Category Archives: Dumpster Diving

>For Shame


Behold the power of Twitter. H&M says it will stop this practice, while WalMart said “oops.” But this is what gets me:

It’s hard to know why the employees of H&M and Walmart felt it their duty to destroy clothing in the first place, but my guess is it is a growing resentment against so-called freegans and other dumpster divers in the city. The New York Times itself has covered this phenomenon a few times, and it’s well-known that many employees of restaurants and grocery stores occasionally render food inedible so the freegans won’t come rummaging. There’s the sentiment among some that no one deserves a free ride (or a free pair of pants) — even if it’s in someone else’s trash.

Excuse me??!! You resent the freegans? Well fuck you. I resent that there are people without food and clothing in the world’s most prosperous nation. I resent that we’re the most wasteful nation on earth.

So take your resentment (and your boxcutter) and stuff it. Here’s a little tip: if you don’t want freegans rummaging through your trash, then don’t throw it away. Use it. Recycle it. Don’t buy it to begin with.

Things have got to change, America. We can’t be the world’s Hoovers, sucking up everything within our reach, and not expect to pay some kind of price for this profligacy.

I’ve known that big companies like Wal-Mart do this, but kudos to grad student Cynthia Magnus for spreading the word about this shameful practice:

This week the New York Times reported a disheartening story about two of the largest retail chains. You see, instead of taking unsold items to sample sales or donating them to people in need, H&M and Wal-Mart have been throwing them out in giant trash bags. And in the case that someone may stumble on these bags and try to keep or re-sell the items, these companies have gone ahead and slashed up garments, cut off the sleeves of coats, and sliced holes in shoes so they are unwearable.

This unsettling discovery was made by graduate student Cynthia Magnus outside the back entrance of H&M on 35th street in New York City. Just a few doors down, she also found hundreds of Wal-Mart tagged items with holes made in them that were dumped by a contractor. On December 7, she spotted 20 bags of clothing outside of H&M including, “gloves with the fingers cut off, warm socks, cute patent leather Mary Jane school shoes, maybe for fourth graders, with the instep cut up with a scissor, men’s jackets, slashed across the body and the arms. The puffy fiber fill was coming out in big white cotton balls.”

You know, there’s so much human pain associated with modern American retail, from the overseas sweatshops which manufacture these items to the child labor used to pick the cotton to the feudal systems in third world countries which force farmers to grow cotton instead of food. All so we can have a $20 T-shirt that, when it’s not sold, will be torn to shreds to ensure no one can ever use it. It is then thrown in a New York landfill to be buried with the other garbage.

These are the sins of American life for which we will be judged. Not gays and abortion and failure to post the 10 Commandments in the courthouse. It’s this. When the wealth of the powerful and enfranchised is used to oppress the powerless and disenfranchised, that’s sin. The Bible is very clear on that. And someday, whether you’re religious or not, we’re all going to have to answer for that–indeed, we already are. It’s not just a Biblical law, it’s not just a religious law, it’s a universal law. It’s karma.

A couple years ago I wrote about how Wal-Mart padlocks its trash dumpsters to deter dumpster diving. I wrote:

One of the worst things I ever heard about Wal-Mart was that stores padlock their trash dumpsters. Former Wal-Mart employees have told me of the perfectly good food and merchandise that is thrown away on a daily basis, yet Wal-Mart locks people out of its trash. When your trash is so valuable that it requires padlocks, something is seriously wrong. Hey, Wal-Mart, if it’s that valuable, try donating this stuff to a shelter, OK?

This post sparked outrage among the free-market greed brigade (sadly, those comments got lost when I switched commenting formats.) No one could believe that I would be so anti-free market as to advocate “dumpster diving.” Now, I’m not a dumpster diver, but if something is trash, then why shouldn’t it be someone else’s treasure? It seems that the fear is that people won’t buy things if they can get it for free, but quite a lot of people can’t or won’t buy it anyway. And if the problem is that the “trash” still has value, then it’s not trash, is it? Donate it to an American charity, recycle it, mark it down, send it to an orphanage in India or Africa where the cycle of abuse started, quit overbuying to begin with.

Stop the sin cycle. Corporate America and American consumers alike need to come clean.


