Dumpster Divers Dig Deep Despite Detractors

Don’t decry desperate devising designed to disengage discarded delectibles from disenchanted, deceived delinquints.

That’s my advice to the police, the security guards, law makers, and governing bodies that try to crack down on the art of Dumpster Diving. I’ve become quite convinced that the world needs dumpster divers, or freegans, to balance the uninhibited consumption and consequent refuse-creation of the rest of society. I’ll elaborate further below, but a first a story and then let me de-myth some ideas about Dumpster Diving (at least at its most basic level).

Duke University students moved out of the dorms this week, which means for the avid dumpster diver a field day. Students throw out all sorts of perfectly good clothes, electronics, bedding, and other things that can save even the most lazy dumpsterer a year’s worth of shopping. My fellow housemates and I have been gearing up for this for awhile, planning trips and making lists of what we’re looking for (making a list helps the process go faster).

So on Sunday evening, the three of us went and were having a grand old time, sitting in the huge 12 foot dumpster, looking through things, showing each other the treasures (and laughing at the oddities), and shaking our heads at the waste. We found unopened alcohol, so we shared a couple drinks, just a great way to spend a Sabbath evening, practicing a certain kind of Sabbath economics I guess you could say. We’d even had a security officer laugh and encourage Matt (housemate) to find some good stuff.

Along comes Dudley Do Right. Most of the security don’t care about the dumpstering. But this guy decided to do his duty and tell us we had to leave and to put all the stuff back that we’d taken out of the dumpster. We asked him to explain, and he said he didn’t have much of an explanation except that he was told this, but that if we’d like one he could call the police car over to explain better. Matt said sure, he’d like to talk to the police, so he calls it in.

Dudley gives a poor message to the dispatcher, who tells the police that we’re refusing to obey the security guard, so they come over all angry and suspicious, saying, “Do you want to go to jail today?” like 5 times. After a few minutes they realize we’re not being belligerent, and so we have a conversation about it but they still enforce the rule. So we carefully place everything back in the dumpster in a way that we can get quickly and easily later and then go home. I came back at 10 that night and grabbed my bag of goodies, they came back the next morning early get theirs. I came away with some brand new socks, undershirts, bathing suit, belt, shampoo and body wash, and a flannel shirt. Not bad at all.

For the curious, here’s a bit of demything of the practice:

–It’s not “disgusting.” Though dumpsters are inevitably filled with things that nobody really wants to take a bath in, proper attire avoids most of the real problems. Old shoes, pants you don’t care about, etc. A little precaution can make you a lot bolder in what you look for.

–It’s generally not that dangerous to your health. Dumpsters are emptied so often that most food doesn’t stay in them too long. Chances are, most items have only been in the dumpster a matter of hours. Also, some of the best food for taking is food that has an official expiration date (for government reasons) but still will be good for ages. Things like cheese, cookies, milk even, ice cream…all those things go bad wheen they look or taste bad, not because of a specific date.

–It’s illegality is questionable and complicpated. There have been Supreme Court Cases that state that discarded materials are public property (like things thrown out for the trashman), so it’s not stealing. Technically there are trespassing issues at stake, but whose is the question. Once in the dumpster you’re on the property of the dumpster-owning company. But generally, it’s not something that police will do more than ask you to leave.

But on to the more pressing issue.

To me, in all seriousness, dumpster diving is part of  bigger idea of justice and new creation that says that 1)we need to take better care of the planet and throwing away tons and tons of good things is just wasteful and disrepsectful to our Creator 2)and that while millions of people in the U.S. and elsewhere are in need, we refuse to contribute our economic resources to a system of consumerism and oppression.

I will grant that at its core, there is a bit of materialism inherent in dumpstering. It’s exciting to get new things at the dumpster, just like at a store, and the thrill of acquiring is a threat to the holistic goodness of the practice, but on the whole I find it to be a healthier materialism. I rejoice in the unopened pizza boxes, or the day old bagels, or a new belt (almost identical to the one I gave to a homeless man back in April, and I don’t count that a coincidence). I personally try to take things that I will actually use or give away and try to be realistic about it.

Dumpster diving also has a communal aspect to it. It’s so much more enjoyable to do with friends, to celebrate and laugh and marvel, to thank God for his abundant provision. It’s also sad, to sift through a grocery store dumpster and see the tons of food that could be given out for free to hungry families, or to sift through a Whole Foods dumpster and find fresh fruits and vegetables, essential items that most poor families are not able to afford (especially not from Whole Foods). Our neighbors eat candy and snacks in part cause they’re cheap, while they miss essential nutrients because of availability and affordability. We, at our house, give away a lot of the food we dumpster. We’re lucky to have the time to do it often and the transportation to carry a ton of stuff and store it.

So, give it a try. I’ll go with you. UMD will soon have its move out days, and I know from experience that there’s a lot of good treasure to be found. Go happily, go dumpster!

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One comment

  1. Maggie · May 5, 2009

    I enjoyed reading this, Brian. I also wish I was in MD so I could check out some Terp “trash” with you!

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