Empire of Scrounge

Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging

222 pages

51 illustrations

December, 2005

ISBN: 9780814727379



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Jeff Ferrell is Professor in the department of sociology, criminal justice, and anthropology at Texas Christian University and Visiting Professor of Criminology at the University of Kent, UK. He is the author of Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy, and the editor of NYU's Alternative Criminology Series.

All books by Jeff Ferrell

“Patrolling the neighborhoods of central Fort Worth, sorting through trash piles, exploring dumpsters, scanning the streets and the gutters for items lost or discarded, I gathered the city's degraded bounty, then returned home to sort and catalogue the take.”
—From the Introduction

In December of 2001 Jeff Ferrell quit his job as tenured professor, moved back to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, and, with a place to live but no real income, began an eight-month odyssey of essentially living off of the street. Empire of Scrounge tells the story of this unusual journey into the often illicit worlds of scrounging, recycling, and second-hand living. Existing as a dumpster diver and trash picker, Ferrell adopted a way of life that was both field research and free-form survival. Riding around on his scrounged BMX bicycle, Ferrell investigated the million-dollar mansions, working-class neighborhoods, middle class suburbs, industrial and commercial strips, and the large downtown area, where he found countless discarded treasures, from unopened presents and new clothes to scrap metal and even food.

Richly illustrated throughout, Empire of Scrounge is both a personal journey and a larger tale about the changing values of American society. Perhaps nowhere else do the fault lines of inequality get reflected so clearly than at the curbside trash can, where one person's garbage often becomes another's bounty. Throughout this engaging narrative, full of a colorful cast of characters, from the mansion living suburbanites to the junk haulers themselves, Ferrell makes a persuasive argument about the dangers of over-consumption. With landfills overflowing, today’s highly disposable culture produces more trash than ever before—and yet the urge to consume seems limitless.

In the end, while picking through the city's trash was often dirty and unpleasant work, unearthing other people's discards proved to be unquestionably illuminating. After all, what we throw away says more about us than what we keep.


  • “A firecracker of a book. Prepare yourself for total immersion. It reads like Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell with a sense of fun; it has all the detail and magic of James Agee. A pleasure to read: anarchic, irreverent and totally relevant.”

    —Jock Young, co-editor of The New Politics of Crime and Punishment

  • “Outstandingly well written, gripping, and hugely entertaining. Destined to become a classic, this anarchy of consumerism turns one man's 'trash' into a treasure: an insightful, colorful, imaginative and playful window on the underground economy of scavenging for a living among other people's cast offs.”

    —Stuart Henry, co-author of Essential Criminology

  • “In Empire of Scrounge, Jeff Ferrell serves as an unassuming guide into the netherworld of our own garbage. Ferrell suggests that such urban prospecting is possibly far more than simple recycling—it is a form of politics that consciously opts out of a vapid consumer culture. It's a must read!”

    —Meda Chesney-Lind, co-editor of Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment

  • “I love this book! It's engaging, witty, and jarring—every page is filled with new treasures and powerful analyses of our throwaway culture. Ferrell opens a rare and vivid window on the raw aftermath of our society's conspicuous consumption and wasteful behavior, and he offers real possibilities for reflection, meditation, and redemption.”

    —David Naguib, author of Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago

  • “By turns moving, funny, and shocking. Particularly sobering are the book—s implications for modern consumer life, and the incomprehensible amounts of junk, waste and surplus generated by a modern city.”

    —Philip Jenkins, author of Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America