Filed under consumerism, Dumpster Diving, Wal-Mart

Freegans: They’re Not Down With Capitalism

Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article on a burgeoning movement of modern-day scavengers called “freegans.” These are folks who reject the consumer economy and live by dumpster diving. They aren’t bums, many are middle class and have jobs, they just don’t see the need to go out and buy a bunch of crap when they can get what they want for free:

Freegans are scavengers of the developed world, living off consumer waste in an effort to minimize their support of corporations and their impact on the planet, and to distance themselves from what they see as out-of-control consumerism. They forage through supermarket trash and eat the slightly bruised produce or just-expired canned goods that are routinely thrown out, and negotiate gifts of surplus food from sympathetic stores and restaurants.

Before you go “eww, that’s gross,” take a moment to think of your own garbage, or maybe if you’re more thrifty, think of the trash from your workplace or your neighborhood. For instance, there are several houses on my street that are rented to college students and when moving day comes, it’s a regular Wal-Mart shopping spree on trash day. One year, the kids left a satellite TV programming box in the trash. That’s the principle at work here:

As of 2005, individuals, businesses and institutions in the United States produced more than 245 million tons of municipal solid waste, according to the E.P.A. That means about 4.5 pounds per person per day. The comparable figure for New York City, meanwhile, is about 6.1 pounds, according to statistics from the city’s Sanitation Department.

“We have a lot of wealthy people, and rich people throw out more trash than poor people do,” said Elizabeth Royte, whose book “Garbage Land” (Little, Brown, 2005) traced the route her trash takes through the city. “Rich people are also more likely to throw things out based on style obsolescence — like changing the towels when you’re tired of the color.”

Dumpster diving isn’t just for young kids on the far left, the kind you see protesting G8 summits and the like; there’s actually a growing movement among social justice and “red letter” Christians. Sojourners Magazine covered this movement last fall in their article, The Tao Of Dumpster Diving. Author Ryan Beiler, Sojourners web editor and a dumpster diver since 2005, says he subsists largely on food reclaimed from dumpsters. Here he explains why:

Reason number one–you get a lot of really, really good food really, really free. I often come away with a decent segment of the food pyramid: vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, and almost always lots of bread. And we’re not talking Wonder Bread–we’re talking sprouted wheat berry, pita, ciabatta, foccacia, and any number of Mediterranean-themed baked goods.

Though I’ll occasionally supplement my dumpster bounty with a trip to the natural foods co-op for some local produce or organic oats for homemade granola (bring on the stereotypes), I’ve come to rely mostly on society’s waste for my provision. As Jesus taught, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’… Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:32). In this spirit, dumpstering’s spontaneity is both liberating and satisfying. Instead of the anxiety of bargain-hunting among the throngs at corporate übermarkets, I enjoy the surprises of late-night expeditions and never worry about finding enough to eat.

BEYOND BASIC NECESSITIES, there’s also the allure of the big score. On my very first dumpster run, I went into Homer Simpson-drool mode at finding several pounds of smoked salmon–a delicacy I could never justify buying in real life. I ate it three meals a day for a week. It’s really great with eggs.

On a subsequent trip, I found six jars of caviar. I’ve also developed an addiction to grocery-store sushi (all pre-cooked or veggie). Just tonight I had a simple dinner of dumpster fare: soup and bread. But the soup was lobster bisque, and the bread was a lovely sourdough boule.

I never thought I’d pull food from a dumpster to feed my family but hey, you never know. Caviar? Lobster bisque? Sourdough boule? I have to say, as a city dweller, this intrigues me.

I can’t call myself a dumpster diver, but I have been known to pull something I wanted out of the trash; in fact, when I first moved to Nashville I found a perfectly lovely bamboo trunk on my first trip to the dumpster at my new apartment complex. I pulled it out, cleaned it off and it became the centerpiece of my living room for years afterward.

One of the worst things I ever heard about Wal-Mart was that stores padlock their trash dumpsters. Former Wal-Mart employees have told me of the perfectly good food and merchandise that is thrown away on a daily basis, yet Wal-Mart locks people out of its trash. When your trash is so valuable that it requires padlocks, something is seriously wrong. Hey, Wal-Mart, if it’s thatvaluable, try donating this stuff to a shelter, OK?

Americans generate a lot of trash. Contemporary American society, indeed our entire economy, is based on marketing consumer goods that folks don’t really need. When you buy stuff you don’t really need, it makes it a lot easier to throw it out later.

Which makes me wonder: why do we need to be buying it in the first place?


Filed under consumerism, Dumpster Diving, Freegans, Sojourners