|Author: Giovanna Capponi|
|Affiliation: University of Roehampton|
Original text by Giovanna Capponi
In English, the term ‘skipping’ refers to the action of collecting objects or food items from the waste. It is the equivalent of the American term ‘dumpster diving’, and both expressions are now widely used in the media and in the press. The term comes from ‘skip’, which defines the bins themselves, generally large open topped waste containers, but the term also refers to the items that can be found within them.
‘Skipping’ as an urban foraging technique is a widespread practice in the context of squatting (the act of unlawfully occupying property or land) and as part of radical political movements. Just like squatting, ‘skipping’ can be defined a polysemic practice (Pruijt 2004) as it can acquire different functions and meanings. It can be practiced as a provisioning strategy in the contexts of marginality, but also exists as a critical commentary on the enormous waste and the poor distribution of resources in both housing and in social support in a capitalist economic system. This provisioning practice therefore does not necessarily emerge as a direct product of violence, marginality and survival strategies, but is often part of a whole movement of resistance, supported and informed by literature, culture and ideology.
It is also related to other movements that advocate consumption consciousness, such as ‘freeganism’, the practice of reclaiming food thrown out by shops, anti-consumerism and environmentalism.
‘Skipping’ is normally performed by a heterogeneous group of peoples, including the homeless, squatters, political and environmental activists, social anarchists, artists, and students with limited income. ‘Skipping’ is rarely carried out as an individual practice, but often performed within an organised community of people sharing resources, especially in the context of big cities. In fact, these types of reclaimed resources are abundant in urban areas, as a result of a socio-economic model in which the increasing demand for goods leads to the constant production of commodities and their continuous replacement (Bauman 2004).
As different items are collected in different spots, these urban foragers re-map the city according to the potential items that can be found: furniture, mattresses, appliances and clothes may be collected in residential areas, while shops, local markets and supermarkets in the main streets provide a constant and regular supply of food items. Supermarkets are obliged on a daily basis to get rid of food, which according to the product labelling is reaching its optimum consumption date and ignores the actual status of the commodity itself. In other cases, items are thrown away because the packaging is broken or damaged. The same happens in local markets, where fresh vegetables and fruits with small imperfections or slight signs of decay are discarded (Black 2007).
As a rule, communities that practice ‘skipping’ as a provisioning strategy, develop certain routine habits regarding their favourite spots. Usually a further consideration is to scavenge in bins that provide the widest variety of wasted goods. For example, for daily provisioning, a supermarket or a grocery store bin will be favoured over the waste bin of a Japanese take away. These parameters of choice reflect personal tastes and needs, reproducing a standard comparison between costs and benefits (Narotsky 2007). The goods that have been reclaimed from the garbage are usually brought into the community (be it a squat, a social centre or a shared habitation), to be redistributed and consumed.
Both official and informal social centres, community centres and non-profit associations employ a variety of different strategies to redistribute the resources that have been discarded from the mainstream economic system.
One of these strategies is the establishment of a ‘free-shop’- an anti-consumerism area where items like second-hand clothes, bags and shoes can be left or taken for free. ‘Free-shops’ are commonly present inside squats and social centres, where dwellers, friends and visitors can acquire objects they like or need, but also leave items they do not use anymore, making them available to others.
In a similar vein, a popular way of redistributing soon to be date expired or unsold food is through what is known as the ‘People’s Kitchen’. Activists and volunteers reclaim edible goods from the skip or from the shops, then cook it and share it in a communal meal for free, often inviting disadvantaged people, friends and fellow activists to join them. Such events can be seen as collective performances of social critique and often provide an occasion to discuss related political issues.
While structured non-profit organisations prefer to negotiate with and reclaim food directly from the shops, squats and occupied social centres use ‘skipping’ as their predominant way of provisioning. ‘Dumpster diving’ is not a socially accepted behaviour and foragers risk incurring criminal charges for theft (applicable when the bin is technically owned by someone else) or trespass (applicable when a bin is located on private property). The prevailing social attitude towards garbage is that it represents objects of no value, thus cases of criminal prosecution relating to ‘skipping’ are rare. However, several companies have taken action to prevent their garbage being taken by locking their bins or surrounding them with secure fencing.
It should be noted that on a political level, the semi-legal status of ‘skipping’ makes the practice difficult to measure, but its high visibility reinforces its value as a protest action. Re-appropriating something that has been expelled from the production/distribution chain represents a reconfiguration of consumption choices, but also redefines what is considered ‘clean’, ‘edible’ and ‘desirable’. Reclaiming useful goods from the garbage not only aims at denouncing the amount of wasted resources in the neo-liberal world, but it also implies the creation of alternative values and criteria of consumption (Clark, 2004).
The data presented in this contribution was collected in 2012, during ethnographic fieldwork focusing on consumption practices and food provision amongst squatting communities in London. However, similar data has been found in other studies in other European and North-American contexts.
- Black, R. 2007. ‘Eating garbage: socially marginal food provisioning practices’ in J. Mac Clancy, J. Henry, H. Macbeth (eds.), Consuming the inedible: neglected dimension of food choice. Oxford: Berghahn Books: 141-150.
- Clark, D. 2004. ‘The raw and the rotten: punk cuisine’, Ethnology, 42 (1): 19-31.