Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Day 94 - Dumpster Diving

I have never been dumpster diving. Like some other events in my “I have never...” journey, going dumpster diving is not something I ever intended to do. That stated, I know there are many people throughout the world that engage in the activity out of necessity or for the sake of environmental principles, like “Freegans.” While I knew the act of dumpster diving by choice would not help me understand what it is like to engage in the activity as a result of hard times, I figured giving it a try would at minimum help me better understand how and why “Freegans” choose to hurl themselves into dumpsters in search of recyclable goods. In fact, the intriguing aspects of this lifestyle were barely enough to help me overcome my aversion to dirty things and add dumpster diving to my “I have never...” list.

With the decision made to give it a try, I tried to narrow in on a strategy to get the best dumpster diving experience possible during my “I have never...” journey. Ultimately, it dawned on me that Madison has one of the best annual dumpster diving opportunities around on apartment move-out day each August 14th (which is also known as “Hippie Christmas” locally). In turn, I marked my calendar to give dumpster diving a try for the first time and did everything I could to find someone willing to tag along for what would certainly be a messy and memorable experience.

Starting small...
Luckily, my efforts to recruit a partner for my first dumpster diving experience came relatively easy. After working through the idea with some laughter, my friend Patrick stated he would tag along for the experience on the condition he could document the experience from a distance and avoid the inevitable mess. Understanding his perspective, I happily accepted his offer and gave him a breakdown of my intended approach to the forthcoming experience. After a little collaboration, Patrick and I settled on an approach that would take us from dumpsters behind local businesses to dumpsters near some of the tallest apartment complexes in the city. In turn, we hit the streets after the workday, first making our way to some dumpsters behind a nearby electronics store, a nearby big box retailer, and a local craft store.

...and Going big
Our first stops proved a bit of a disappointment at first. Although there were plenty of dumpsters to investigate, the majority of the stores had dumpsters connected by a chute to the inside of each store and fully covered by a heavy metal shell around the dumpster’s interior. The setup of the dumpsters made them impossible to enter from outside, which forced us to turn our attention to the smaller dumpsters that were scattered across the back parking lots of retail outlets. After searching several of the smaller dumpsters, it quickly became clear the smaller dumpsters were intended for day-to-day trash and that the fortified dumpsters were intended for more valuable goods. Even when we finally encountered a large dumpster with out a cover, we were disappointed to find the bulk of its interior was laden with materials from an ongoing renovation.

Have you ever stood in a dumpster full of water?
With disappointment setting in, Patrick and I moved to one final small dumpster behind a retail craft store. As we approached the receptacle it became obvious it was packed to the brim with items containing glass and cardboard. Shreds of boxes and small pieces of broken glass laid scattered at the front of the big green container, which had its lid cracked open from the mass of waste contained within. Without hesitation, I walked to the front of the dumpster and lifted the lid, exposing a pile of debris from shipments and broken goods. A quick scan of the heap revealed nothing of particular value until my eye caught glimpse of a smooth black finish wrapped by pieces of cardboard meant for on-shelf display. I move a few pieces of cardboard from the top of the item, which revealed a nearly two-foot wide picture frame in near perfect condition. In fact, the picture frame has the front glass completely intact, had no damage to the frame, still contained the small bag of mounting hardware on the back and was still wrapped in cardboard buffers to prevent damage. As I pulled the picture frame from the dumpster, I looked back at Patrick and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Why would anyone throw this away?” Equally stunned, Patrick grabbed the frame from my hands and gave it a quick once over. “I don’t get it!” he exclaimed as he continued looking for some flaw with the object.  As we headed back to the car and began our trip toward downtown Madison, we talked about the frame and tried to determine its value. Some research showed it to be worth $20.95 at retail price, which seemed ridiculous to both of us. We were barely 30 minutes into my first dumpster diving adventure, and it appeared we had made our first discovery of value.

