Scavenging Code of Ethics

Now that the age-old prejudice against scavengers is lifting, the time has come to figure out our own moral code. We as a group need to decide for ourselves the standards by which scavengers should live. We need a code of ethics.

Of course, we’re merely authors, not prophets on a mountaintop, so the rules and suggestions you see here are not inviolable laws from on high, but rather the starting points for a discussion. If you think something is missing from this Scavenging Code of Ethics, by all means add your own commandments, warnings, vows, protocols, and provisos.

(This Code of Ethics has been adapted from The Scavengers’ Manifesto.)

If you want to embrace the scavenging philosophy, try your best to follow these principles:

1. Do not steal.

Scavenging is not about taking other people’s stuff. It’s quite the opposite: it’s about acquiring things that others either don’t want, or have discarded, or have no use for, or simply ignore. Doing anything that might remotely be classified as “theft” is not only illegal, but it undermines the very principles of scavenging; and by using scavenging as a cover story for theft, you ruin things for everyone else because you confirm the worst suspicions that society has about scavengers.

2. Do not harm the environment.

One of the best reasons to become a scavenger is to help the Earth. So it would be counterproductive to damage the environment while trying to save it.

Never ever remove living plants or animals from national parks, tide pools, or other environmentally sensitive areas. If you are metal-detecting on bare ground, always completely refill whatever holes you dig. After scavenging in Dumpsters, FREE-boxes, or other containers, replace everything that you aren’t going to take. Keep the surrounding areas tidy. Don’t leave junk scattered around.

3. Live comfortably; don’t deny yourself necessities just to prove your scavenging credentials.

Scavenge only if it makes you happy or if you have no choice, but don’t scavenge as a way to punish yourself. Scavenge for fun; scavenge as a hobby; scavenge as a profession; even scavenge as a lifestyle. But scavenging can actually get dangerous when it becomes an obsession.

Some people who are intrigued by the scavenging lifestyle are scared away because they think they must degrade themselves or live uncomfortably for the sake of some mysterious scavenging principles. Just always remember that one should scavenge only up to but not beyond one’s comfort level. If you’re okay with scavenged food — go for it. But if the very thought nauseates you, then please don’t force yourself to eat something from a Dumpster, just to prove your scavenging bona fides.

4. Don’t become a nuisance to your sources or your neighbors.

Let’s be honest: sometimes scavengers can be terrible neighbors. Especially the kind of scavenger who doesn’t have enough room to store all the stuff he drags home. Don’t become one of those stereotypical packrats who give scavengers a bad reputation by piling junk everywhere and becoming a nuisance to your neighbors. All it takes is a few out-of-control hoarders to give us all a bad name.

5. Don’t remove historical or archaeological artifacts from areas where they are protected.

The United States is full of historical sites that are protected by law. Battlefields, ghost towns, Native American settlements, archaeological sites, historic buildings, and so on. As tempting as it might be, never ever remove any artifacts of any kind from protected sites such as these. It might feel like scavenging, especially when no one else is around, but there’s another name for it: looting. And it’s a scavenging no-no.

But that doesn’t mean everything antique is necessarily off-limits. If you’re out metal-detecting and find a musket ball in an unmarked area or in a known battlefield where collecting artifacts is allowed, then by all means you can keep it.

6. Make an effort to return lost things of great value if the owner can be found.

This self-evident “rule of thumb” applies to everybody, not just scavengers, but it has special significance to us because, well, we find more things than most people do. Scavengers are the ones with their eyes on the ground, who are scanning sidewalks and gutters and who are glancing behind museum benches and checking under their movie theater seats. We find nickels and watches and bifocals and shopping lists and baseball caps and, yes, even the occasional ten-dollar bill. And in most circumstances you are free to keep such things. What else can you do, raise the ten-dollar bill above your head during downtown rush hour and yell, “Anybody lose ten bucks?”

But the thrill of finding something valuable can become a moral dilemma when the owner of that something can possibly be identified. In particular: wallets, credit cards, and cell phones. Every Boy Scout — hell, anybody with a conscience — knows that when you find a wallet, the right thing to do is try to contact the person who lost it. All you have to do is imagine how you’d feel if you lost your wallet, and the empathy gene kicks in.

7. Don’t eat gross things.

This needs to be a rule? Even cavemen pretty much knew not to eat gross things. But culture and psychology can wield strange effects on people. And sometimes the obvious needs to be restated.

This rule is for people at the extremes: for both hardcore scavengers who seem to occasionally abandon common sense when it comes to putting things in their mouths, and for potential newcomers to the world of scavenging who are afraid that they might be pressured to eat garbage. Let’s start with the second group first.

