One man's trash 

The Indy jumps head first into the culture of dumpster diving and finds more than just treasure

Incredible what you can find in a giant trash bin. Vittles, clothes, perfectly fine furnishings and valuable raw materials abound. Dead would-be pets prove a bit unsettling, but there’s an expectation of having to separate the wheat from the chaff when digging through garbage. We also discovered dumpster décor worthy of any college dorm room, mean-spirited business practices meant to shun scavengers, and legal precedence helpful to anyone needing or wanting to join the ever-growing legion of locals in search of some free loot.

But the main thing we found after diving head first into Missoula’s dumpster diving culture was concern. A significant number of our neighbors either rely upon or steadfastly abide by the art of rummaging. It’s a way of life—a result as much of Missoula’s eclectic, eco-conscious makeup as it is of the local economy, recession or not. As soon as our reporters were seen poking around cherished hotspots, we heard from freegans pleading with us to tread lightly on what’s, in some cases, literally their bread and butter.

“Please don’t do the story,” said one via anonymous e-mail. “But if you do, please do it responsibly.”

Freegans can be an understandably secretive group. The term, which combines “free” and “vegan,” although a freegan doesn’t have to be vegan, applies to a subculture disgusted by America’s rampant over-consumption. Freegans subsist on food others discard as a way of protesting the conventional economy. They’re just one subset of local dumpster divers we met while working on this story.

Many local scavengers have jobs and the means to provide store-bought items for themselves, but strongly believe in the altruistic aspects of saving items from the landfill. Others are forced to supplement their limited Missoula income by finding things secondhand. To maintain their way of life, divers rely on a strict code of conduct and a basic understanding that only others who share their ethics should be clued in to the most bountiful trash bins.

“Maybe this story isn’t as much about how to dumpster dive,” suggested another uneasy scavenger, “but about why people dumpster dive in Missoula.”

We tried to cover both sides, and to do so responsibly. We purposefully avoided outing the best secret stashes (Reserve Street’s big box stores are the only ones mentioned by name, since they’re hardly a secret). We listed best practices and etiquette so potential newbies understand some of the ground rules (although freegans suggest learning from a seasoned mentor). And we offered a long-time dumpster diver the chance to explain his side of the story first.

We believe the reality of dumpster diving is an important story to tell—a side of Missoula some would prefer to think of as only associated with transients and characters in meth commercials. It’s not. Once we dug around a little, we were surprised how many different people and things we found.

Blue box breakdown
Confessions of a veteran dumpster diver
by Anonymous

There are several reasons to argue that the Indy shouldn’t have done this story.

As a Missoula citizen who occasionally derives nourishment, furnishing and entertainment from rummaging through dumpsters and alleyway refuse heaps, I was initially alarmed to hear about the article. Here in Montana, few things are more jealously protected than specifics about hunting and fishing spots. I mean, can you imagine the outrage—the expression of which would almost certainly exceed simple verbiage—that would land on the Indy’s doorstep if it ever published a listing of great places to bag an elk or land a cutthroat?

For dedicated dumpster connoisseurs, good sources for fresh produce, crusty bread, suitable pants and the like are similarly guarded, and suspicion justifiably greets actions—and especially articles—that could threaten that supply. Compared with Portland, Seattle or even Spokane, we’ve got a relatively small number of “free boxes,” and in addition to basic standards of etiquette, a culture of secrecy is crucial.

Bringing up the youth
As with hunting and fishing, the way to learn the tricks of the trade isn’t by reading a newspaper article. Members of the community pass that knowledge on in person. That’s how I got into looking through trash, and while I can claim to dumpster for any number of ethical and environmental reasons, my primary inspiration has always been a confirmed cheapskate streak.

I’m new to the role of elder, but passing the torch was my motivation last week when I headed out on a run with “Trixi” and “Pork Chop Sandwich,” two Hellgate High students who’ve seen and tasted the fruits—and the vegetables—of my labors and were looking to get knee-deep in garbage themselves.

