal electrical wiring, for instance.

For the most part, scavengers have no time nor inclination to follow safety rules and roam town searching for stuff to make a living. It’s very physically demanding to say the least. Coming back empty-handed means no food on the plate.

There aren’t many rules, but the few ones that exist must be respected, or there might be retaliation. Care must be taken with authorities and other street folks too. After all, it’s the dog-eat-dog life of the big city. Scavengers can and do get assaulted, robbed, scammed, just like everyone else.

Scavenging has four main practical aspects to it: what, how, where, and when

What is the type of stuff to scavenge. Mostly, food, recyclables (cardboard, plastic, glass, metals, old tires, etc.), construction materials, wearables, furniture and appliances, books, old records, discarded tools, toys, etc.

How is related to the safest and most productive ways to scavenge, using protection (gloves, perhaps a dust mask and goggles), the right tools (a crowbar, a poking pole, etc.), and the means of transport for the stuff collected.

Where is in respect to the most favorable places to look for each type of material. For instance, a person can find food around markets, food courts, and commercial spaces. You can usually find recyclables and materials around construction sites. Appliances, furniture, wearables, etc., are more commonly found in residential areas.

When relates to the best time, week, month, and year more appropriate to find the desired stuff. For example, when is the best time to discard/collect different materials in different moments and places? It takes time to get that right, but once you do, productivity increases considerably.

The social, physical, mental, and psychological barriers

Another important aspect of scavenging is the stigma. If you’re a “creature of the streets,” you’re almost nothing and invisible to a significant part of society. At the same time, you’re a potential target to another. I won’t go much into this. If you’re a prepper, you know your objectives and limits, so I’ll focus on the practical aspects of scavenging.

As expected, it’s both mentally and physically hard. At first, it may seem like a challenge or a break from the routine. But the toil is real. It’s psychologically taxing, too: even people born or living in landfills and abject misery don’t appreciate being around trash. It’s something we become accustomed to by necessity and contact only.

Physically it’s always demanding. Depending on some aspects, risky and even dangerous (there’s a fierce competition just like in every other activity). Even the smells are way different than what most people experience. It’s not rocket science, but it sure isn’t something for the sensitive.

That’s why I propose in my book that we try it now when things are “normal,” and we can find support if necessary (for example, in case of an accident). To have an idea, a feeling of what it takes, how to do it, and how we handle it.

Some tips for beginning scavengers

As with any trade, it takes years and a lot of hard work to learn and become proficient at something. This is not the idea here – unless you’re planning to start a recycling enterprise or become a full-time scavenger. But if you’re willing to try it for prepping purposes, here are some tips to help you get started and going:

  • Start slowly with your own trash (if you don’t already handle it yourself, of course). If you’re more sensitive, wear rubber gloves and a mask. Helping with the trash may even earn some points with your significant other and the landlord.
  • If the stigma worries you, start a collecting/recycling program in your building or area. This is usually seen favorably by other people and gets us dealing with trash and waste without others thinking we are crazy (or giving away that we’re preppers).
  • Picking aluminum cans in trash bins around town is another good, relatively easy start. It’s low risk, has almost zero opposition, and isn’t much demanding physically. But it puts us in the streets and contact with trash and waste.

Tools for scavenging

Get a decent, tough plastic bag to carry your stuff. This is fine for beer and soda cans and papers or cardboard in general but won’t be enough for pointy or too heavy items. You will have to carry heavy items in pull carts, but this is another level, so I’ll leave it out.

The crowbar is the “official” scavenger tool. It’s very useful and versatile. But in most places, it’s not seen too well by people and authorities: it’s too “professional” and, of course, can also be used as a weapon. Around here, if a scavenger gets caught using or even carrying a crowbar, it can raise suspicion because it gets used to dilapidate public and private property. Heed this warning; I’d assume it’s the same in most civilized places.

Still, we need something to poke and turn over the trash, both to search for stuff more safely (beware of glass, pointy and metal items, chemicals, etc.) and also to scare away animals and insects. A broomstick is an alternative – which one can easily find discarded in the trash, by the way. Some scavengers here use old crutches. I’ve used a folding blind’s cane. Whatever works.

Being in the streets can be unsafe in many ways, regardless of social status

The poor and the homeless can be victims of urban violence, as they’re more exposed to it. Even though belonging to the lower strips of society means no invisible cloak or safe pass against criminals and other dangers, it turns someone into a less interesting target to profiteers in general. There isn’t much to be made from someone who’s turning trash bins for a living (at least when things are normal).

I’ll go straight to the record and say there was some risk involved in what happened, especially the second time. It really was the opposite of what we preppers and survivalists advocate (“Don’t be where danger is”). But it is what it is, and I’m here to tell, so this works to illustrate some street dynamics, maybe keep in mind if things reach a boiling point one day.

Faking scavenging saved me from trouble – twice

Once a group of thugs came my way on an avenue where people get mugged daily for their smartphones. I could tell they locked on me. So, without showing that I noticed them, I casually turned into a trash bin and started picking some cans while following them with my peripheral vision. I noticed they lost interest and changed their attitude, and moved in another direction. I kept at it until they went their way to the other side of the avenue.

Another situation happened during the protests just before the impeachment of former president Roussef when the squares and avenues near my home were the stages for protests and riots. Even with the turmoil, I was still doing my outings (a risky thing to do, I admit) and somehow got into the thick of it (even riskier, I know). The police clashed with the rioters, and I took protection behind a lamp post with a trash bin. I guess the mob couldn’t care less for someone picking beer cans in the middle of the mess (if they even noticed me). After they passed, I went in the opposite direction and away.

Recyclables market and industry

The recyclables industry is somewhat area-specific, But, to see how it works, I dabbed into it and ended up selling aluminum cans, cardboard, and even metal scraps from construction sites to cooperatives. Basically, you collect stuff and take it to the recycling centers. It gets weighed, and you get paid in cash based on the daily rates for each material.

That’s the simple part. But as always, there’s a lot more to it. I got inquired a few times by other “catadores” trying to intimidate me and shove me away from their turf. Some have regular routes and may have fixed suppliers that we must respect. But other than that, there’s no territory. If a dispute arises, you have to defend yourself (or move away, which can be a more sensible option).

Landfills are dangerous and unhealthy, usually located out of town. Still, a lot of people live and work in such places. Some are off-limits, so workers do their stuff at night, using a headlamp or flashlight. It’s a hard, hard life for entire families. I met some scavengers who only pick stuff that can be recovered, for instance, old discarded furniture. Others take broken computers or toys, ornaments, and art. These may work with repair shops (or even own theirs) to recover and sell this stuff.

What are your thoughts on scavenging? 

This article is an excerpt from my street survival training book, based on my experiences in the streets. I hope it helps others learn about, think about, and perhaps become more open to the idea if things go bust. We never know.

How do you feel about “dumpster diving”, recycling and scavenging? Do you have experiences with this you want to share with other readers? Let’s talk about it in the comments section.

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who has practiced self-reliance and outdoor activities since his youth. Fabian also chooses to practice the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. 

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

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