Listen carefully: If you become a scavenger, there is no compulsion to eat food out of Dumpsters. It’s in there, but you don’t have to take it out and you don’t have to eat it. There is no scavengers’ hazing ritual where you must do something revolting as a prerequisite for “joining the gang.” Only a subset of scavengers ever eat any kind of scavenged food, anyway. It’s perfectly acceptable to embrace a scavenging identity and continue eating what you’ve always eaten. You can make fashion accessories out of scavenged materials or go beachcombing or prowl for bargains at thrift stores, earning your stripes as a scavenger — and still eat “normal” food bought fresh at the supermarket. It isn’t necessarily an all-encompassing lifestyle.

8. Don’t brag or browbeat others; scavenging is not for everybody.

Even if you’ve grown proud of your scavenger lifestyle or hobby, try to resist becoming a Scavenging Snob. It’s not a good way to win converts. Remember that scavenging is not for everybody. And it can’t be for everybody, or we’d all be squabbling over the same limited secondhand resources. If you want to gently lead others into a scavenging mindset, lead by example — not by bullying or braggadocio.

9. Don’t poach things from other scavengers.

This is actually a corollary of the first commandment. Because once another scavenger has claimed something, then it becomes his or her possession; and if you poach it, then you are in essence stealing. If you are at a garage sale at the end of the day and the seller has announced that everything that’s still there is free or almost free, and several scavengers are scrambling around, making caches of stuff to keep, don’t snag something from another scavenger’s cache when his or her back is turned. And if, in another circumstance, you see something that has been put out on the street and labeled for a nonprofit or charity to pick up, just leave it there, no matter how tempting it might be.

10. Do not scam.

In a sense, this too is actually part of Rule 1, because scamming is a form of stealing, whether the victim being scammed into giving away goods or money under false pretenses is a charity, a nonprofit, a religious or academic institution, a private business, an individual, or the government. Lying in order to extract something from others is deceptive, manipulative, and totally immoral.

Lying about your circumstances, claiming to be poor when you’re not (or at least poorer than you actually are), claiming to be unemployed when you’re not, claiming to be disabled when you’re not, claiming to support more dependents than you’re supporting, claiming to live somewhere where you don’t actually live — these are classic and all-too-common scams perpetrated with the aim of getting free stuff. And they’re all too often all too successful, resulting in massive quantities doled out in benefits, scholarships, handouts, free food, free housing, free medical care, and aid programs of every stripe. Getting such aid because you’re destitute without it is one thing. Lying to get it is larcenous greed.

11. Don’t be a mooch.

Scavenging is supposed to be about serendipity: finding things that Lady Luck puts in your path. And sure, you can guide yourself through life in such a way that increases your chances of not-so-randomly acquiring things for free. But one must be very careful not to cross the line into moocherdom. Because nobody likes a mooch.

You know you’ve become a mooch when you consciously target specific individuals to be the sources of your “scavenged” acquisitions. You’ll hang around kindhearted or well-off suckers and act needy or desperate. And whenever they offer you something, you always take them up on it. And then you just keep coming back for more.

That’s not being a scavenger — that’s being a parasite.

12. Don’t bring shame unto scavengers and scavenging.

This is not really a separate rule unto itself. Rather, it’s a summation of all the rules above. If you’re going to follow only one scavenging principle, let it be this one: Act in a way that brings credit to scavengers as a group. Always keep in mind the notion that, if you identify as a scavenger, when you embarrass yourself, you’re embarrassing all of us.

Here’s a stand-alone list of Scavenging Dos and Don’ts — or to be more grandiose, Scavenging Commandments:

Obey the law.
Don’t be aggressive or abusive.
Always clean up after yourself.
Don’t harm plants, animals, or people.
Learn from your finds.
Don’t live like a slob.
Appreciate the small things.
Don’t endanger your health.
Be someone that others would want to emulate.
Don’t become a creepy eccentric.
Help the planet.
Don’t be a parasite.
Be modest.
Be courteous.
Don’t steal.


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  1. I would suggest adding the directive to “close the lid after you have been in a dumpster or a public garbage can.”
    I do not disapprove of people scavenging through street side litter and recycling cans for food or other resources, but when they leave the lid hanging by the side of the bin or they leave the dumpster lids flipped open, they are hurting the waste system. LIds are important elements for keeping birds and other pests out, keeping rain water out, and in many cases such as street side recycling – maintaining effective signage for bin users.
    That’s my .02 worth.
    I enjoyed the site.

  2. #7. Don’t eat ‘gross’ things refers to dumpsters. Not ALL food in dumpsters is gross, especially if it simply passed the ‘fresh’ date. Some produce might only have a bruise or cans be dented. Check it out, particularly if you live near the restaurant district in a city.

    ‘Dented Can’ stores provide a wide variety of produce, frozen, dry and canned goods at very low prices. Avoid bloated cans as they likely indicate dangerous bacterial growth.

    Roadkill is another fine source of karma-free protein… just make sure it wasn’t a gut-rupturing hit and that the kill is fresh (red blood that runs & no bloating). Don’t puncture intestines while dressing the carcass. And, if there are laws prohibiting picking up game without a permit, be discrete or get a permit. I’ve dined well on grouse and venison.

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