From shop rags to snowshoes, pizza to  picture frames, the evening’s scores were impressive. But more important, as with proper hunter education, were the tips on safety and etiquette. Wear gloves. Never take everything. Only tell people you trust. Always clean up. If the Missoula County Public Schools’ board continues stonewalling attempts to educate young people about our culture’s love affair with disposability—as they did by effectively banning the film The Story of Stuff—then perhaps the dumpster diving community should respond with more of these kinds of clandestine after school activities.

In addition to experiencing an aspect of our society that’s purposely hidden, Trixi and Pork Chop got an inside look at the culture of dumpster diving. Far from being the exclusive domain of down-on-their-luck tramps, Missoula’s dumpster diving community runs the gamut: It’s populated by small-scale livestock producers looking to feed their herds, activists mitigating for a culture of waste, and communal households sustained by the edible off-castings of a system that values only the perkiest produce, and that regularly tosses out plenty of babies when the bathwater’s deemed not quite perfectly sterile.

You could blame our culture of litigation, perhaps. Maybe at some point a slightly old-looking mango caused the lawsuit that’s dictated corporate trash practices ever since. Or maybe someone was horribly injured while climbing around in a bin. While I accept these realities, I think the cause of such a profusion of waste runs a bit deeper. If you look at the amount of perfectly good items—electronics, food and so on—regularly tossed by an average household, our cultural obsessions with newness and constant turnover rear their ugly mugs.

Got botulin?
One could also argue that the Indy shouldn’t report on dumpster diving in the interest of public health. The oily juice that often lines dumpsters probably contains an epidemiologist’s nightmare of organisms with all the time in the world to wait for suitable hosts. Considering that dumpster cleaning is not a top priority, food that’s touching the metal ought to be avoided.

And then there’s the issue of freshness. I’m reminded of an Austin, Texas dumpster diver with a legendary iron gut. Until the grapefruit juice incident, that is. Bolstered by ignorance or youthful notions of immortality, he disregarded his reclaimed juice jug’s bloated appearance and took his communion then and there. The results are not fit for print in this publication.

In addition to food that’s turned and the dastardly individuals who intentionally sour their garbage (see sidebar), there are other dangers to consider. Given the nature of Missoula’s tiny and overlapping social circles, there’s the risk of a co-worker, boss or client seeing you poking through the trash, a form of “outing” that just might stall your progress on the corporate ladder. Also, some dumpsters are filled with broken glass, and tales abound of near-disaster, as when an exuberant hunter’s jump into a trash bin lands them amid used syringes, soiled hospital gowns and all manner of latex products.

Clearly, the majority of the population should continue purchasing their goods inside the stores.    

Days of plunder
On the other side of the coin lies the camaraderie that only a member of a scrounging team knows. When the still-chilled salmon fillets were offered up by the dumpster gods, we knew the clock was ticking. After a quick bike ride to a nearby box store, which maintained a barbecue out back, a midnight grill session led to a spontaneous celebration of modern barbarian royalty. The next day, my first on the job at a local elementary school, the lunchtime leftovers were visceral evidence of the parallel worlds inhabited by those of us who feed off the trash.

Other tales are less sobering, as when a few of us spent time collecting stuff from a local thrift store’s garbage. When the police cruiser rounded the corner and the officer approached on foot, I’m hard pressed to describe his thoughts at the appearance of my six-foot male frame in the wedding dress I’d just reclaimed. Several shades of embarrassment passed between the officer and myself, and after I agreed to put the dress back and leave, we parted ways for the night.

Dumpster experiences bring all sorts of personal issues to a head. A technophobic friend, who spends much of his time practicing primitive skills and living in the woods, suddenly found himself sharing a dumpster with an aware, yet non-living, entity. The Roomba robotic vacuum, discarded for unknown reasons, came to life with a beep and began trying to suck up whatever filth it could find. The two were not meant to co-exist, and the poor little robot’s fate was sealed by the frothing freegan.     

A farewell to dumpstering
In the end, I agree that dumpster diving, an activity that touches on a slurry of local and global issues, is fit fodder for these pages if the article sparks conversation in the larger community.

