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Trash Thrash

dumpster diving
Buried Treasure: Ginger Quinn displays her booty from a dumpster diving session including a CD collection and de rigueur mask and snorkel.

Photo by Michael Amsler

The ins and outs, ups and downs of dumpster diving

By David Templeton

AS DUMPSTERS GO, the one I'm now lying in doesn't smell half bad. The trash container behind that restaurant last night was much worse, a prime example of why most professional "dumpster divers" avoid food cans at all costs. It's hard to get the memory out of my mind: ripe with the commingled remains of blue-plate specials and coffee grounds and soft shreds of slippery-brown lettuce. It was no picnic, though to the homeless guy who showed up as I was leaving, one would suppose that "picnic" is a fairly apt description.

So where am I?

That's right. In the trash. The receptacle in which I am now submerged--a giant, treasure-filled waste bin at a Santa Rosa industrial complex--is, relatively speaking, a joy and a delight, a dumpster diver's paradise. Dry and warm (the time being just after 10 in the morning), the air in here is peculiarly pleasant. Perfumed with the dusty musk of damp paper and office supplies, undercut by the sharp citrusy scent of aged and rusting metal, the experience is not at all bad--it's even somewhat intoxicating.

Or is the buzz I'm feeling only the raw adrenaline rush of having hit a vein of dumpster gold? For I have just uncovered two dozen perfectly good cassette tapes--Steppenwolf! Joan Baez! Gary Puckett & the Union Gap?--buried beneath all the shredded paper and plastic bags.

"Can you imagine?" exclaims Ginger Quinn, the Sonoma County artist--and seasoned dumpster diver--who has graciously agreed to act as my trash-can tour-guide this morning. "Someone actually threw this out!" She holds up the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing, clucking with mild disdain. A moment later, she uncovers a pile of CDs, but is disappointed to discover the plastic cases are empty. A few minutes later, she nimbly pulls herself up and out into the morning light, jumping to the ground with a satisfied sigh. "Isn't trash fun?" she whoops.

Quinn has been peering into trash cans for years. In various travels from New York City to Taos, N. M., she has learned that all communities are unified by one startling factor: everyone throws away cool stuff.

Most of the wood scraps and odd, motley tidbits Quinn has recovered have ended up in her whimsical altars and bright, mirrored sculptures. The founder of Art from the Heart--a non-profit program that reaches out to at-risk children by encouraging their creativity--Quinn discovered long ago that within the dumpsters of America lie rich mother lodes of worthy raw material, valuable stuff that, were people like herself not there to rescue it, would only end up as so much waste in our ever-growing landfills.

Glancing inside another bin, crammed with lumber and unused drywall, Quinn murmurs, "You could probably find enough construction material in dumpsters to build your own house!" Later, after striking out at several dumpsters, we notice an enormous stack of sleek wooden boxes, piled up by a back entrance, on their way to the dump.

"What a score!" she crows, loading the boxes into the car. "Isn't it amazing what we throw away in this country? Whether it's tapes or crates or throwaway kids, I find it incredibly troubling that we don't try to do more with the things we have."

Talking Trash

The phrase "dumpster diving" was coined only a decade or so ago, though the inclination to remove goodies from other people's trash is about as old as civilization itself. From the Trojan Horse on, folks have been grabbing things that others have left behind. But it's never been as profitable or as widely practiced as it is today.

The scavengers range from eccentric junk artists to cash-seeking, aluminum-can collectors to pragmatic flea-market vendors and fearless redistributors of memorabilia; from hardened, anti-waste activists to wide-eyed teenagers looking for cool, free goodies; from the merely curious to the severely hungry.

Dumpster diving is not exclusively an American pastime either. A cursory search of related Websites on the Internet reveals that dumpster diving has become an international phenomenon. There are sites originating from England, Ireland, France, Germany, Canada, and Japan; many of them offer books, tapes, and videos on the subject. One features catchy, grunge-style "Music to Dumpster Dive By." The Loyal Order of Dumpster Divers in Victoria, British Columbia, has not only helpful advice but a complete line of dumpster-diving apparel as well.

So what is the attraction here? How do we explain the peculiar but undeniable appeal of climbing into big smelly trash cans? Though the cultural motivations of its practitioners shift wildly, and the laws, safety precautions, and technical difficulties (locked dumpsters, for instance) vary from city to city and person to person, the bottom line is simple: It's the stuff.

Instant Wealth

According to the Treasures Found Website--to which divers have submitted astonishing first-person accounts of the groovy things they've found in the trash--sharp-eyed divers have scored such bounty as a working Pentium computer (sans keyboard), numerous mice, modems, and other computer supplies; color TVs, chairs, china, jewelry (one guy found an engagement ring in a trash bin and promptly proposed to his girlfriend); a Ralph Lauren suede skirt, a complete swing record collection, a set of lawn furniture, wood scraps and lumber (often used for firewood); a set of slides from someone's trip to Moscow, miles of Christmas lights, an Asteroids video game player, a loaded handgun (excuse me?), $37.27 worth of pennies in a shoe box, and even--someone "swears to God"--a John Deere tractor.

