dumpster diving: treasure and trash

By Sheldon Miller

Every few days, I become an enigma; a painfully obvious, yet completely invisible enigma. Whether alone or with friends, on foot or in my car, once I bypass the front door and head for the treasure-laden dumpster out back I am transformed. At best, I become a non-entity, at worst a disgusting eccentric.

Augsburger's presents a prime example. The dumpster lies in a path from apartments behind the store to the back driveway. Occasionally people will pass during the course of my investigations of the treats available that day. Invariably, they speed up and determinedly focus on that point on the horizon used to make uncomfortable "situations" disappear, and I evaporate.

I started dumpster diving this past fall and winter with my housemates and curious friends, after reading an article on a longtime dumpstering advocate / free spirit / funhog. We ventured out and collected our biggest haul ever. The inaugural trip yielded a whole produce section of barely blemished fruits and vegetables. After a canning, freezing, and cooking frenzy, we were hooked.

But people's reactions to my dumpster diving has and still intrigues me. Whether a knowing, dismissive chuckle from more respectable family and friends or looks of disgust from some stranger, public response to dumpster diving is strong and predictable.

Why is dumpster diving socially dirty? Why is it radical? I'm familiar with the ready answers the calculus of our economy and waste gives. Anyone who has spent any length of time in our country must certainly be aware of those ideological commitments.

But at what point does something actually become trash, become totally worthless? How can an $.85 bunch of broccoli mutate into irredeemable garbage on the basis of its being two days past its prime? What's the functional difference between my window fan that I picked from the trash and the rejuvenated and the new $17.50 model?

Very little. I must quickly add that not everything is salvageable. Food can sometimes fall into a questionable zone of personal tastes and tolerances. For instance, unlike Matt "Iron Gut" Kanagy, I refuse to eat any tuna salad sandwiches that I may find in the trash, no matter how good they look. But one can count on finding plenty of things still highly recoverable. I've given the Pepsi challenge to some of my pickier friends and relatives, and they don't question the food's quality until after revelation of its roots.

And this is to say nothing of goods. My son sleeps in a dumpster-found sleepers and wears dumpster-diapers. Our house is partly furnished with dumpster finds: chairs, lamps, shelves, sofas, TV/VCR stands. We grill on a trash-picked barbeque. We ride my dumpster bikes, have had a dumpster Budweiser (just as bad as fresh Bud), have been cooled by a dumpster fan, brewed wine in dumpster jugs, and hope to fill our dumpster aquarium before too long (with dumpster goldfish?). Anything that we don't eat, of course, goes into our dumpster compost bin.

Given the mountain of stuff that we've saved from the landfill, the pile of cash we haven't spent, and the ridiculous amount of fun we've had collecting all of our finds, I can't see any reason to look askance at the fruits of the dumpster. If the rest of society chooses to ignore this vast resource, the that decision speaks volumes about our culture of consumerism -- but it also means more selection for those of us who choose to take advantage of it.

Dumpster diving hints/tips

Dumpster etiquette

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(note this article was written by a friend)