With food prices continuing their climb and the possibility of relief seeming uncertain at best, activists are justified in demanding that we look at the roots of the practice. Why are people looking to the garbage for food? While a percentage of the population does dive for enjoyment, the reality is that food from the trash—especially food that’s marinated in a bit of dumpster juice—mostly serves as an option of last resort for people feeling the economic pinch. The abundance in the trash is a crime, and while I’m hesitant to say so for fear of the wrath of my fellows, I honestly hope that someday dumpster diving becomes a relic of the past.

In a future when local agriculture provides our community with the majority of our fresh produce, and when products we need are made nearby instead of being built by faraway economic slaves and shipped across the world just to be discarded a few months later, we may finally see a return to core principles of thrift and frugality. When corporate policies evolve so that grocers are no longer forced to waste tons of edible food, when useful goods are no longer dumped due to the overwhelming crush of the supply chain’s new merchandise, and when the lifeblood poured into production by workers is properly valued, perhaps then the practice will no longer be necessary.         

Until then Trixi and Pork Chop, may the bins rise up to meet you, may the wind blow flies off your back, and may the dumpster deities hold your generation in the hollows of their hands.

Some things better left unfound
One reporter looks for treasure along Reserve Street—and finds tragedy
by Matthew Frank

I suppose there were no surprises in the dumpsters lined up at Reserve Street’s big box stores: broken picture frames behind Michaels, print cartridge containers behind Staples, and dead pets found in the dumpster behind PetSmart.

The furry white legs poking out of one plastic bag were nondescript. I think it was a rabbit. The second animal had longer, bloodstained white hair. Its stomach appeared ripped open. I don’t know what it was. Maybe a cat.

A store manager later told me corporate policy requires dead animals to be sent to a vet for proper disposal. He declined to name which vets receive PetSmart animals. PetSmart spokeswoman Jennifer Simmons says the company’s policy is proprietary information, and that she’d be “very shocked and surprised” if the animals I found were indeed discarded would-be pets from PetSmart.

“I can tell you that we have very stringent internal policies and procedures in the event that we do have to [dispose of an animal],” says Simmons. “Honestly, we hope that we don’t ever have to do that.”

Jim Carlson from the Missoula City-County Health Department’s Environmental Health Division says it’s perfectly legal to dispose of dead animals in dumpsters. Nevertheless, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have called PetSmart’s practices inhumane.

“Our undercover investigations into PetSmart’s nasty business revealed animals thrown into trash bins while still alive at a PetSmart supplier facility in Texas,” says Daphna Nachminovitch of PETA. She adds that PETA focuses mostly on how animals are treated before they’re found dead. 

Aside from my gruesome discovery, my first foray into dumpster diving was part realization that I am not above it, part disbelief over how protective these corporate giants are of their mountains of waste, and part flashback to the mischievous nights of my teenage years.

I brought only one item home—a funky purple-cushioned barstool chucked in the dumpster behind Grant Creek Family Practice. Once home, I noticed the seat wasn’t properly affixed to the legs, and the excitement of my first score was dampened by the realization that most things are thrown away for a reason. Obsolescence, though, is subjective. I can fix the stool.

Despite my slim pickings, there were many instances when evidence of valuable things made me think, It might be worth coming back here. Like at a certain outdoor gear store’s dumpster, which I actually did return to under the cover of night only to find three foragers who had beaten me to it, their hovering headlamps revealed through the slits in the dumpster fence.

I also returned to another outdoor store (you can tell what I was after), whose fence featured a sign that read, “Closed Circuit Television on Premises.” It thwarted me during the day, but not at night. I sneaked in, lifted the lid, and it was completely empty.

Which gets at what this rookie lacks, and what can only be gained through many more hours of first-hand experience: knowing when to hit the best spots, when trash is taken out of the store, when the garbage truck comes. I’d also be more careful to look for employees catching a smoke, like the young woman under the floodlight who silently watched me slip out of her store’s dumpster. I only noticed her upon driving away. Apparently some don’t care if you take their trash.