"It's like snapping your fingers and creating instant wealth--out of nothing," exclaims author John Hoffman, speaking on the phone from Seattle. "I walk around in a constant state of shock at how much is thrown away. I see so much being wasted, but I can only capture so much of it. The rest is up to everyone else."

Hoffman, an outgoing, gregarious guy with a contagious attitude and a passion for trash, has become something of a guru to the maligned and misunderstood dumpsterers of the world. His offbeat, philosophical guide book, The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving (Loomponics, 1994), transformed him into a household name among the diving community, and--with numerous radio and television appearances, including a weekly radio show distributed throughout Europe and spots on ABC's Caryl & Marilyn: Real Friends--he's earned a certain level of mainstream celebrity as well.

"It's the role that's been thrust upon me," he laughs. "So be it. Anything to promote dumpsterism."

I [Heart] Junk

Dumpsterism? "There's capitalism, right? And Marxism. And they both have their good points," Hoffman reasons. "My thing is that there is plenty of good stuff, and people should just, you know, scavenge it, so then everybody will have plenty. That's dumpsterism: an alternative economic vision. It might not be respected as highly as capitalism and Marxism, but hey--it works for me.

"The point is this: Every time someone goes into a dumpster and pulls something out that they can use, that's one thing that doesn't have to be manufactured again. That's good for the planet. The fact that dumpster diving is also a major kick in the butt, that's just icing on the cake!"

Hoffman's book brought him to the attention of San Jose artist/filmmaker Suzanne Girot. In early 1996, she and her film crew followed Hoffman for several days of dumpster diving and a heady dose of his anti-waste evangelism. The result is The Ultimate Dive, a 22-minute video in which the "Master Diver" (Hoffman) takes an apprentice and decries the rise of trash compactors and locked dumpsters. The film has been racking up awards in film festivals across the globe, including a second-place award at the Victoria International Film Fest in Canada, runner-up at the Berlin Transmedia Video Festival and at the Canyon Land Film Festival in Utah. Next month it will screen at a festival in Barcelona, Spain.

"I just wanted to show, in a fun, visual way, exactly how much we throw out," Girot says. "Not to encourage others to go out and do it, so much as to demonstrate the negative side of all this consumerism. I mean, don't people realize that this stuff is going to end up buried in the earth? Don't they know that someone out there could probably use it?"

A renowned reuse artist herself, Girot has as her most striking work a series of giant sculptures depicting odd, mutating animals, constructed with castoff materials and dried seaweed. In addition to The Ultimate Dive, she directed the well-received documentary Garbage Stories, featuring four innovative public garbage recycling programs, including Petaluma's own Recycletown.

"As much as I love junk," she confesses, "and as much recycled scrap as I've worked into my various installations, I'm still more comfortable hauling it away from a dump than I am crawling into a dumpster to get it. It's just personal choice.

"The divers like John have a special bravura that not everyone has."

Zero Waste

Natalie Timm of Sonoma County's Creative Reuse has mixed feelings about these people whom she affectionately refers to as "garbage scavengers": "I'm glad that they are saving material from the landfills, but on the other hand, I wish our recycling systems were such that there were no usable materials going into dumpsters."

Timm is a longtime supporter of the zero-waste movement, seeking to eliminate all household and corporate detritus through recycling operations and creative reuse programs.

"Our systems are not yet set up to support the reuse that is necessary," she says. "So, of course, the dumpsters are full of stuff for the garbage scavengers to take. When I see what businesses pitch out, the total disregard for the environment that they show, it saddens me. It's lazy and it's uncreative. And everyone who throws something away that could be redistributed in some way is missing out on a very rewarding experience.

"I suppose that's what drives the dumpster divers," she adds. "Reuse is very rewarding. It genuinely feels good."

Rhapsodic Diving

"When I first started dumpster diving, my mom used to hassle me about it," shrugs "Spaz" (whose real name is withheld on request). He laughs a throaty, self-deprecating chuckle as he directs the beams of a tiny keychain-sized flashlight into the depths of a gloomy, but generously heaped trash bin. He immediately spies a slew of magazines, which he pulls from the dumpster and tucks under his arm.

"Then one time I found an angora sweater," he continues. "It was just a little bit torn, so I brought it home and gave it to my mother. An angora sweater! She never bothered me again."

It is nearing midnight--Spaz's favorite time to explore the trash of Santa Rosa--and he is leading me, on foot, through one of his favorite "routes." Even this late, the streets are surprisingly populated and full of noise. The creator of a notoriously confessional underground zine called Spazoleum, Spaz is known for his rhapsodic diving adventures. Although he is able to recite the same kind of anti-waste theory as Hoffman and Girot, he is quick to point out that the real motivation for these late-night trash treks is the fact that it's "a socially unacceptable practice."

