To Scrape By, The Poor In Spain Go Dumpster Diving | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

To Scrape By, The Poor In Spain Go Dumpster Diving

Play associated audio

One scene has become increasingly common amid Spain's economic crisis: Thousands of people, many of them immigrants, are searching trash dumpsters by night. Some scour the garbage for food, but many others are involved in a black-market trade for recycled materials.

The scavengers have slowly become a sad fixture in many barrios across Spain, like the well-dressed, middle-aged man on a Barcelona street corner on a recent night. He averts his eyes from onlookers as he reaches his arm down deep into a dumpster.

He's embarrassed, he says, that Spain's economy has left him searching through trash. He's afraid to give his name, but willing to tell his story: He's Pakistani, and came to Spain four years ago to work in construction — an industry that collapsed shortly after he arrived. Now, he's left scavenging.

"Here, take a look at this," he says, describing what he's found. "This is junk metal, but it's worth a bit of money."

Selling stuff like this, he says, is his only work now.

"Look, over here there's some food," he says, lifting a few unbroken eggs out of a crate from a separate dumpster for organic waste.

Scavenging For Cash

Although food can be useful, the man concentrates on looking for plastic cable or copper wire. He worked construction just long enough to make contacts with builders who, these days, are desperate for cheap materials.

"See this? This is expensive," he says, showing off a cable. "But this other stuff over here, not as much. It's cheaper."

As night falls, the man is joined by half a dozen other men, all searching the same cluster of containers labeled for trash or recyclables.

The men describe a network of depots across the city. Iron goes for about 50 cents a pound, they say.

Mohammed al-Awami, originally from Morocco, explains how things go on a really good night.

"Let's say you're lucky, and you find a cafe that's having some construction work done," Al-Awami says. "And they need a big sheet of metal to cover the countertop. They might pay 80 euro cents a kilo. And they might buy up to 500 kilos, or at least 200. That's a lot of money for you!"

Indeed. That's $200 to $500 for a single day's work. Even if that windfall comes just a few times a month, it adds up to more than Spain's monthly minimum wage.

Al-Awami also used to work construction. Now he's one of what he estimates are 2,000 people searching dumpsters in downtown Barcelona every night.

"I used to build new houses, do renovations and refurbish old historic homes. But now that industry has nearly disappeared," he says.

'Better Than Robbery'

These men say they're not homeless. Most Spaniards have access to unemployment benefits and food banks, if they need them.

But the men searching this dumpster are mostly immigrants without family ties. Some may be in Spain illegally, and therefore have no access to welfare benefits that are still relatively generous, despite the government spending cuts.

Economist Fernando Fernandez, with Madrid's IE Business School, says Spain had a poor underclass even in the boom years. But now it's swelling.

"In any rich, developed economy there are pockets of need. It is probably true, too, that to some extent, this has increased," Fernandez says. "If anything, because the organizations caring for people in need are squeezed for resources."

Al-Awami, the Moroccan immigrant, blames the housing market's collapse. His construction job was his livelihood, he says. Now he's joined the ranks of the unemployed, which tops 25 percent in Spain.

"Now it seems so much of humanity is without work or anything," Al-Awami says. "So this is better than robbery, you know? Collecting scrap metal. You can even jump down into the dumpster, no problem."

He smiles like he's showing off, and in an instant, he's head-first into the dumpster, with a friend holding his feet.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


Mia Wasikowska On The Sounds Of Camels And The Lure Of Travel

Melissa Block talks with actress Mia Wasikowska about her new film, Tracks, which follows a woman on a long journey with only camels and a dog for company.

Giving Chickens Bacteria ... To Keep Them Antibiotic-Free

What does it take to get chickens off antibiotics? According to Perdue Farms, an added dose of the "good bacteria" known as probiotics can help crowd out the harmful microbes that make a chicken sick.

Why Did Congress Kick The Can On Funding Islamic State Mission?

The president got approval for his plan to train and equip Syrian opposition fighters, but lawmakers didn't approve funds to pay for it or the broader air campaign.

Some Tech Firms Capitalize On Privacy

Steve Henn of NPR's Planet Money team profiles some entrepreneurs who are working on a novel business model to start up a new tech company. It's pay for service. What a concept.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.