Dive into dumpsters

Nov. 11, 2004, midnight | By Kate Selby | 19 years, 7 months ago

Senior Whitney Blair leans the upper half of her body into a dumpster behind a local convenience store. She carefully scans the sea of black plastic bags for a hint of a Krispy Kreme. A minute later, donut in hand, she jumps down and tosses her light aside into a pile of clothing and knick-knacks, the rest of her spoils from the night, and leans against the oversized trash bin to enjoy a well-earned treat.

Blair's trip on the night of Oct. 27 with several friends was a chance to participate in an eccentric hobby called dumpster diving, or "dumpstering," which has attracted people of all economic backgrounds (not just the homeless) for many years. Dumpstering basically consists of pulling anything from food to clothes out of dumpsters and using it as if it were new. However, recently, this hobby has turned from pastime to passion, inspired by a natural American attraction to free stuff and the movement against rising waste and consumption figures in the U.S. today.

First, dumpster divers must decide whether the dumpster they have picked is good for rummaging or simply repulsive. Senior Christine Capps carefully previews dumpsters' contents to make a decision about whether to venture into their deep, dark and dirty depths.

Nonetheless, nurse Betty Overby says that sometimes a quick glance isn't enough, as a dumpster can hold used needles and bodily fluids, not to mention dangerous and potentially life-threatening diseases from food, such as salmonella and listeriosis. "You never know when you reach into a dumpster who's been there before and what kind of thing you're going to put your hand into," she says. Overby insists that if someone is determined to go dumpstering, he or she should wear industrial-strength gloves, wash any clothes with bleach in hot water and never eat anything found in a dumpster unless it still has the manufacturer's seal and cannot possibly go bad.

Apart from diseases and disgusting contents, dumpster divers also face the threat from authority. While it is not technically illegal to take something out of a dumpster, according to Public Service Aide Wilson Jackson of the Montgomery County Police Department, some stores and organizations do not approve of people looking through their leftovers and thus install security cameras or lock their dumpsters.

However, not all stores are hostile about their dumpsters. The Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-Op on Ethan Allen Avenue allows dumpstering as long as it does not bother the customers. Employee Bob Atwood says that he is comfortable with members of the community making use of the store's dumpster, especially if the activity is less of a hobby and more of a necessity. "The [dumpster divers] that I've seen are really indigent and really need something to eat," he says. "If a person is down on their luck, and they need the food, why not?" Atwood says that many of those who peruse the pickings at the Co-Op's dumpster are homeless people or college students struggling to make a living.

However, the hobby is not just a means of survival; it is also an attempt to rectify the wasteful nature of society.

The Environmental Protection Agency's web site states that in 2000 alone, the U.S. generated 232 million tons of garbage or trash. This figure translates to about 4.5 pounds per person per day. With these staggering numbers, dumpstering takes on a political spin.

Blair says she will take things out of a dumpster mainly "because it's just going to be wasted." Attitudes like Blair's have inspired such charity organizations as Food Not Bombs and The Olive Branch, both of which obtain food for the hungry through dumpstering.

But some Blazers dumpster for the simple pleasure of standing knee-deep in old fruit and cigarette boxes and still finding great things to take home. Some of the most impressive treasures found by Blazers include a typewriter, a partially broken bike and even chairs and tables. Senior Adair Brown jokes that dumpstering can become an obsession. "It's dangerous because you get addicted to it, and you end up with a lot of meaningless stuff you don't need," she says.

Senior Heather Baker, who accompanied Blair on her shopping trip, agrees, and while tramping through dark alleys from dumpster to dumpster, she concedes, "I must admit this is probably one of the most fun and interesting experiences I've had in my high-school career."

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Kate Selby. Kate Selby is a mean, green, story writing machine! She enjoys rock climbing, yoga, volleyball, writing poetry in her psychological "Zen Zone," and running hurdles. Another hobby which Kate enjoys is laughing at herself, an activity which she pursues quite often as she often does … More »

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