There comes regularly to my neighbourhood a man, in shabby clothes, face smudged with dirt and hair long and untidy. He comes twice a day, I have noticed. I encounter him early in the morning on my morning walk out. And in the afternoon walking home from the office, I meet him once again.

 scavenger 02

He is always at the three or four garbage cans standing by the roadside. Those cans are visited by people living around, who come and dispose of their trash from home. The containers are dirty and smelly. The city dustmen come and collect the rubbish once a day. The dustmen are rather careless, leaving behind bits of rubbish here and there on the road. But this man seems to like the cans, for he is always searching in them for some useful items – waste paper, plastic bags, bottles, discarded clothing, metal containers, milk cartons or whatever. He takes them out of the cans, sorts them, ties them in different bundles and carries them away.


What is he? What name should we call him by?


I put the question to my students, and they came up with various names – rubbish man, rubbish collector, trash picker, garbage eater and recycler. In fact, I was wondering which word to use when I ran into the right word in my reading one day.


He is a scavenger or a ragpicker.


"Ragpicker” is an easy word. Rags are pieces of cloth torn from old clothing or covering. What does the word “scavenger” mean? Where does it originate?


A scavenger is originally an animal which, instead of hunting its food, eats animal bodies left over by the killers. The dead bodies, or carcasses, are usually rotting, but are still relished by those scavengers. They find the food good and useful though it has been given up by the hunter. The hyena, found in the cartoon, The Lion King, is a typical scavenger. The animal, and the person who makes a living by searching for usable items in what is discarded by others, are similar. Hence the name.


The scavenger I see regularly in the neighbourhood is not so welcome. Many people despise him. No one talks to him. Some say he is a thief. The well-dressed folk avoid him like the plague. “Is he bad?” I ask myself.


The number of scavengers is not small in this country. They are found in almost every city, whether it is a metropolis or a small town. They, more often than not, come from the rural areas. They come to town to find a way to make a better living. They have their family, too, I am sure. Without them, China would be a very different place, certainly not a better place.

 scavenger 07

Without them, China would be a more wasteful nation. China is developing at a staggering pace and the living standard has been on the increase all through the past decades. We are big consumers. Think about this. Who produces the goods you find in the supermarket? Where do they come from? What resources are used for the production? Where does the packaging go after we eat the delicious moon cakes on Mid-autumn Day? It is the scavengers who take our discarded items out of the garbage cans and help recycle them. The bottles we throw away are melted and moulded into new ones through the scavengers. Thanks to their work, the old newspapers we put into the trash cans end up in a paper mill and are turned into newsprint, thus saving the lives of green trees growing somewhere in Sichuan or Yunnan. The plastic bags that we use just once and throw away are picked up from the trash cans and start their new life through recycling. Were it not for the scavengers, we would consume new resources, having more trees cut down and more mineral ores exploited, and would as a result contribute faster to global warming.

 earth 02

Yet, these “environmentally friendly” scavengers are treated with prejudice. Yes, they are dirty. Maybe some are thieves. But not all of them are. I believe most of them are honest hardworking people, trying to make a better living by scavenging.


Next time you meet a scavenger, my reader, please do not look away. Look at him and give him a smile. The world will be a warmer place thanks to your nice little smile.


I will.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. SRL
    Jan 09, 2009 @ 05:32:04

    I never look down scavenger..but with surprise when saw some weird ones. But I think I will give them a smile in future..The world is full of people from all walks of life.As long as they are in their position. Every one has the right to live in this earth..jusk a star or a grass..


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