Opening Letters

In Good Waste

a local man’s experience with the art of dumpster diving

Zack Gauck |

How much would you pay to furnish your living room? You’d likely want a TV, entertainment stand, a couch/futon, a coffee table, some lamps, a rug (if you have hardwood floors), a fan for summer, maybe some kitschy art-deco pieces, and a DVD player, right? What if I told you I have all of the aforementioned products and I paid nothing for any of it, nor did I steal? Welcome to dumpster diving.

Let me start by saying the ‘art’: 1) is technically illegal, 2) doesn’t involve jumping into dumpsters (wading does occur), 3) doesn’t always involve dumpsters filled with leaky refuse. Now that that’s out in the open, I’ll continue.

Dumpster diving (D.D.) came to me from my brother, Matt, when he was at ASU (in western North Carolina). He is the typical artist: scruffy, obsessed with road bikes, and seemingly lacking money. During an exercise in “how it feels to be homeless for a weekend,” Matt realized finding a place to sleep was difficult, obtaining food for free is hard, but stumbling across items one could re-sell on eBay, surprisingly easy. When he returned home, he was all too excited to take me around town, behind common establishments, to root around for gems amongst the trash. I was skeptical, but then again, aren’t we all.

Fast-forward six years and my apartment is well furnished with items I’ve found. I have/had three working mountain bikes that I gave away upon finding two working road bikes, two tents, numerous lamps, four microwaves (gave the un-needed ones to old friends), a stereo, two inflatable rafts (one even came with oars), a life-sized Buffy the Vampire Slayer cut-out, bread-maker, children’s karaoke machine, and a very decent kitchen table and chairs – just to name a few. Where did it all come from you ask? I obtained most of my useful items from thrift store dumpsters and communal apartment trash heaps. Matt, on the other hand, has taken D.D. further.

While living in Chicago, he decided to see how far he could stretch his dollars. He started visiting grocery store dumpsters, bagel dumpsters, donut dumpsters, you name it. The crazy thing is, he succeeded. Every time I visited his apartment there would be large bags of bagels sitting in his fridge, overflowing cartons of donuts, pizza boxes from patrons that never bothered to pick up their order/cancelled too late, and a varying number of organic juices. As if to really prove his point, he is now a vegan and still succeeds in spending very little time actually in grocery stores.

    It has become second nature to bike with him to bakeries and check their trash. He has befriended shop owners and made enemies of others. Some understand his mindset. Others claim the trash is theirs, and can throw away food anytime they want.

Take, for instance, the 20-plus vegan pies he came across in Chicago. The owner of the store made employees stomp on the pies and then locked the dumpster from that day forward. The owner admitted the only reason the items were being thrown out was because one package on the pallet cracked open, therefore all the other pies were tossed “just in case.”

There are, however, items you don’t want to come across in dumpsters. For instance, an animal hospital moved in next to a bakery we used to frequent and the first sign of horse anesthesia had us packing. Also, food from dumpsters may be tainted if not in a sealed bag (some store owners sprinkle rat poison in bottom of dumpsters – especially in larger cities). There’s also the occasional broken light bulb/bottle to contend with. But, like with any other activity, one has to know where to go, what to look for, and realize safety is the number one priority.

I haven’t amassed much since I have lived in E.C. because the area is surprisingly frugal and aware of the trash problem. As opposed to throwing things out, the consensus is to have neighborhood garage sales, charity drives, and mass donations. Abandoned bikes find their way to Anybody’s Bike Shop or Greasy Fixin’s, and donated furniture lives anew in thrift stores.

Though the term ‘dumpster diver’ might be new to some locals, and may result in raised eyebrows and quizzical looks, the concept is engrained in this city – just renamed something a tad more familiar: donation dwellers, garage sale garcons, or ecologically aware artisans. So feel free to pat yourself on the back Eau Claire, and please, keep the spirit alive. If you happen to see some items landfill bound, try donating them instead. Otherwise you never know, they might end up in my apartment anyway.