Our affluent society has given scavengers a bad name. When I was a kid, scavengers prowled the streets of the city in horse-drawn wagons, crying out, "Rags, bottles . . . " and inducing our mothers and grandmothers to come out and sell, for a few pennies, the collected but still potentially useful debris of our lives. They were the recyclists of the Depression era.

Prosperity drove the scavengers out of the marketplace. Now many of us with aluminum cans or old newspapers take them to recycling centers or give them to civic fund-raising drives out of civic and ecological motivations. Or we just dump them.

These recollections come after watching a modern-day scavenger -- he'd probably call himself a salvager -- on Friday sorting through two dumpsters behind the new Gannett tower in Rosslyn.

He wasn't after rags or bottles or even discarded wallboard, but a dozen or more finely crafted sections of air-conditioning ductwork, each about five feet long, that were tossed into the dumpsters after they apparently weren't needed to complete arrangements for one or more commercial establishments on the lower floors of the building. He loaded them into the back of his van.

What would the ductwork have cost over the counter? A couple of hundred dollars at least, one would guess.

Times are hard, some people say, especially for the impoverished among us. But for some prosperous firms of corporate America, prodigal wastefullness still goes.