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Surfari: Dumpster Rennaisance

By Rogi Riverstone
(April 15, 2001)

"Most unusual find:
a church dumpster
1/4 full of
erotic magazines and
rubber adult recreational equipment
... traded the lot to
a used bookstore for
a volume on childrens toys
in the middle ages
and a stack of knitting magazines."

I am a dumpster diva. I hate waste. I'd rather live without most things, than buy them new, because I know someone within walking distance of my home will throw it away for me to find, first. Well, maybe not toilet paper. But shoes, housewares, clothing, linens, furnishings, cleaners, paints, get the idea. "Why dumpster dive," you ask.

Well, as I said in Surfari: Outsider Art, one person's trash is another's treasure, for one thing. For another, rich people throw away collectors' items. And even broken things can be turned into other things. A lamp can become a bird bath; a bird bath can become a lamp.

My neighbors laugh at me. That's ok, cuz I'm laughing at them, too. They'll waste a wad of cash, buying some cheap crud at a discount store. It's going to break, unglue, tear, fade or something relatively quickly and they'll need to replace it.

I'm not into garbage espionage. For one thing, where I live, 99.99% of my neighbors don't have any personal information worth stealing. The credit card companies are after them, too.

I try to be as non-invasive as possible. I always, for instance, put all unwanted trash back in an appropriate receptacle, rather than leaving it strewn in the street. A little basic dumpster diving etiquette prevents a lot of trouble. I also try to obey the law. Here are some dumpster diving tips.

Since I don't currently have a car, I pretty much confine my dumpster diving to my own 'hood. Residential trash has drawbacks; it tends to contain things that rot. Commercial sites are better, not as gross. But I just dive at curbside. Even without a car I manage to scrounge a couple of self-storage dumpsters on my bus route. And the "dollar" store, local nursery, produce market, pet store, sewing supply shop, florists, pharmacies, Asian and Latin groceries, stationery supply, art supply, used book stores and the thrift stores are EXCELLENT places to dumpster dive.

Of course, some people think a car is essential to dumpster diving. The way they describe it, I think they get a thrill out of playing cat burglar. Flashlights? You dumpster dive at night? When criminals, cops, rats and stray dogs come out? Are you mad? They stress the benefits of good transmissions and plenty of gas ...presumably for a fast get-away. Sorry, I'm just not a drama queen.

Mostly, I dive from the neighbors. These aren't wealthy people; most of my neighbors live below the poverty line. They work very hard for the little money they bring home. Yet, when they are evicted, they pretty much leave with the clothes on their backs. The landlords come in and dump everything they've left in the trash.

So, early on Tuesday mornings, I hitch my dogs to the cart, grab my tools and gloves, and trash pick. I never dig; if things aren't near the top, I'm not risking my health and safety to find them. I always take waterless hand disinfectant with me. I have long sticks and tongs to pick things out. I have canvas bags to carry small objects and delicate things.

I'm not very strong. I'm short. I can't walk far. I can't push much weight in my cart. But I do just fine. In summer, I generally have a following of little kids, helping me out. We find lots of toys and school supplies. Physical strength, sneakiness and cunning are not required. Shoot, whole families dumpster dive together, as regular family outings!

Now, in most major cities, dumpster diving is not considered odd. In fact, I just saw a guest on a talk show, telling the audience what to look for. The audience appeared to be mostly soccer moms.

Only in medium-to-small communities, primarily in the middle of the country, does dumpster diving seem to have a stigma. Well, go ahead and call me crazy or weird or strange.

But, I have an almost-new personal computer, internet ready, loaded with Windows95 and some other cool programs. I found it with a monitor, roller-ball mouse, CD-ROM games, keyboard, stereo speakers, microphone, and all the connecting cables. All I had to do was wipe it down with bleach water and plug it in. I've seen computers dumped by utility companies, colleges, hotels and other businesses. It's dumpster tech.

