Dumpster Diving: Sifting for Dumped Treasure

Dumpster Diving: Sifting Through Trash for Dumped Treasure

A growing hobby among garbologists and young people, dumpster diving can satisfy human needs from hunger and thirst, to curiosity and artistic creativity.
Dumpster diving―the practice of sifting through trash to find still-useful items that have been discarded by their owners―has traditionally been considered to be something hobos or street people did for economic and personal reasons. In rural areas and in some ancient agricultural societies, some houses had 'poor boxes', where homeowners dumped leftover food that was still edible, and poor people would take the food for themselves.

Nowadays, dumpster diving isn't just an economic or survival endeavor; many people engage in it as a hobby. People today sometimes refer to the practice as 'urban foraging', 'alley surfing', 'aggressive recycling', or 'going to D-mart'. Some young people actually dive into dumpsters, often daring each other to see who can execute the best dive, although they risk injuring themselves on broken glass or landing in a pile of something disgusting. Check out YouTube sometime and you'll probably find at least one video of a dumpster diving aficionado.

The term has its roots in the brand 'Dumpster', the best-known manufacturer of commercial trash bins. The size and design of most dumpsters makes it possible to pull many items from the outside dumpsters without actually having to 'dive' inside the bin, although some people still do either dive or climb inside. Dumpster diving can range from a one-time adventure to retrieve a useful item spotted in a garbage can, to an individual person's choice to live a low-impact lifestyle, or a full-time livelihood when a person is in economic dire straits. Still others engage in dumpster diving just to satisfy their curiosity about what people might be throwing away.

Dumpster diving can be a green endeavor, by reusing items destined for a landfill. As a result, it is practiced by many communities and people who are concerned with environmental issues. Others see it as a way to make money. Offices, department stores, factories, and other commercial organizations may throw out goods that were returned, have minor damages, or have manufacturing flaws. Such items may be retrieved and sold to make a little cash, although some may require a little work by the dumpster diver to make the items functionally usable. A general rule of thumb for most seasoned dumpster divers is that if they retrieve something from the dumpster out back of a store, they should not attempt to return it for credit or refund. Stores who even suspect this is happening will enact policies to keep it from happening, therefore ruining the success of future dumpster diving attempts.

Residential buildings, such as apartment complexes, sometimes are a good source of clothing, appliances, furniture, and housewares. Because some people find it easier and less expensive to dispose of an old or outdated item rather than donating it or recycling, some dumpster divers can find a treasure trove of still-functioning items that can either be used or sold. Consumer electronics and computers may be dumped because of their rapid depreciation, obsolescence, or the cost of upgrading or repair. In the case of computers, schools are often unwilling or unable to work with used equipment, so people are unable to get rid of their old computers in any way besides dumping them. But some non-profit organizations such as 'Geeks Into The Streets', 'Computervank', 'Free Geek', and 'Reboot' are happy to take in old computer equipment and try to refurbish it for charity or educational use.

Some dumpster diving stories have become the stuff of legends. Here are a few of them.
  • In Juarez, Mexico, a man salvaged a radiation therapy machine from a dumpster behind a hospital. The machine carried Cobalt-60, which contaminated about 5,000 metric tons of steel, some of which was sent to the US and Canada.
  • Charles Manson wrote and recorded a song titled 'Garbage Dump', which appears on his album 'Lie: The Love & Terror Cult'. The song's lyrics deal with dumpster diving.
  • In 2000, a salvage man, 61-year old Willie Fulgear, found 55 Oscar statues in a dumpster behind a grocery store in Los Angeles. He was given a $50,000 reward and two tickets to the Oscars. The reward money was later stolen from a safe in his apartment.
  • Convicted abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph was apprehended by a local law enforcement officer for trespassing, when he was caught dumpster diving behind a supermarket.
Dumpster diving means many things to many people, and whether or not it is a good hobby for you to embark upon depends on you. If you feel adventurous, go for it! If you feel skeptical, spend some time thinking about it before diving in. Either way, you may want to look on YouTube to see what it's all about. Either you'll feel inspired and head out to make your first dive attempt, or you'll have your skepticism validated, and choose to just sit in front of your computer and watch other people do it, from the comfort of your own home.
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