Dumpster diving is the practice of taking what other people have thrown away. Food, furniture, electric appliances: One man’s garbage is another’s treasure. But really, it’s about the discovery that the system is broken and we don’t need to go down with it. Urban dumpsterdiver shares the story of her disenchantment with capitalism, and how she moved from the offices of California to the American country-side, one dumpster at a time.
Fall of 2007 I was laid off from my corporate job. It was supposed to last until March of 2008 but plans fell through. The layoff was unexpected.
So I immediately applied for unemployment insurance and starting looking for jobs. I dragged myself to countless interviews, all dressed up in my professional business suit, resume in hand, references on request, hair up in bun, modest makeup. I did everything right.
I would get interviews but no call-backs. When I made the mistake of inquiring about my interview I was met with indifference or just no return phone calls. Finally my unemployment ran out. I had to take a minimum wage job to just pay my rent. Thank God for my tax return from the previous year or I wouldn’t have been able to eat.
A few months later my neighbor suggested I go to the soup kitchen for my lunch. I drove by that soup kitchen probably a dozen times before I had the nerve to walk in. Finally I swallowed my pride. The room was full, mostly with white seniors and white middle-aged men and women, mostly homeless or near homeless. The men that ate in there were extremely gracious. They would pull the chairs out for the ladies and pour us water or juice. I saw more kindness, compassion and grace from these homeless than from many of the corporate men I used to work with. Reflecting the paradoxical nature of the economy, the homeless had more class. I didn’t feel the least bit embarrassed after that.
A little over a year after I had gotten laid off I saw the Oprah show about Freegan and dumpster diving. It opened up an entire world for me. A few months after I saw her show, I gathered up the courage and went for it.
The first night out I recovered a 5 foot angel statue, probably a store display – Nothing wrong with it. I gave it to a friend of mine who was a devout catholic. Perfect fit. She was so excited when she saw the statue she cried. She was hurting for money and didn’t have that many Christmas decorations so that angel really boosted her spirits.
After that, nightly I would peruse the back alleys and find an enormous amount of treasures. Many nights I have filled up the back of my car. Bananas, oranges, limes, lemons, onions, etc. I never took meat out of the dumpster unless it was pre-cooked or just thrown out (i.e. frozen). I’ve never gotten sick from any of the food I’ve retrieved.
The waste in our society is appalling. In my country, America, it was recently reported to waste a full half of it’s food. We consume 25% of the resources and waste half of it. Pathetic. What kind of family values is wasting items or food that some poor person could eat to avoid starvation?
Going dumpster-diving at night I started noticing other night-dwellers. Americans only regards those who are important and people they think can do something for them. Sadly, most Americans only care about people who look good. But dumpster-diving made me see the ‘invisible people”: A homeless man riding his bicycle with bags of cans taped to his bike. A homeless lady walking around with a couple of bags trying to look inconspicuous.
Occasionally the homeless will stop by as I’m driving and ask me if I would retrieve something from the trash for them as I have a little more sophisticated equipment than they do. One night a man came by saying, “I’ve heard about you. You’re the one with the golden hair who’s very nice.” I remember replying that sometimes I was a little sketchy going out at dark. He said, “Nah, don’t worry. We’ll watch out for you.”
Over the years I developed my technique (even dumpster-diving has methods): I do my reconnaissance during the day and scout out new territory and dive at night. I take a fishing gaffe, a grabber, forehead mounted headlamps, gloves and dark clothing. In the summer I wear dark T-shirt and shorts with good sturdy sandals and in the winter I wear jeans with a dark T-shirt. I’m in an out in 15 minutes or less. I never take more than I need and leave some for others.
The food, crackers and such, I keep. Any extra we give to neighbors, preferably to women and little children. I have two neighbors with small children that are struggling financially. They get the stuff first. I firmly believe that God has called me to help feed and clothe the poor. And if that means getting the stuff out of the dumpster, so be it.
There is nothing wrong with having new things. But American’s addiction to new things has created a permanent slave class. The wealthy ship jobs offshore to third world countries where they can exploit people of color to work for a mere pittance so we in North America can have shiny nice things at a cheap price. To me that is despicable, greedy and just plain wrong. This is part of the reason we’re hated across the planet.
For the first three years after I was laid off, it was unemployment, minimum wage jobs, picking up pop cans to earn extra money, odd jobs, curbside diving, you name it – just to make ends meet.
In 2010 I decided I’d had enough. I took what money I had left, sold most of my belongings and packed my entire life into my little truck and took off. I told everyone I’d keep driving until I found a place I felt good about. I was so scared, I cried until I reached the Arizona border.
My current husband and I met on the internet. We started talking a month after I left. He was so intrigued by my story he had to meet me. I finally drove to his vacation home and 5 months later we were married.
Now over a year later, he’s out of the corporate rat race and we’re in the woods most of the year. Clean water, friendly country folk (who are for the most genuine) and healthy farm food all make for a higher quality of life for me. We go dumpster-diving together all the time.