But some do. And on Reserve Street, that includes most businesses. There are many padlocked fences too high to scale. Denver Mattress had a half-dozen mattresses protected from foragers like me. More common is the approach employed by biggies like TJ Maxx and Home Depot. They have what I liken to a jet bridge, directly connecting the building to a large compactor. No way to get in. There’s reason to avoid garbage pickers loitering behind a store, but also an absurdity in refusing to let refuse be reused.

For someone like me in need of little, dumpster diving was a novelty, detached from the reality that people rely on others’ throw-outs for food and clothing. It’s easy to be critical of perfectly good items being discarded, but for the sake of regular dumpster divers, I’m glad they are.

And I’m sure those regulars have learned to avoid PetSmart.

Dumpster décor
In a college town, free furnishings rule
by Erika Fredrickson

February is not the ideal time to dumpster dive at the University of Montana. For one thing, unlike in mid-May, nobody’s moving out of the dorms yet. Plus, in this weather, people have little interest in dragging perfectly good furniture outside.

At the end of the semester, however, campus turns into a gold mine for not-so-necessary-after-all necessities. I have heard of friends who’ve furnished entire rooms from things left behind by hurried students or those who can’t quite cram a coffee table into a Honda Civic. In fact, a lamp currently situated in the Indy’s office came courtesy of a mid-May curb-shopping search.

For this assignment, I set out to furnish a room—or at least part of a room—with found objects, off-season be damned. Appropriately enough, I started on campus.

In a dumpster near the UM art building I pull out a window screen with the mesh hanging off, a rectangular wood board and some canvas covered in milky white with a tinge of blue. Under the pile of scraps a large sketchbook sticks up, folded in half. Inside it I find what you would expect: figure drawing done from different angles, face portraits and sketches clearly done with eyes closed, where the pencil never leaves the paper. There’s something strangely intimate—and intrusive—about holding someone’s discarded art. If hung on the wall, it could be the perfect conversation starter for my room.

After a few more stops on campus turn up nothing, I decide to head downtown. I hit one empty dumpster after another, presumably just after they’ve been emptied. Sometimes there’s a measly bag of empty Coke cups, banana peels and eggshells. Finally, I get a break. One dumpster, though only half-full, contains all kinds of gems: a couple of long-sleeved T-shirts, red high heels and a yellow ceramic bowl. It’s the bowl that catches my eye and I take it.

A couple of dumpsters later I find a neatly tied plastic bag full of nice, fashionable clothes. An Abercrombie & Fitch sweater, albeit dryer-shrunk. Sun tops. Wool skirts. Black evening dress. Not necessarily décor, but certainly dumpster couture and bound to give my room a classy feel. Suddenly I’m on a roll.

Five minutes later I find a wicker laundry basket with one handle missing sitting next to a dumpster. I used to have a basket like it and an eerie sense that it might actually be mine washes over me. I don’t remember where mine went. Maybe it’s made its way back to me.

One last alley down I score big. Someone’s discarded a large bamboo window blind. It’s covered in dust but otherwise undamaged. The next dumpster is full of flowers of every color. I pick through and find the least wilted ones, including baby’s breath and purple irises only just on the verge of death. I can revive them in water in my new yellow bowl.

Dumpster diving etiquette isn’t an oxymoron

If there’s one thing we learned while working on this story it’s that dumpster diving comes with a strict code of ethics. While we don’t advocate full-on diving without the guidance of a seasoned scavenger, adventurous first-timers should take note of these basics. 

Obey the law
We called Allied Waste Services, local law enforcement and the city attorney and all uttered the same message: Dumpster diving isn’t encouraged, but it’s not technically illegal.

“The main concern with dumpster diving is the injuries sustained while doing it,” says Sgt. Scott Hoffman with the Missoula Police Department. “When we see people doing it, or get calls about people doing it, the thing that comes first is the chance of them injuring themselves.”

Police are often asked to clear scavengers away from dumpsters, and things usually end at that. But City Attorney Jim Nugent says if a business did press charges they wouldn’t hold up in court.

“I’m not aware of it being illegal anywhere,” Nugent says. “You could try theft but you’d have to show that [the business] intended to keep it, and that’s pretty difficult.”

