Spanish Dumpster Diving

BY Paul Solman  October 4, 2012 at 1:37 PM EDT

Night skyline of Madrid
Night skyline of Madrid. Photo by: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A post from Madrid today on last week’s sensational New York Times story and slide show on hunger rising in Spain. The post is courtesy of one of our favorite far-flung correspondents, Ana Westley, herself once a writer for the Times.

Ana was especially interested because the Times photographer got his start at “20 Minutos,” the Spanish quick-yet-serious newspaper started by her husband, the eminent Spanish journalist José Martinez Soler. (You can supposedly read the whole paper in 20 minutos).

I was also especially interested. That’s because, when we reported from Iberia two summers ago, our second story featured one sequence with — yes, dumpster diving in Spain. In wealthy Barcelona, no less.

What we reported is consistent with what Barcelona ex-pat Marc Herman writes in a story Ana cites below: the divers “tend to fit the description of the person in the Times story. It’s a type, with a name, an okupa. That means ‘occupy,’ and the name precedes the famous Wall Street protests last year, but means about the same thing.” I.e., squatters; communards.

I don’t pretend to have any real expertise about Spain, however, and certainly not about its economic fringes. So here’s Ana, who knows whereof she speaks.


Much reaction here to the recent NYT story of dumpster diving in Spain and accompanying slide show.

This story from the Pacific Standard, written by Marc Herman (described as a writer living in Barcelona, author of a book titled “The shores of Tripoli”), is one of the more articulate reactions that has gone viral among journalists here (and it’s even in English!).

Near the end of the story, there is this summation:

“The very serious circumstances in Spain cause a lot of problems, but middle-class dumpster diving is a cartoonish and easy-to-dismiss lens through which to view them. Also, it’s the sort of behavior that’s nearly impossible to quantify, which makes it enticing to report, but sorta lazy too.

What’s really showing up in statistics here to suggest the impact of austerity on the local population? A few that get discussed often here include these:
Dramatically long waiting times for all but the most urgent surgeries, including cases with significant impact on employability, mobility, and daily pain. School class-size increases. Public library hours. Insufficient space in prenatal programs and birth preparation classes. University fee increases and rising dropout rates. Transit cutbacks reducing labor mobility and supply-chain reliability.”

The author ends with a defense of Spain’s communitarian response to crisis and a link to a “20 minutos” interview with the photographer, a Spaniard, who shot the NYT slide show.

Jose tells me that the conservative newspaper ABC ran a feature story with pictures of dumpster diving in New York City and various papers have done stories on more extreme poverty in the U.S.

When the NYT piece came out, our son Erik not only sent us the link (of course we had seen the story) but also called us to ask if things were really that bad.

I told Erik that I had never seen this, but then again, I don’t go roaming around the more depressed areas of the city inspecting dumpsters and reminded him that in any case, the term “dumpster diving” was coined in the U.S. and that poverty in any major U.S. city is probably much worse that poverty here. Families take in their unemployed adult children and grandchildren.

Newspapers are constantly reporting stories of how elderly grandparents support their adult children and grandchildren on their meager retirement pensions. And, sadly, there are other stories about how desperate parents, take their own parent out of a nursing home to move in with them, often sharing a bedroom with a grandchild, in order to collect the pension or the social assistance payment paid by the government to part time home assistants to the elderly and disabled who live alone.

I also told Erik that in many big U.S. chain supermarkets, day-old vegetable produce or slightly damaged produce that cannot be sold are routinely and neatly set out in the back in accessible boxes and in some places even on makeshift shelves, all up for grabs. I have seen this myself in New Hampshire [where Ana is from]. At one point there was a sort of summer co-op of local farmers that gave away free vegetables for the homeless and unemployed on certain days that was frequented by families suffering hard times. The produce was either unsold production or stuff with a slightly damaged or bruised appearance. I reminded Erik that a lot of the stuff that supermarkets have to throw out, probably looks better than the well-over-three-day veggies wilting away in my frig -or his- that we eat with no problem. I really doubt that people picking up supermarket rejects is something unique to Spain. Ditto for dumpster dipping.

I also agree with the writer of the Pacific Standard that the collection — and, I would add, theft — of salable metals is on the rise. We see it in our suburban neighborhood where the copper wiring for the street lights leading up to our ungated community have been ripped out and stolen: twice. We are talking hundreds and hundreds of pounds of underground plastic encased copper wires. After the second time, the wiring was not replaced and the street lights abandoned. (The town doesn’t have the budget to keep replacing them). In the unfinished developments that you saw around our town, the wiring has been ripped out of the electricity boxes and dug up from the streets. All of them.

Next to the subsidized apartments where daughter Andy lives, you can see the abandoned remains of street layouts, street lights, and rows and rows of electricity boxes for non existent duplexes that were never built. All the wiring is ripped out, gone. It’s such a third-world kind of theft that people claim it’s done by bands of Latin American immigrants “who do that sort of thing back in their own countries…” But at least the theft seems to be from either abandoned developments or non-essential lighting like the street lights leading up to our development.

Well, enough. You need to come to Spain again and do an update!

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.