Abundant Waste: The Gleaner’s Role & Tips for Dumpster Diving

(Photo: Freegan.info, Dumpster divers in Australia)
Abundant Waste: The Gleaner’s Role & Tips for Dumpster Diving
By Wendy Tremayne
A Herman Miller chair, an iPod, a commercial juicer, Charles Russell prints, a china cabinet, used vegetable oil (for fuel), 400 USB thumb drives, and a 5-foot-diameter fiberglass globe. This is a short list of items that my dumpster diving friends recalled collecting in 2009. The makers that I surveyed about waste lit up with desire while talking about the one-of-a kind goods found only in the trash. Glenn Clemmer, board member of The Capital City Arts Initiative in Nevada said about buying goods for art projects, “What fun is that? It’s like cheating!” as he proudly showed me a 3-foot pig his kids dove and gifted him for his birthday. Many agree that a good find gives rise to inspiration for creating projects that were not imagined before the discovery of a great piece of trash.

People dumpster dive for a variety of reasons, including necessity, saving money, the pursuit of resources, as a political statement (“freegans“), and as a means to living a low-impact life. The climate for diving sways over time. The gleaner, around at least since agriculture began, plays a flip-flopping role in society, which fluctuates between welcomed guest and nuisance. At times the gleaner was considered a provider of free labor. Welcomed guests, they cleared the less-than-marketable crop for the farmer at the end of each season. And at other times, laws have been created to prevent the re-user of waste from collecting anything at all. In 2009 many divers noticed an increase in dumpster locks, walled dumpsters, and on-site crushers.
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(Photo: Wendy Tremayne, at Trader Joe’s)
Today some businesses play an intentional part in an unofficial welfare system when they donate nearly expired food, damaged goods, or out-of-date editions directly to charities. The Albuquerque Trader Joe’s showed me a train of full shopping carts that were waiting to be picked up by local groups in need. They shoo divers from their dumpsters, though, because the dumpster is located in the middle of the store’s parking lot. Policy on dumpster diving varies greatly from store to store, even within a national chain.
Cindy Rosin, a spokesperson for Freegan.info in New York said of these cycles that, “In our wasteful capitalist society any trend in the stores will be in the trash shortly thereafter. Planned obsolescence is built into every product.” She explained that “While freegans regularly dive, the goal of a conscientious freegan is to get to a point where there isn’t waste to dumpster dive.”
The surplus we have now in America just might be what we need to bide us time to create a less wasteful way of life. Cindy agreed that it was possible to live a waste-free life and said, “If people learn to gather or grow their food in their own environment, repair their existing shelters, create out of natural materials, and repair the goods already out there, we’d be a long way towards living with the ecosystem as a participant, instead of a parasite.” Though the economy remains in a state of flux, new goods are still being produced and waste is being created at a typically obscene rate. We are a long way from running out of garbage-based inspirations. For as long as diving offers relief to landfills, and to the demand for the production of new materials, lets talk about how to respectfully and safely set up bountiful dives.
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(Photo: Wendy Tremayne, at Trader Joe’s)

Tips from Seasoned Divers

Best Dives for Edibles: Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods
Safety Tips: Check product recalls, pick off the top, and don’t dive after a heat wave.
Best Dives for Non-Edibles: Home Depot, Radio Shack, and university neighborhoods
Dumping Volume Tip: Check dumpsters of stores that are moving or going out of business, as they often throw away cases of a single product.
Diving Bummers of 2009: Dumpsters with pad-locks, walled-in dumpsters and locked gates, on-site garbage crushers
Holiday Tips: Make an agreement with friends and family. If you’re going to acknowledge the holidays, do so a couple of weeks or months before or after the season ends. This allows all to benefit from post-holiday dumpster diving, some of the best diving of the year.
Always: Be tidy, and never leave a mess for the next diver or the store owner.
About the Author:
Wendy Tremayne is an event producer, conceptual artist, and yoga teacher. One of her projects, Swap-O-Rama-Rama, is a community clothing swap and series of DIY workshops that she created as an alternative to consumerism. Wendy lives in Truth or Consequences, N.M., where she is co-creating an off-grid B&B. Find out more on the Holy Scrap Hot Springs blog. Learn more about Wendy at gaiatreehouse.com.

8 thoughts on “Abundant Waste: The Gleaner’s Role & Tips for Dumpster Diving

  1. There is nothing that gives me more inspiration than a pile of junk in the alley! I find all kinds of furniture items that people throw out every spring to summer. I draw my line at edible and fabric items (due to the bed bugs situation in my neighborhood). Kudos to those who support this hobby!

  2. My husband and I, rather early in our relationship, were walking through Pike Place Market (a year-round, daily farmers market in Seattle) early one evening to find flower vendors dumping perfectly beautiful flowers (by the boxfull) in the dumpsters. We joined a couple of other people collecting the ‘waste’ – a more exciting and romantic date than I had anticipated. And we ended up showing each other that we had some similarities we never dreamed we had!
    Now we dive at the end-of-the-year collections at local colleges & universities annually, and have come home with bikes, clothes and furniture.

  3. I love a good item find dumpster diving, and I certainly believe that the amount of waste (especially food) in this country is appalling but I can’t help but think of my mom’s first date when I hear of dumpster diving :)
    She was friends with this guy for a while before he finally asked her out. She got all dressed up and he picked her up to take her out for the night…and took her straight to a dumpster and started eating. My mom was horrified! Needless to say, they didn’t go out again after that :p
    Good for the people that can do it, but I have limits on dumpster diving. I can’t cross that food bridge!

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