The hunt continues...
Our continued efforts to find the flaw with the picture frame occupied our time until we made it downtown. Once we hit the student housing areas near campus, Patrick and I removed our focus from the picture frame and began scanning the streets for dumpsters. As we rounded a corner near one of the city’s main streets, University Avenue, Patrick pointed out his window and made a brief remark. “There it is,” he said as he led my eye to a row of two dumpsters that each stood at nearly the length and width of a semi trailer. Both of the dumpsters were packed to the brim with debris from students moving out of a nearby apartment complex, which spurred me to turn into a nearby parking space. As we parked I looked at Patrick and muttered a statement of reservation, “I said I wanted the real experience... I guess in doesn’t get anymore real than this.” Patrick chuckled as we exited the vehicle and began our walk toward the dumpsters. Moments later, we were standing at the base of two massive green containers that were roughly eight feet tall. Realizing I had no choice but to climb the dumpster and wade into the debris, I gave Patrick a look and disbelief before I started scaling the hinge on the first dumpster’s heavy steel door.

The first big climb
Getting into it
Over the next 20 minutes I wandered between the two dumpsters, wading through the huge collection of garbage that contained far more items than I thought possible. Lawn chairs, cleaning solutions, bags filled with hundreds of Klinke Cleaners clothes hangers, text books, televisions, sofas, cabinets, debit cards (yes, debit cards), photographs, personal affects, clothing, text books, and dozens of other items littered the space. The only thing that seemed to be missing was real garbage like food waste and empty packaging. I couldn’t believe what was in the pile of debris lining the dumpster. It was as if people had thrown out their whole lives in an effort to vacate their current residence as fast as possible. Not only did it seem incredibly wasteful, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of typically poor students throwing away so many useable and somewhat valuable items. For the first time in my dumpster diving experience, the core of the “freeganism” concept hit home. Around me there were plenty of items in a state of disrepair, the dumpster also contained many, many goods that could be reused, recycled, or donated to help others. While I knew I didn’t have the time or the space to gather all of the items that fit this description, my assessment of the dumpster’s contents gave me drive to find items I knew I could use in my life. Using this motivation, I discovered a small, unused garbage can with the labels still on it, a fully functioning lighter, a sealed bottle of Windex, a Target brand milk crate with the labels still on it, and a package of coat hangers still bound by the store wrapper.

Intimidating... Gross, and intimidating
Eventually, I climbed back out of the dumpsters with a handful of new or nearly new goods in my arms and discussed the fins with Patrick. Although he seemed less intrigued by the items I had in tow than I did, he agreed it was ridiculous so many useable goods were disposed of readily during the move-out process. After placing the items in the backseat floor of my car, Patrick and I walked through several more neighborhoods in the downtown area, with me scaling more dumpsters and scrounging around for more suitable finds. While the rest of my dumpster diving efforts didn’t yield as many usable goods as the first half of the experience, I was equally astounded at the amount of perfectly good items that littered dumpsters throughout the city. Business signs, practically new stuffed animals, road cones, dinnerware, glassware, cleaning goods, and other items were in nearly every dumpster we encountered. The finds only reinforced my earlier insight regarding the beliefs and lifestyle of “freegans” and gave me perspective on my own habits as they relate to creating waste. I mulled over those thoughts as Patrick and I wound our way back through downtown and back toward my car. Although I walked away from the experience with a few goods I could put to use back home,  I knew the biggest takeaway would be the discovery of the wasteful nature of the majority of our culture. That alone was worth getting a little dirty and grimy on what would have been an otherwise uneventful August evening in my life.

The haul... Nearly all of this stuff still had tags on it!
Today’s experience was one to carry with me for some time. Not only did I face an underlying fear of dirty things once more, but I also gained a lot from my first experience dumpster diving. While I doubt I will engage in the practice again anytime in the near future, I know I will be more mindful of the things I am tossing out or labeling as garbage going forward. Although I like to think I’m generally good about donating gently used goods, I know I can do better at it, and today’s experience gave me the inspiration to start that effort. I can now officially say I have been dumpster diving, and I took a lot more away from the experience than I ever would have expected.


  1. This is awesome! I am really wanting to do this now. I have a couple mates that I'm sure would love to do this with me. I heard that the guys at Take Away Bins are having a lot of bins out. I'm sure there's a couple treasures in there. Thanks!

  2. You've got no idea how much I love dumpster diving. When I was a kid I used to go all the time! We would find some of the coolest things that people threw away. The sad thing is most of the stuff were still in great condition .

  3. Promptly this unique websites are able to most likely recognition relating to most of operating a blog not to mention site-building of us, due to the thoughtful items or just review articles.