"Since I was, I don't know, 10 years old maybe," he laughs, leading the way to the next stop, "if someone said, 'Don't do that,' whatever it was, it was like you couldn't keep me away after that. I guess I like pissing off the business world."

He pounds on the side of one metallic box, as if testing its ripeness before looking further. He glances in. "Nothing," he says. "I used to work for an appliance store," he says, leading me on to the next stop. "Sometimes we'd pitch perfectly good used TVs and things. The boss made us smash them up so that no dumpster diver could take it without paying. I found a whole bunch of shoes once that had been thrown away. Brand-new shoes. Someone sliced them up first with a razor. Any way you look at it, that's wrong."

We've come to a promising row of dumpsters, only to discover that they are all locked. Spaz shakes the locks playfully, and the noisy clammering echoes eerily across the abandoned parking lot. "When I first started out," he tells me, "locked dumpsters used to bug me. But not anymore." He holds up a glittering piece of metal dangling from his flashlight. "Now I have the key!" he grins. Two seconds later, he's inside the dumpster.

Yikes. This certainly seems to be pushing the edge of appropriate behavior. The dumpster--one of the Empire Waste company's numerous locked boxes--has the same basic padlock that all the companies others have. One key fits all. Spurred by anger at some citizen's attempts to lock up their garbage, a certain segment of the dumpster diving community has made it their duty to see that the point is made moot. [Empire Waste refused to return calls regarding this story.]

"I'm sworn to secrecy, basically," Spaz grins. "But the keys are not hard to get. Punk rock concerts are a good place to ask around. As far as I know, there are plenty of [keys] circulating." He disappears into the dumpster, bobbing up shortly with an armful of rare Tin Tin comic books. "The best stuff is in the locked ones," he beams.

A Few Fine Legal Points

It is at this point certain questions come to mind. Mainly, isn't all of this illegal? The answer: it depends. "As far as I know, there is no dumpster-diving ordinance, if that's what you mean," says Officer Dan Dragos of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department. He suggests that the practice of entering a dumpster might be prosecutable as trespassing and that removal of items from said receptacle might constitute theft. "But the business owner would have to make a private citizen's arrest if he or she wanted to see that enforced," he adds.

Calls to other law enforcement agencies revealed much the same thing. Though dumpster diving is not strictly against the law, it is frowned upon, and officers who come upon practitioners will usually send them on their way.

With the exception of Las Vegas, there are few cities with laws directly addressing dumpster diving. In Vegas, where dumpster diving has led to a series of mishaps involving people being crushed to death in waste disposal units ("It gets pretty ugly sometimes," confirms an officer at the Las Vegas Police Department), it's a matter of public safety.

And then there are other safety issues, such as the matter of possible exposure to toxins, rusty nails, glass, or used syringes--all dangers that are suggested by the various officers.

"Just tell these wackos to stay out of other people's trash," says a Los Angeles police officer who declines to give his name. It is a sentiment shared by the majority of business owners whose trash has become a playground for divers. Though some--such as waste-conscious manufacturers and others whose business generates a bounty of scrap material--will welcome scrap artists and others who present themselves and ask permission before peering into the bins, many express concern for everything from potential lawsuits to industrial sabotage or fraud. Thus, in order to discourage scavengers, many organizations deliberately destroy usable merchandise before dumping it.

"We strip the covers from books before they go into the trash, yes," says Jason Cruces of Barnes & Noble booksellers. "We strip them at the publisher's insistence. Otherwise someone could fish them out and then bring them into the stores for a refund.

"It's standard practice in the industry."

As for dumpster divers clambering through his own store's trash, Cruces says he hasn't been aware that it's much of an issue. "Then again, I'm not watching the dumpsters day and night," he shrugs. Told of Spaz's assertion that businesses destroy merchandise out of spite, Cruces says, "If at all possible, we will recycle or redistribute books and magazines. We strip and trash books only as a last resort. I imagine that if businesses are destroying merchandise, it's to discourage people from getting in the dumpsters and hurting themselves."

The streets are quiet now. Only the clank, clank, clank of a woman searching out aluminum cans disturbs the silence as Spaz quietly loads his car. His bounty from the three-hour excursion is remarkable: Two classic Tin Tin books, an educational video on astronomy, a dust mop, the aforementioned magazines, two brand-new Minolta camera equipment cases, and a textbook on early California history. He considers taking a bag of shredded photographs ("They're great for making collages"), but decides not to bother. As he closes the trunk of his car, he seems happy and satiated, like someone's uncle pushing himself back from the table after Thanksgiving dinner.

"All in all, it's been a pretty good night," he says. "I know it's not the classiest thing in the world," he bobs his head shyly, "climbing into the trash and everything. But neither is chucking something valuable because you're too mean to give it away or too lazy to find someone who can use it.

"If someone wants to get rid of something," he adds, "there are plenty of us out here waiting to take it."

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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