Dumpster Diving

By D. R. Bartlette

My family dumpster dived for years. My mother used to tell me about how she and my grandfather would take a load of trash to the dump and come back with more stuff than what they left home with.

Every time we would move, we would raid a liquor store’s dumpster for boxes. In May, when the students would leave for the summer, we would find perfectly good clothes, cassettes, pots and pans, books and even small appliances in the bins around campus.

Dumpster diving is the practice of picking through refuse – sometimes in a dumpster, sometimes not – to find usable or salvageable items. In rural or agricultural societies, it’s called gleaning. In the U.K., it’s also called binning, skip-raiding or skipping – and it’s illegal.

It may or may not be legal in the U.S., depending on each city’s ordinances. Fayetteville City Prosecutor Casey Jones said he does not think there is an ordinance that specifically addresses dumpster diving.

In Fayetteville, if the dumpster is on private property, then it could be considered loitering or criminal trespass, not theft, Jones said. It is only complaint driven, meaning that a property owner would have to call the police. It could be considered a class C misdemeanor, which could have punishment of up to 30 days in jail or fees of up to about $220, depending on the officer, Jones said. He said it’s rarely prosecuted. “I’ve never dealt with it,” he said.

Brian Pugh, waste reduction coordinator for the city of Fayetteville, warns against dumpster diving.

“Safety and security are the main concerns,” Pugh said. “For one thing, people have slept in dumpsters and have been packed in by the equipment. For another, if you polled people with commercial dumpsters, they wouldn’t want people digging through them and getting their private information.”

Pugh said that dumpster diving is the number one way people commit identity theft.

There are many reasons why people dumpster dive. The most commonly held belief is that people do it out of economic necessity.

Kitty Cloud, a Fayetteville resident since 1965, said she does it because she can’t afford to buy the items.

“When the students are getting out at the end of the semester, that is the absolute best time,” Cloud said. “Students throw away lots of stuff.”

One family friend has a knack for finding TVs, stereos and other appliances (known as “ground scores”) that only need minor repairs. Like many elderly and those on fixed incomes, he fixes them and sells them to help make ends meet.

With demand from China pushing up the prices of scrap metal, many dumpster divers are on the lookout for recyclable materials to sell. One diver who wished to remain anonymous said he once found a bunch of aluminum blinds that had been thrown out, which he sold for $300.

While economic need may be the number one reason why people dumpster dive, that does not explain why it has become mainstream, even in more affluent communities.

My in-laws built an addition to their house using only salvaged building materials.

“A lot of construction sites throw away perfectly good block, lumber and other things. They might need some work – sanding off grout or removing nails. Just make sure you ask first,” said Jason Benish, my husband, who helped build his family’s addition.

Sometimes artists look for raw materials to create works of art. Others simply enjoy the thrill of the hunt. They are the ultimate bargain hunters.

One thing that most dumpster divers have in common is the belief that it is wrong to waste good food or items by throwing them away. For some, it is a political act, frowned upon by our materialistic society.

“Freeganism,” an amalgam of “free” and “veganism,” is the lifestyle guided by the belief that almost all work and monetary exchanges in a capitalist society contribute, directly or indirectly, to some form of exploitation. Freegans go beyond veganism – the abstention from eating or using anything that came from an animal – to strive to live to the greatest degree possible apart from the capitalist system.

One of their strategies is to forage, or dumpster dive. According to the Web site Freegan.info: “As freegans, we forage instead of buying to avoid being wasteful consumers ourselves; to politically challenge the injustice of allowing vital resources to wasted while multitudes lack basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter; and to reduce waste going to landfills and incinerators, which are situated within poor, non-white neighborhoods, where they cause elevated levels of cancer and asthma.”

It is true that that our society produces a lot of waste. According to the EPA, in 2005, the U.S. produced 245.7 million tons of municipal solid waste. In Fayetteville, we sent more than 44,000 tons of solid waste into landfills last year.

In an unscientific one-day sweep of dumpsters around the UA campus at the end of the spring semester, I found several children’s yard toys, an umbrella, a wicker clothes hamper, a toaster, a power strip, one crutch, some wooden dowels, an office chair and several items of clothing – all in perfect or near-perfect condition.

Dumpster diving doesn’t require any special equipment, but a long pole with a hook at the end and a stepstool will make your job easier. Most divers will recommend you dive with a friend – two sets of eyes are better than one. Bags, duct tape and a pair of leather work gloves can help, too.

As with anything, there are a few common-sense rules to keep in mind:
• Wear durable clothes and shoes;
• It can be extremely dangerous to climb into a dumpster;
• Don’t go through any dumpster that has medical or hazardous waste or sharp objects;
• If it says “No Trespassing,” don’t;

Since dumpster diving can be considered trespassing if it’s on private property, it’s best to be discreet. Don’t park your car right next to the dumpster and try to go at times when you’re less likely to be confronted. If you’re doing it late at night, the police might be interested in what you’re doing. If you are confronted, be respectful and polite. If you’re asked to leave, do so quietly.

Other rules of “dumpster etiquette” include: don’t go behind a fence to get to a dumpster, don’t leave a mess, don’t ever take papers with people’s personal info on them and take only what you can use – leave the rest for others.

The Dumpster Lady’s Web site recommends that you “tithe what you dive,” meaning if you find items you can’t use or don’t need, give them to charities or directly to people who can use them. She also recommends letting people in your neighborhood know that you are willing to find homes for unwanted items. Many people are unwilling to take items to donation sites, according to the Web site, but will gladly let neighbors haul them off.

Pugh said that throwing away useful items is an education issue. “We need to get people to donate the items to charities instead of throwing them away.”

Don’t toss it, pass it on

Reduce waste, help others and yourself – instead of tossing out old items, consider donating to one of these Fayetteville organizations.

Accepts household items and food:
Cooperative Emergency Outreach
419 W. Rock St. – 444-7500
M – F 1 p.m – 3 p.m.
Accepts: food

LifeSource International
600 S. School St., Ste. # 2 – 521-4000
M – F 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Accepts: household items, food, clothing

The Salvation Army
1645 S. West Ave. – 442-5650
M – F 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sat. 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Accepts: household items, food, clothing

Second Mile Ministry
319 W. Lafayette St.– 521-4787
M,W,F 9 a.m. – noon
Accepts: food, clothing

Seven Hills Homeless Shelter
1561 W. Sixth St. – 251-7776
M – Sat. 8 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.; Sun. noon – 4:45 p.m.
Accepts: food, clothing, personal care items, toiletries

The Attic
221 S. School St. – 442-2523
W – F 12:30 p.m. – 4 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m. – noon
Accepts: clothing, household items

Accepts scrap metal:
Ozark Steel
1700 S. School St. – 442-7602
Steel, iron, sheet metal, copper, brass, aluminum, zinc, lead, stainless steel (must be clean)

Vaughn’s Battery
601 S. School St. – 442-9567
Aluminum, copper, brass, stainless steel, automotive batteries.

Accepts old computers:
Computer recycling:
a non-profit computer recycling and reuse network

Computers With Causes

Anything and everything:
NWA Freecycle
This is an e-mail list group. You must first join and then you can post things you want to give away or things you want.

Categories: Features