I like having things that come with a history.
In our home, we sit on a couch that was given to us from a neighbor (she was going to throw it away.) Our lazy-boy recliner was also saved from a different neighbor who was hauling it to the trash. One of our book cases was found through Freecycle. Even our big screen HD TV was given to us from friends in exchange for dinner (they had bought a new one and wanted to get rid of it.) Actually, as I look around our living room, I can count on one hand the number of furniture items we have actually bought new. Everything else came used in one form or another: Craigslist, Freecycle, friends, or saved from the trash. There are some things I inherited from family members, and there are a number of items we found on the side of the road, just waiting for us to snatch them up. The same thing applies when I look into the other rooms.
In trying to furnish my home with things that are mostly used or recycled. I am often surprised to see what people are willing to throw or give away. I remember coming back from 6 months in Uganda and being suddenly overwhelmed by how much “stuff” surrounded me. Most of this “stuff” has a pretty short life, and then where does it go? Most often, to someone’s dumpster or on the street on trash day. Sometimes it is donated and ironically ends up being sold on the streets of Uganda, providing income, but at the same time, flooding the market with ultra cheap foreign goods.
Even after living in a country like Uganda, after a few months, it is easy to get swept away by the pull of consumerism. Still, I was feeling pretty good about my Freecycle/Craisglist apartment….until I read about people like Christin Walth in Newburyport who doesn’t throw anything away. Or Spring Greeney, a Harvard University student who managed to lower her monthly food bill to $100 by salvaging food from local dumpsters. Or even our Beth, who recently posted on her personal blog about how she was able to reduce her trash in half.
Hmmm…maybe I could be doing more. A. Lot. More. So I decided to look at a few of my options:
Become a Freegan
The idea of “waste reclamation” or “urban foraging” is becoming more and more popular, especially in large cities like New York City where the green movement of “Freeganism” seeks to boycott the current economic system entirely. Freegans “avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able”. They live off of what they find in local dumpsters, and, if they do own a car, it is run on biodiesel — literally veggie oil from the fryers of restaurants.
This is a component of Freeganism, but you don’t have to be a Freegan to do it–you can find not only food, but furniture, clothing, and materials you can recycle into something new and creative! It helps to have some tips beforehand however, and talk to people who already have experience diving into dumpsters. You can find some great tips from Thriftcore.com. Being a novice dumpster diver myself, I sought some insight from another artist friend of mine who is a seasoned diver.
Madelene: What have been your best finds while dumpster diving?
Ashley: I LOVE when I find old trunks, windows and doors. I can’t take the entire door (don’t think I haven’t tried) so I just take the old knobs. I’ve made stuff out of all found objects including my coffee table which was a huge steamer trunk with the bottom blown out. I cut it off and put a new floor in and casters. Now it’s a coffee table that can hold tons of art supplies! I also was gutsy enough to take the doors off a huge cabinet and took them home on a little cart. I’ve also ridden my bike and have been known to carry things like chairs on it. I also found a piano that was ruined in a storm. Of course I wanted more of it but I could only take what I could carry. I took neat photos of it and took the black keys.
Turning Trash Into Art
Being a Freegan seems to favor the young and single urban dwellers with ample free time to boldly and bravely roam the streets at night equipped with flashlight, rubber gloves and screwdriver. Given the point in my life, location, and penchant for meat and cheese (risky even for the most expert urban forager), I am not seeing Freeganism in my near future.
I could see myself diving into dumpsters (or at least peeking in with a flashlight occasionally to see if there are any readily apparent treasures)– but not on a weekly basis. I do like the idea of creating using found objects and even with only brief escapades into dumpster diving, the idea of seeing potential in the throw-aways and discarded has stuck with me. As an artist, I am always looking for ways to incorporate found and recycled objects into my art. “Upcycling” has become extremely popular in the art world, as has using objects people would usually thrown away.
So I’ll continue to Freecyle, and Craigslist, and make friends with people who like to give away stuff 🙂 I feel inspired to do a little more digging around the dumpsters, or at least driving around the neighborhood on trash day. But I won’t be reaching in the trash for my supper any time soon.
One final philosophical note:
As I am sitting here thinking about all the things get thrown away and then reclaimed– devalued and then given value again– I think, how can this system of waste reclaimation better benefit those who really need it the most? Those who are not just trying to make a statement, but who are left out of the economic system by circumstance, not by choice? Why can artists dive into dumpsters and Freegans pull out food, but if a homeless person is found digging through the trash, it is looked down upon?
Many of the resources needed to reclaim trash are part of privilege: Internet for Freecycle and Craigslist, a car to haul off furniture, a fridge to keep food, independent wealth to convert your diesel car to biodiesel, and to fall back in case of emergency, a privileged social status to transform socially unacceptable practices into acceptable forms of protest and sublimation (“I’m an artist/freegan/student boycotting consumerism”). The idea of living off of the remnants of what you are boycotting is an interesting concept in itself.
I think that finding treasure in the trash is a wonderful way to live a greener, more mindful way. It’s also a way to think outside the box, to be creative, imaginative and adventurous. It is a way to push back against the economic forces that say “spend, consume, toss, repeat.” But maybe it’s also important to consider that the ability to go treasure hunting is still a privilege. How can we change this?