My boyfriend and I were throwing away our old vacuum a couple of weeks ago, and he had to coax me into not putting it out on the street with the trash. He said, “Why don’t you let me take it to the Goodwill for donation?” I had to think before I said okay. I assumed someone would come along and pick it up, someone who needed a vacuum. Sometimes I forget everyone doesn’t go through garbage like I do. Though my boyfriend convinced me to donate it, some part of me thinks the vacuum would have disappeared had we left it out on the curb, in the hours before the trash-men came.
My favorite Teflon-coated purple pans came from the trash. I look around the apartment and note everything I see that came from a Dumpster: the glass Corningware, two of the four lamps, the art on the wall, one of the potted plants, one of the pots, a table, hangers, the rugs, the cat’s litter box, the garbage can with a swinging lid, the Walkman and radio, the manila folders used to file paperwork in the accordion binder, the various pens, sticky notes, paper clips and rubber bands that fall to the bottom of a plastic garbage bags from commercial buildings; the feather pillow left in the back of my truck for six months in the summer to ensure that there were no critters inside of it.
Being an obstinate and disobedient teenager, I was fifteen years old when I ran away from my family home; I didn’t want to go to school. Trying to avoid school and having nowhere to go I slept on the streets in the downtown Sacramento area, which, believe it or not, seemed like a grand adventure to me at that age.
In the beginning I started Dumpster diving because people often left shoes and clothes outside the dumpsters, sometimes even displayed in an attractive heap, as if they’d been placed neatly in the trash by a merchandiser from Sears. It’s easy enough to be the one who that grabs them; a pile of clothes looks like a vacation in Hawaii on a cold winter night.
I found myself gradually working my way inside the Dumpsters, as my delight with what I’d find overrode any shame I felt. I would follow my friends, my mentors, through disgusting, smelly garbage to find the treasures within the trash, sifting through mounds of nastiness to find the gem in the rough.
“Wow, you could furnish a whole apartment this way!” I’d exclaim with glee.
It was shocking to realize the sheer variety of places around downtown that threw away food: the Jack in the Box on Broadway; Domino’s Pizza near 20th street; the bakery on Alhambra. At the time it was like eating a gourmet meal from Red Lobster, if we were lucky enough to score.
I don’t eat food out of the Dumpsters anymore. A couple months after Halloween one year I found myself wanting to throw up when I unwrapped a Reese’s peanut butter cup that was full of maggots.
A sensible person would spend his or her scavenging time wisely by collecting aluminum and plastic while he or she is “browsing” through the trash, which perhaps explains the sight of so many shopping-cart pushing vagrants in the Dumpsters.
I know some people probably don’t like seeing scavengers in their garbage. Some people separate their recyclables to make them easier to get. (I still live downtown- that’s what we do.) I think that as long as people going through your trash don’t make a mess, let them have it! Most of us don’t do enough recycling as it is.
Most people think of garbage as nasty and smelly and off-limits once it’s thrown away. That’s accurate, but there’s treasure in that trash, and it’s true when people says, “one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.” Underneath all the refuse are things other people can reuse, which makes you wonder how wise it is to throw away useful stuff in the first place.
So think about that the next time you’re throwing away stuff you no longer want. Maybe someone else could use it.
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