Talkin' Trash: Down in the Dumpster Radical reusers turn your trash into their treasure. By Christina Nellemann
My heart is pounding like a rabbit's. Eyes darting back and forth, hoping no one sees me, I leap onto the green metal container, balance along the edge on my stomach, and scan the bulging plastic bags and half-flattened cardboard boxes. Quickly I spy a bulbous black sack with metal poking through. I reach in, pull it out, and jump to the ground. Inside I find a brand-new Ethernet hub (worth $180), a modem still in its box (maybe $20), and a stack of slightly fondled Playboys (about $15). Not bad for a few seconds of dumpster diving.
Much of the four to seven pounds of garbage produced daily by every man, woman, and child in the United States turns up in dumpsters. But these ubiquitous containers also hold a fascination, hobby, or job for scores of dumpster divers who take—and then sell, refurbish, even eat—what the rest of us throw away. For some, it's an artistic or environmental statement; for others, a financial necessity.
Heather Singer, a communications specialist from Reno, Nevada, has found three truckloads of wood for her woodstove, a dog cage, a wicker table, couches, chairs, and a steam-engine toy worth about $100. Her favorite dumpsters are those near storage facilities. "One man's garbage is another man's gold," she says.
In Tulala, Oklahoma, Stephen Pales has at times been able to live off that gold. A few years ago, he was spending his 40-hour workweek diving and selling his finds on eBay, where he made "a killing" off designer clothes, fetching up to $6,000 in a single month. He says that apartment complexes and strip malls are great places to dive.
Other divers turn trash into art. Members of the Loyal Order of Dumpster Divers use discarded metal, wood, paper, and plastic to craft environmental artworks for display in parks and along the Vancouver, British Columbia, seashore. Award-winning San Francisco Bay Area interior designer Carol Tanzi creates furniture out of her finds.
To get these rewards, dumpster divers must overcome many obstacles, from suspicious neighbors to dangerous or dirty objects. Some post stories and tips online and encourage novices to help build respect for their hobby by being quiet, neat, and courteous to others. On her cheery Web site, the anonymous "Dumpster Lady" emphasizes obeying all laws and giving what you can't use to charity. She also advises going with a friend, wearing gloves, and stocking up on antibacterial soap.
Although dumpster diving is illegal in some U.S. counties and states, and frowned upon in many others, the sentiment behind it is growing more mainstream. With almost 200 old landfills now toxic Superfund sites, and the main alternative—massive waste incinerators—spewing heavy-metal-laden ash into the air, some communities are moving beyond the dump-or-burn debate. Thanks to city programs, Portland, Oregon, recycles more than 50 percent of its solid waste, far higher than the national average of 30 percent. Berkeley, California, contracts with a local salvage business to sort and sell valuables from its trash flow. North Carolina keeps almost 70,000 tons of food from going to landfills each year: The edible stuff is donated to food banks; the rest becomes animal feed or compost.
Though their methods are not for everyone, dumpster divers belong to this movement toward zero waste. As they dig around in the trash, they're doing their small part to challenge our throwaway society—and change its attitudes about garbage. "When I tell some people that I dive, they say, 'Ew! Gross!'" says Oklahoman Pales. "Then I show them what I get."
Christina Nellemann is a freelance writer, designer, and dumpster diver in Reno, Nevada.