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The man who lives on rubbish

Dumpster-diving with Patrick O’Hare, the anthropologist fighting for our right to what people throw away.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“What is your purpose here?” I watched as two officials in hi vis jackets interrogated the anthropologist Dr Patrick O’Hare, when he took me “dumpster-diving” at his local recycling centre in north Cambridge. His crime? Reaching into the ceramics skip for an intact, blue-and-white striped John Lewis cereal bowl. It was taken off him, and he was led to a Portakabin for questioning.

No one is allowed to help themselves to things discarded at the dump: a rule that was enforced, O’Hare recalled, when the waste facility was outsourced by the council to a private contractor in 2008. Everything now is processed beyond locals’ reach, and what little is salvaged – a cluster of garden benches, cabinets and trikes were available on our visit – is sold to the public for profit. 

Despite the bowl that got away, this little escapade illustrated a point the 35-year-old University of St Andrews academic makes in his new book, Rubbish Belongs to the Poor. Even waste, perhaps the final frontier of common ownership, he writes, is being commodified and fenced off from those who need it most. 

“Does everyone have a right to access things that other people throw away?” 

Rethinking the way society views rubbish, O’Hare describes a modern-day version of the loss of the “English commons”: public land for peasants’ use that began to be enclosed for manorial ownership from the 12th century. Indeed, waste-pickers have a rich tradition in radical thought going back centuries: Karl Marx wrote of the Parisian rag-pickers in his 1852 essay The Eighteenth Brumaire, and Charles Dickens described sifters at the dust heap in his novel Our Mutual Friend 13 years later.

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“When multinational companies are taking over the running of recycling sites and landfills, what kind of practices of enclosure do they bring with them for what essentially should be a public service?” asked O’Hare. “What is public, what is common, what belongs to the state? Does everyone have a right to access things that other people throw away?” 

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With his wild dark curls and bright green eyes, an “Everything is Politics” badge pinned to his bobbly knitted jumper, O’Hare had a glitter of mischief about him as he politely took his leave from the dump. Along with the eco-friendly and money-saving benefits of dumpster-diving, its adventure and community feeling appeals to him. It is a reminder of his childhood growing up in the Glasgow tenements, playing with neighbouring kids in the shared backs, “in and out of other people’s gardens, over walls and getting into trouble”. 

Clad in trellises and solar panels, his current family home in east Cambridge – where he lives with his partner, mother-in-law and two young daughters – was “built from the dump”. Furnished for free, back in the day when a worker hailed “King of the Dump” would pick out items for them to take back, the house is a Technicolored treasure box. There are two enormous canoes, a black stone Buddha, a school desk painted as a grinning cat, an ornately carved camphor wood Chinese chest. 

O’Hare began dumpster-diving as a skint student more than a decade ago – “skipping” for edible food from a local supermarket’s bins with friends, and cooking £1 vegetarian feasts for fellow St Andrew’s undergrads (only disclosing how they sourced their home-made daal and cauliflower pakora ingredients after dinner). It was then that he encountered how “securitised” waste was becoming: the supermarket tried to deter them by installing floodlights and security cameras, and attached heavy locks to the bins. One chain store even pours bleach into its bins to contaminate the food. 

“There’s a sense that it’s undignified to be an adult who eats from the rubbish, but where does the revulsion come from?” 

O’Hare’s scavenging habit stuck beyond his cash-strapped student years. A first date with his partner Mary, an artist, in 2012 was to a recycling plant, where they salvaged art materials. The night before our interview, he went on a bin crawl around Cambridge town centre under darkness – from Asda to Patisserie Valerie – with some local environmentalists, including a firefighter, to gather me a “freegan” meal (they ended up instead with a toilet seat, disco lights and garden fork, for which he sincerely apologised). 

“There’s a sense that it’s undignified to be an adult who eats from the rubbish, but when you realise all this stuff is quite similar to things that you’d find on a supermarket shelf or dig out of the ground, what is it that makes it disgusting? Where does the revulsion come from? Is it the action of discarding?” 

[ See also: Sunak and Truss are wrong, Tory members want climate action ]

O’Hare cited the case of three men in north London who in 2013 were charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act for stealing from bins outside an Iceland store tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and Mr Kipling cakes that would otherwise have gone to waste. The injustice captured the public’s imagination, and the charges were dropped after media pressure. 

“Obviously these guys were hungry, they may not have otherwise had a nutritious meal, and in any case the food was just being thrown away – so there was a kind of moral outrage about that,” he said. 

While acknowledging the “positive move” of supermarkets donating products near their sell-by-date to charity, he argues it’s not the same as dumpster-diving. “To access food at a landfill or in a bin, there are no conditions attached, you don’t need to prove that you’re needy and there’s a sense of autonomy. But at a foodbank or soup kitchen, it’s ‘Are you in need of food?’ and ‘Are you the deserving poor?’ and perhaps a certain feeling of indignity.” 

During a trip to Uruguay as a Spanish student in 2009, O’Hare met people rescuing bottles of shampoo from the discards of a Unilever factory. He became intrigued by the “shadow infrastructure” of those who make a living recycling from landfill. Five years later, he returned for an anthropological study of these informal economies, and found waste-pickers protesting against new, hermetically sealed bins being rolled out across the capital city of Montevideo – “Rubbish belongs to the poor!” was their rallying cry. 

“To access food at a landfill or in a bin, there are no conditions attached, but at a foodbank it’s: ‘Are you the deserving poor?’” 

Businesses today are more likely to “commercialise their waste and waste streams” than they used to be, he said. For example, they sell used products for recycling. Such schemes may seem greener, but O’Hare (nicknamed “Plastic Paddy” by the media for his recycling expertise) warns that multinationals “cherry-pick the best of their packaging that has a decent market value” – such as bottles – to sell on. They then leave flimsy plastic packaging (the stuff labelled “not currently recycled”) of little worth to landfill.

“They’ve realised the value of what they previously had been throwing away and giving up. They’re taking things that have relatively little value away from people who really need them.” 

In 2013-14, O’Hare lived among Uruguay’s so-called clasificadores, sneaking into the landfill (which one local child described to him as “the big free shop”) and sorting through trash. His disgust threshold was impressively high, even among the seasoned waste-pickers – at one point, he bit into a normal-looking biscuit only to taste that it was drenched in petroleum. When we met, he wore a mustard scarf that had been salvaged from his days sorting Montevideo rubbish: a source of many tasteful items in his wardrobe which he laid out proudly to be photographed.

“Dumpster-divers and freegans can be seen as quite niche in the UK,” he said. “It’s more pronounced as a political act here. In the global south, they’re not necessarily talking about the politics, but they’re living that politics on a day-to-day basis.

“They feel similar outrage at the quantities being thrown away, and a sense of injustice and bafflement as to why so much effort is being put into throwing up fences, putting on locks, and preventing people getting something that other people don’t want.” 

Rubbish Belongs to the Poor: Hygienic Enclosure and the Waste Commons by Patrick O’Hare is published by Pluto Press 

[ See also: How Putin’s aggression has nurtured Germany’s climate ambitions ]

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