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Today in Dubious Trends: Are Spaniards Really Resorting to Eating Garbage?

• September 26, 2012 • 10:26 AM

Yesterday, a prominently placed story in the New York Times claimed that Spain’s economy has gotten so bad, a newsworthy percentage of its residents have had to resort to eating garbage. Though dumpster-diving is a fairly common activity around the desperate edges of any society, the story suggested that Spain’s trash-rifling has changed sufficiently to suggest a trend, and become specific enough to represent a visible symptom of the stricken country’s economic malaise.

I’m not a press critic, and though a resident of Barcelona, it’s only a handful of years’ experience, and I have yet to live elsewhere in a diverse peninsula of 40-something million inhabitants.

The Times, which appears to have had two reporters on the story (one wrote it, one received a contributor credit at the end) has significant resources to investigate such things, and cited a study by the Catholic charity Caritas claiming a drastic increase in food aid to Spanish families. Accompanying the story was a photo essay by one of the continent’s best photojournalists—or journalists period—a winner of prestigious awards for his coverage of wars and refugee crises.

So I say this with respect for peers and a great institution undergoing tough times for our industry: ¿En qué cojones estáis pensando?

Firstly, about trash in Barcelona: there are five types of dumpsters, which are the paper, glass, plastic and organic recycling bins, and the regular trash bin, which is grey. People scavenging mostly hit the paper bin, because they can sell the paper for cash. When they hit the trash bin, it’s for metal, which is the story the Times could have written: what’s increased so far as anyone can tell is the appetite for recyclable metals, the price of which is at historic highs. More than diving for bits of discarded sandwich, what you see, often, but which is tough to document statistically, is an increase in freelance metal scavenging.

In that case, however, most of the scavengers appear to be from a pool of recent immigrants, usually from West Africa and Eastern Europe, with the least viable support structures and thinnest communities, but entrepreneurial savvy and an eye for commodity prices.

So if you’re writing about the Spanish economy’s raggedy edge, you’re not really looking at leftover bread and cheese, or even at Spaniards. You’re more likely talking about discarded lead plumbing from the endless reform projects in a city of residents maximizing their only remaining investment opportunity: a charming pre-war flat. They (okay, we) do this because the crash has killed the housing market and made mortgages hard to get. Instead of buying a new place, you fix up the old one out of pocket or with a smaller loan.

This is expensive, so instead of paying hauling fees, you go out to the sidewalk and wait five minutes, and invite a scavenger up to your flat to take away the valuable metal, the old beams and pipes. Inevitably, they leave the stuff their grapevine says was down that month. Copper goes, lead goes, sheet metal goes. The cheap aluminum you rip out of old Ikea armoires gets left on your floor to chuck into the paper recycling box when no one’s looking, because that’s the only one where it’ll fit.

Still, starvation stats from that Caritas report seem solid, so what’s up? The Times found a few dumpster divers, starting with a young woman said to look like a retail employee—without recourse and living in a squat. Are there a lot of young people dumpster diving? No one knows, and no one’s counting. But those who do, 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. Squatters’ rights are generous in most of Spain, and a series of communities has sprung up to take advantage. Most are comprised of younger people of a political bent, and each okupa fits somewhere along a spectrum between party house and commune. A few of the more serious ones are run by anarchist collectives and operate as community centers. Lots of sidewalk yoga, lots of dreadlocks, and lots and lots and lots of badly trained dogs.

Others are just hippie nightmares. Lots of speed, lots of really unimaginative tattoos, lots of shockingly expensive bicycles. Why am I explaining this? Around the crispier edges of these communities, yeah, you see some dumpster diving. I don’t know the Times reporters who did the story. (Disclosure: I met the photographer a few times, years ago, a really good guy, but don’t really know him, and it’s not his primary job to decide the story’s angle anyway.) I’d bet them a bottle of Moritz that their typical desperate young person was dumpster diving in some way by choice.

Some families are squatting out of need, and it’s been remarked upon by the local papers. Single young people, not so much.

Fine, another silly trend story, who cares? Though I live here, I’m not Catalan or Spanish (my wife is) and if you insult this place it’s not like you’re taking a cheap shot at something truly close to my heart. Knock on this country all you want, it won’t cause this sort of counter-rant. What provokes it is the selling of a narrative, about a complex event, that toes right to the line of insultingly reductive.

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.

What does not appear to occur as a result of the crisis, oddly, is a reduction in the number of cafes, or an increase in free seats in them. An irony of the Times story is that were you to happen to be reading it here in the print edition, you’d be hard-pressed to find a free seat in the bar to do so. This is the part of the story that seemed most in need of real research, at least to one Barcelona resident. More than in the US, people rely on their communities here, and more so their families.

Dumpster diving is rare because if things are that bad, someone gives you some food. Not a lot. Not forever. But you don’t see homelessness here like one does in the US, and you don’t see, even now, poverty to the depths that one sees in many American cities. If you’re a shame to your family in the US, they turn you out and you are left to rummage for food in the garbage. Here it’s the reverse: if you’re rummaging for food in the garbage, you’re a shame and they take you in. Even if they’re broke too.

It’s just not a common response to poverty to rummage for food. Steal it, perhaps. Take advantage of people, sure, no one’s a saint here. But dumpsters? It’s not a useful metric or an accurate image. Nor are they likely to throw food out here. Food is important here. There isn’t an excess of it; sandwiches are small. And cheap. Even in crisis time, the one thing you can almost certainly count on in Spain is that a ham sandwich and coffee costs less than three Euros, and if you don’t have it, you can pay them next week. Or the end of the month, if it’s the neighborhood place.

They do that because otherwise, you know, they’d just have to throw out stale bread. And you don’t throw away food in Spain. Whatever the Times tried searching for, it’s likely they came up with just the wrappers.

UPDATE: The excellent 20minutos.es has posted an insightful interview with the photographer who worked on the Times story. It’s here, and worth reading if you know Spanish or can pick through a machine translation. -MH

Marc Herman

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