Dumpster Diving for a Better World

A Few Words Exposing My Trashiest Obsession

Christopher K. Black

22 January, 2004

It's an old cliché that everyone has a duty to leave the world in better shape than they found it. It keeps my natural cynicism at bay to think of the many forms in which people pursue this duty: monuments, symphonies, machines, theorems, activism, well-trimmed highway medians. For my own part, I intend to write fifty songs that speak to the universal human condition, develop an effective teleportation system and convince every corporate polluter in the country to clean up their mess. Meanwhile, I dumpster-dive.

True, pulling dead computers out of the trash will not keep AIDS at bay or make New Jersey smell better. I think of it as a small act like driving nicely or buying organic lettuce: It provides its own reward and it's a vote for a better world as well.

A better world? you say, Impossible!

To this I reply Possible. No, certain.

Here's why: I deplore waste as an inexcusable arrogance. The idea that any material object can become so useless or abhorrent that it must simply go away and be forever removed from use implies a deep ignorance of basic physics, to say nothing of the biological principles to which human life is bound. It sickens me to contemplate the countless items (and the hours of work and joules of energy that made them) that are thrown away for no reason better than a false assumption that the trip from raw material to finished product to useless refuse is one-way and inevitable.

For this reason, I consider it a sort of duty to monitor the waste stream around me and retrieve anything I can use. Even if I can't eat an entire case of bananas, I can compost them and gain organic matter for my garden. Most of the defunct electronics I dive never work again in their original form, but I remove good parts and recycle the rest, returning it to useful circulation. And, of course, I get free stuff in the bargain.

In six-odd years of reclaiming waste, I've found most of the furniture I own, the ten-foot-square mound of computer parts in my basement, a lifetime supply of folio-sized graph paper, shoes, clothing, books, CDs, a food processor, working electronics, bales of peat moss, pots and pans, tools and of course all the cardboard boxes I ever need.

Like many of my interests, my fascination with trash started when I read a book. It was called The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving, written by a charismatic libertarian named John Hoffman and published by Loompanics Unlimited, the same folks who brought you such wholesome family entertainment as How to Steal Food from the Supermarket and The Anarchist Cookbook. Armed with Hoffman's advice and an enthusiasm for free stuff, my best friend and I wandered the alleys of our small town gathering armloads of booty and strange looks from passers-by. Having no visible homeless population to contend with, the residents of Menomonie, WI didn't quite know what to think of two long-haired hippie teenagers filling their pockets with outdated yogurt and slightly wilted roses.

Despite the stigma associated with eating garbage, dumpsters are not an unsanitary place to obtain food. As Hoffman puts it, "The inside of your average grocery dumpster is at least as clean as the floor of your average grocery truck." When selecting my haul, I bear in mind that everything was thrown away for some reason, but often not a very good one—the majority of the vegetables I bring home are merely less than perfect and have several days left before they'll go bad. I avoid unpackaged foods that are visibly contaminated with foreign material, wash packages before opening them and inspect everything closely, then eat it with confidence. I've never been made sick by dumpster food, although I came close the time I salvaged 120 pounds of bananas and proceeded to drink several gallon's worth of smoothies every day for a week. That was utterly self-imposed, though.

Between myself and my four housemates, we dive and eat at least fifty dollars worth of food every week: All the bread we can eat, bananas by the case, artichokes, peppers, canned goods, salad greens, cheese, tea and coffee. Two days ago I passed up an unopened 12-pack of cheap beer after briefly contemplating the merits of selling it to minors for $5 a can or making a ten-gallon batch of beer-battered onion rings.

When I introduce friends to the pleasures of the dive, everyone will sooner or later ask is this really legal? I am, as the obligatory disclaimer goes, no lawyer, but to the best of my knowledge, the answer is Well, mostly, yes. Oregon state law prohibits the removal of recyclable materials from collection containers (ORS 459A.080), and recyclable material is defined as any material or group of materials that can be collected and sold for recycling at a net cost equal to or less than the cost of collection and disposal of the same material (ORS 459.005, paragraph 19). The intent of the law is clearly to keep scavengers from highgrading recyclables—from which the hauler can sometimes realize a profit—out of their presorted containers. Retrieving garbage, which costs money at all phases of disposal, would appear to be well outside the scope of this law. I'm not aware of any equivalent statute that applies to solid waste.

Direct prohibition aside, the polite diver must be careful to avoid tresspassing or violating privacy when they investigate a dumpster. Dumpsters are usually located on private property, sometimes behind fences and occasionally locked. Not all of these barriers are necessarily intended to keep divers out—most fences around dumpsters are merely trying to make the area look prettier, and locks are most often intended to prevent unauthorized filling of the dumpster.

Different divers take very different approaches. A complete law-abiding type might only investigate dumpsters that they can access without leaving public rights-of-way (large drop boxes in the street outside of recently vacated houses are great for this) and would never think of going into a fenced enclosure, even if it was open on one side.

Others like to play the moral relativism game and try to guess the intent of the property owner: Is this a keep out fence or a prettier than the ugly dumpster fence? Is this lock intended to keep people from removing items or to keep them from throwing their own trash in? Will anyone mind scavengers walking through this alley behind the building?

And then there are those people who will jump fences and cut locks to gain access to a promising dumpster, then leave smug graffiti inside. While I respect their devotion to the cause of trash liberation, I find their methods, like those of most extremists, more likely to make property owners angry than to save the world. I prefer to assume that anyone who locks their dumpster finds it more important to keep me out than to let me relieve them of their trash, and I will respect that.

As much as I enjoy dumpster-diving, I eagerly look forward to the day when it isn't worth my while. This marvelous day will come when all trash is reused in an appropriate manner and there are no wasted goods to reclaim. In my vision, every store that used to throw out wilted lettuce or overstock magazines by the crate will have a shelf beside the door, filled with free produce, reading matter or what-have-you for anyone who wants it. Call me a communist, but I believe that soundly run profit-driven businesses can and should thrive while giving away their leftovers. Until then, I'll be out back reducing the landfill, one dumpster at a time.