Nugent points to a 2005 Montana Supreme Court case in which police acquired evidence from a dumpster without a warrant. Defense attorneys attempted to suppress the evidence as unlawful seizure but the court upheld the conviction because the dumpster was in a public alley and not locked. The ruling said the defendant had “no reasonable expectation of privacy” in regards to property that was willfully abandoned.

Chad Bauer, operations manager at Allied Waste, believes if a business pushed hard enough, they may be able to argue theft. But the company’s main issue is simply preventing injury or damages.

“We don’t want people rummaging through our equipment for liability reasons,” Bauer says.

In general, if you’re asked to leave—by a business owner, police officer or Allied Waste employee—politely heed the request. There are plenty of other spots to search. And, needless to say, don’t go on private property or try to enter a dumpster that’s locked.

Be cool
In the event that you’re approached and asked what, exactly, you’re doing next to a dumpster after midnight, don’t panic. “I’m moving soon, and just looking for boxes” serves as the best answer. 

Ignore our cover image
For safety reasons, try not to go into a dumpster. Most conscientious discarders put potentially useful items next to their bin or on top at the end of the workday, so you should rarely have to jump inside.

Bring a friend
Dumpster lids are cumbersome. By having a partner, one of you can lift the dumpster’s lid while the other searches the bin’s contents. A partner can also help carry whatever treasure you may find.

Wear protection
Gloves and long sleeves are a must. Additional layers don’t hurt. Headlamps rule.

Be discreet
In general, if it takes you longer than a few minutes to score, then move on. Also, don’t dive during business hours. This hurts the business and increases the likelihood of a call to the police.

Only take what you need
This speaks for itself, but especially applies to bountiful spots.

Pick up after yourself
This may sound odd, but leave the dumpster in the same or better shape than how you found it. Experienced divers consider this the most sacred rule.

Sacred trash
Some businesses go to great lengths to protect what they discard
by Jessie Froehling

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that people don’t like to talk about garbage. It is, by definition, the stuff we don’t want or need anymore. But for some reason, while it’s on our doorstep or in our alley, we protect it like a child.

It seems as though most area businesses feel this way. A jaunt down Reserve Street reveals multiple locked dumpsters or fenced-off trash disposals. Stories abound of some downtown establishments that actually go out of their way to ruin their refuse. One constant, however, that runs through all garbage-related discussion, is that there is no actual discussion. Nobody contacted for this story really wanted to talk about their trash.

“No comment,” said a close-mouthed guy in the loss control department of Sportsman’s Warehouse.

“Yeah, we have a trash compactor, so it doesn’t really apply to us,” said a fellow at Furniture Row.

A close examination of most establishments’ dumpsters reveals locks and bars. These businesses could be attempting to keep scavengers out of their dumpsters, or preventing other people’s trash from mixing with their own.

A supervisor at REI said the sporting goods chain doesn’t put anything valuable in its dumpsters, and once it’s in the trash, it’s out of mind. Broken goods are shipped back to the manufacturer, he says. However, one local dumpster diver scored a pair snowshoes from REI’s trash bin. They were broken, he acknowledged, but salvageable.  

Some businesses go out of their way to keep this from happening. One rumor among local dumpster divers claims that The Hallmark Store on Higgins Avenue requires their employees to dump water on any greeting cards that land in the dumpster. Manager Veta Wade says no such policy exists.

“The dumpsters don’t belong to us,” she says. “They belong to the owner of the building, and very seldom do I see anybody getting in them except wanting cardboard.”

Bagels on Broadway, however, does have such a policy. An employee who requested anonymity says that the owner asks workers to dump vinegar on discarded bagels to keep people from fishing them out of the trash.

“But we don’t really do it,” the employee says. “I don’t know, it just seems kinda…not fair. I mean, if you’re digging through the trash for food…”

Chad Bauer, operations manager for Allied Waste Services, says most businesses take precautions against dumpster diving because of the mess. It’s a concern he deals with on a regular basis.

“Most of the time it’s just littering—they’ll get in there, dig a bunch of stuff out and throw crap all over the ground. It’s more of a nuisance issue,” Bauer says. “The businesses contact us and we’ll put a locking system on their dumpsters for them.”
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