It's not junky crud; it's quality stuff. I have a beautiful, wrought iron bed frame. I have a chocolate brown, velveteen, sectional sofa. I have hand-embroidered, antique linens. I have hand made quilts and afghans. I have china, crystal and silver. I have antique tables and a sewing machine. I have hand-loomed rugs and blankets. I have cast iron skillets, pans and pots. I have food mills, automatic coffee makers, toaster ovens, hot plates, a barbecue, two hardwood dressers, a cast iron meat grinder (with all attachments), floppy discs, books, records, a tape recorder, a television, pillows, Air Jordans (my size), jeans, hand-embroidered Mexican and Guatemalan dresses and panchos, lace table cloths and curtains, dog dishes, plummers' plungers, electric saws, hammers, silk flowers, flower pots, purses, a VCR, silk lingerie, wool coats, wind chimes and a bicycle. They all came from dumpsters.

Who's crazy?

I used to run a boarding house. It had a 4-car garage. I used it for a warehouse of my dumpster finds. I'd wash, repair and sort my loot into boxes on long tables. Whenever a neighbor needed something, they'd come to me, first -- before going even to the flea market or thrift store. I made a decent living at this. I plan to do so again, soon. Being disabled, it's hard for me to secure a "regular job." Not, mind you, because I can't work, but because many employers are afraid to hire a disabled person, fearing expensive accommodations. Dumpster diving sales paid for my WebTV for about a year. Now, my writing job --secured as a direct result of having a WebTV -- pays for it, and then some.

Food is free, too, both animal and people. Behind the best restaurants, I find fresh steaks and prime rib, still on the bone. I boil it to make pet food (see: Surfari: Do It Yourself Dogs). Behind bakeries, I find gourmet loaves, high in nutrition, wrapped in plastic, day-old. The breads are made with such exotic ingredients as: sun-dried tomato, fresh herbs, imported olives, candied tropical fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains. I wrap a loaf in barely-damp paper toweling, replace it into its bag, microwave for ten seconds, and the bread refreshes. Croutons! Gourmet grilled cheese! Bread-instead-of-pasta lasagna! And highly nutritious pet food! I fed a poultry flock of 20 ducks, chickens and geese for over 3 years this way, and supplemented with produce; fresh eggs, every day!

Produce comes from produce markets, not generally from groceries. Tthere is one small grocer who sets culled-from-the-displays items in boxes on their loading dock for me. Anything too far gone, I just toss in the dumpster beside it. At one produce store, I found 15 Mexican papayas, bigger than footballs, and pounds of limes. I washed all in bleach water, peeled and cut bruises from the papayas, squeezed lime over, and tossed thoroughly. I made 6 gallons of this, enough to feed my boarders and the kids in the neighborhood for 2 days. And I rinsed and dried the seeds, spread them on cookie sheets and dried them by oven pilot heat for 2 days, to grind and sprinkle like pepper. Along with "ordinary" produce, I find coconuts, Japanese Daikon radish, kumquats, fresh herbs, portabela and oyster and shitake mushrooms, avocados, mangos, asparagus, tomatillos, chilies, whole pineapples, jicama: stuff I love, but could never afford to buy.

I also find construction materials. I've: paneled the interior of my Winnebego; built a greenhouse from bed frames and discarded Plexiglas from a sign company, built a cinderblock barbecue/oven; constructed storage sheds from discarded lumber, Roman shades and sheet plastic; dug a goldfish pond and lined it with shower curtains; made a chicken run from old lumber and discarded chicken wire and horse fence; built a porch awning from discarded plywood sheets and roofing materials. I even get free: nails, screws, hinges (just cuz the furniture's broken, doesn't mean the hardware doesn't work), plumbing supplies, door knobs, screen doors, window glass, adhesives, wire, rope, hooks....... I take a crow bar, screw driver and hammer when I go trash-picking, to take things apart.

alt.dumpster: newsgroup. Pass on tips & tricks, ask questions. What would you do with 200 tossed cell phones?

Message Board: post good locations for dumpster diving. Include city, state and directions. This board might save some lives.

Graphics by Waste Prevention Clip Art.

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