Finding Treasure in The Trash

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.

Bounty from a night of urban foraging

Bounty from a night of urban foraging

Dumpster Dive

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 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.

Artwork by Ashley Samson

Artwork by Ashley Samson

A look inside Ashley's apartment.

A look inside Ashley’s apartment.

artisic inspiration 207

Madelene: Any tips for others?
Ashley: Take a screw driver with you. Also know the area you’re getting into. I try to stay out of alleys that are in sketchy areas or if there are dudes hanging out giving you elevator eyes. Also, make sure the person actually intended to throw the object out. I think I accidentally stole some wood once. It had mold on it and was stacked outside the fence of the place. It looked like fair game but when I went back the next day it was all gone and I have a feeling the people were just storing it there.

Madelene: What do you say or do when people think you are homeless?
Ashley: People look at me funny all the time. Usually they think I’m gonna steal something or I’m homeless looking to steal IDs from the trash?!  I usually just say “I’m an artist” and that fixes things. A few times I’ve been “caught” by the owners which is awkward. I just asked the people if I could have it and they said yes. Another time a lady started chatting with me about what I do for a living. And the best time was when a lady called to me from her balcony and said “I have the antique metal knob for that drawer” and gave it to me because she was happy someone could use the bed side table. 

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.

Artist Zac Freeman creates his art by "by assembling found objects, disposable goods, and the leftover trash of things we consume in our society."

Artist Zac Freeman creates his art by “by assembling found objects, disposable goods, and the leftover trash of things we consume in our society.”

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?

— Madelene


7 responses to “Finding Treasure in The Trash

  1. A fun read, Madelene. One thing I LOVE about living here in Massachusetts, which isn’t legal in the other states I’ve lived in, is that folks can put things out on the curb and you can just take them. WHAT A CONCEPT!!! It should be done EVERYWHERE!!! My husband and I have a great time being on both sides of this.

    • Terry, I had no idea that this was not a common practice in most states! I love it too– we have gotten quite a few things just by driving around right before trash day. I know that Rhode Island must allow this too because I got a futon plus frame off the road for my college dorm room. The best time to get things was right after graduation, when all the seniors were moving out and just tossing things on the curb.

  2. Whoa. You know, just last night I spoke with a woman from church. I was actually visiting with her and another woman intentionally at a yogurt shop. I wanted to get to know her better, and she was telling us her life story. It was super sad, filled with abuse, poverty, homelessness, health issues, etc. For two years she lived in AZ off of selling the things that she would pick out of the trash. The church she went to there caught on, and people would actually drop off their discarded items (or sometimes food) knowing she could use them to sell. She had worried that she would be homeless, and she had been a homeless mother before, but she kept herself and her two children fed, clothed, and paid the rent in this way until they started raising rabbits to sell instead. So inspiring. And shocking. I donate things to goodwill all the time. What would the world be like if I didn’t buy them in the first place and donated the money instead?

    • That is a really powerful story Ali–it says a lot about that community. I don’t know if all communities would be as welcoming and aware. You raise a good question about conundrum of trash…so, should we throw out more things in the hopes that other people will dig them out and benefit from them? I love the idea of community awareness, sharing and swapping….do you have a Freecycle set up where you live? I love it–people post anything that they have to give away, or request things– the only rule is that it is all free!

      • I never got into freecycle as much, I don’t think to do it when I have stuff to give away, but we have swaps with friends twice a year. SO helpful. And then we have a fb group we post things to.

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