|A London Mudlark ankle deep in refuse.|
But let's look first at England. Early Modern London had it's proud class of 'Mudlarks', plodding the muddy and silty mouth of the Thames at low tide for anything that could be scavenged and resold. From half-broken corn cob pipes to discarded food to bones, the Mudlarks sifted through garbage, excrement, animal and human remains, and worse to reap their harvest. Most Mudlarks were robust youngsters (which shouldn't surprise us given that most never reached their 20th birthday even if they grew up in luxurious circumstances), often orphaned or deserted, or at least without a skilled trade. Their tales have been told in 19th century novels such as Poor Jack, and more recently in Neal Stephenson's stellar Baroque Cycle, where main character Jack Shaftoe begins his adventurous journey through life as a garbage sifter and general ruffian in and around the Thames River. Amazingly, this job was legitimately seen as having a set of advantages not enjoyed by other professions, such as freedom to set one's own hours, being one's own boss in general, and working outside in the 'fresh' air. Their story also comes up in a book I've already mentioned, Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map. Here, the author talks about the decline of the Mudlark profession as London city planners eventually decided to re-direct human and material waste away from the river. The decision notably had nothing to do with the fact that the planners were concerned that city's river had the consistency of a hearty Hungarian goulash; rather, they simply wished to monetize waste materials. This included collecting and spreading London's massive supply of human excrement over the city's surrounding fields. In doing so, planners vastly improved the health of the city's iconic waterway and it's populace (which drew it's drinking water from the river), but also induced the decline of the Mudlark trade.
So centuries later, the urban waste bins of yesteryear – rivers and canals – have given way to today's rubbish bins, and instead of the Mudlarks, we now have Dumpster Divers. Lucky for them, city-dwellers no longer discard excrement and corpses in the same places they discard their household goods, food and clothing, making dumpster diving a marginally less pungent exercise. "The Local", an expat magazine here in Berlin, recently did a piece on the growing popularity of dumpster diving as a kind of sport. The mission: recover, eat, and yes, enjoy some of the 11 million tons of food discarded annually in Berlin. The interesting development with dumpster diving is that people aren't really doing it because they must, but "because they should", according to the Local's article. They're simply trying to do their part in reducing the massive waste by food service industries and the population at large, and by strict laws guiding product consumption and expiration dates. As long as one doesn't care if his/her fruit is sharing space with egg shells, dirty socks and half-eaten steaks, one can probably live solely off dumpster-dived rations.
|A Pfand-collectors wet dream.|
This brings me to my personal experiences with the Pfand Collectors: The last time I was at the ever-popular Görlitzer Park having a beer with a friend, the packed public park felt like a full-service outdoor bar, where empty beer bottles were promptly cleared by roaming collectors toting their bags on rollers. It even began to border on the overly attentive service one often gets in U.S. restaurants; collectors began to pester you for your bottles despite the fact you were in mid-swallow. I would venture to guess that any Pfand bottle in Berlin really only spends around 10-20 minutes in the garbage, on the ground, or in one's hand before the next collector comes along to swipe it. The best place to observe the sheer scope of the Pfand industry in Berlin, though, is to go to one of the few supermarkets that are open on Sunday (e.g. at the Hauptbahnhof or Friedrichstrasse) – following a long night (and morning) of revelry at the myriad clubs. Like trick-or-treaters with garbage bags full of candy, collectors wait in the queue to cash in their haul.
|Treasure hunting in Wedding.|
Update: it seems that New York has also become a popular spot for can collecting, in this case due to job losses in the industrial sector. Listen to this interesting and sad story at NPR.