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3/9/2006

Feature > Feature

ONE MAN'S TRASH
Dumpster diving for fun and profit … well, not so much profit

 

Dumpster diving in Orlando seemed like an urban myth. I'd heard of people nabbing a coffee table or an ugly lamp from the trash, but that's not the kind of diving we're talking about here. There are dumpster divers right here in Central Florida who devote entire nights to the hunt. Like stealthy trash-fairies, they emerge under cover of darkness to rifle through trash bins in search of free stuff. I wanted to see what it was all about. So I put out a request to meet divers on a diving forum. And I quickly discovered that these folks are a secretive lot. They don't like reporters. My request yielded one response: "lol.fork.teh.media."

Despite the errant grammar, I got the hint. Luckily one guy from Palm Bay – let's call him Steve – called a few days later to say he'd be willing to let me tag along.

So at about 9 p.m. on a recent Friday night, I trek out to Palm Bay to immerse myself in the world of dumpster diving. (Note: "Dumpster" is actually a trademark for a brand of large trash bins, but I'm using it in the generic, lowercase sense; sorry about that, Krug International Corporation.) At first, diving brings up images of Joe Homeless scrounging for yesterday's Big Mac. It's not entirely glamorous to hop in a bin of refuse, and you might think that divers take the one-man's-trash-another-man's-treasure saying a bit too literally. The forum I've been lurking on for the past two weeks, however, counters such stereotypes with posts from people who describe themselves as everything from carpenters to office clerks. Still, I wonder what I'll encounter.

After some missed streets, I finally turn into a new subdivision and pull up to a Spanish-style house. Steve answers the door and invites me in. I peer around at the spacious rooms, and noticing my wandering eye, he tells me the house would sell for $220,000 on the market.

"Not what you expected, huh?" he asks. "Well, you ready to go tonight?"

Central Florida, it turns out, is a hotbed of dumpster diving. If you Google the term, the second listing you'll get is www.dumpsterworld.com, a forum run by a 21-year-old Orlando man. Mr. Bobo, his screen name on the forum, began the site in May 2003 as mrbobo.net/forum. He bought the domain name dumpsterworld.com in September that year, and the site's membership has ballooned since. There are numerous topics asking about diving partners in Central Florida, and at least 10 people on the site identify themselves as from the area. As Mr. Bobo wrote on hardforum.com, another site frequented by divers, "[There's] lots of competition in Orlando these days. No wonder I haven't been finding anything lately."

Luckily, Steve lives in Palm Bay, so perhaps tonight will prove fruitful. Before heading out, we sit in the screened-in porch at the back of his house. Pulling on a cigarette, he tries to explain the allure of diving. It's the free stuff for sure, and it's also the adventure, the thrill of the hunt. But the 33-year-old is no adrenaline-junkie punk. His neatly shaved head and wire-rimmed glasses say "corporate world," not "trash scrounger." He works with test equipment for a government communications contractor and makes $38,000 a year. His wife, Misty, is a dental assistant making $54,000. Steve certainly doesn't need to be diving.

He started in Alaska in 2002 when he took a shortcut behind CompUSA and saw a full dumpster. The coolest thing he ever found was a Sega Dreamcast demo with the full plastic casing and the controller on a slinky arm, the kind you see kids playing in the aisles of the Wal-Mart video game department. Since moving to Florida a year ago, Steve's only been out four times. Tonight is his first dive in months.

The plan? He's plotted a course concentrated along U.S. Highway 192 where most of the office supply stores are located in Melbourne, just north of Palm Bay. That will take us to Big Lots, CompUSA, a mom-and-pop computer store, Office Depot, Staples and any other site his instincts tell him are ripe. Not knowing the proper fashion for this occasion, I'm in a pair of Adidas warm-up pants, a long-sleeved shirt and some old sneakers. Steve's wearing jeans, a T-shirt and boots. He outfits me with some raggedy motocross gloves and a pocket-sized flashlight. He dons a new pair of similar gloves and puts a small light in his pocket.

"Ready?" he asks.

To jump in the trash? Absolutely.

With his wife sleeping in the back room, Steve and I leave at 10:15 p.m. and load into his Nissan Xterra. The back of the car is empty, a candy jar waiting to be filled.

As we make our way toward our first stop, Steve opens a yellow American Spirit pack and slides another cigarette between his lips. On the deserted streets of Melbourne, there is little light, and with every drag the burning cigarette tip casts an eerie shadow on Steve's face. During the 15-minute trip, he goes over some of the unofficial guidelines of diving.

Nine times out of 10, reclaiming trash is legal. Most cities do have ordinances against removing garbage from city-owned bins, but you don't get much good booty out of city trash, so that's not a factor. When diving you shouldn't announce yourself, but you also don't want to hide. That looks suspicious. If confronted by a cop – or, God forbid, a rent-a-cop with a power complex – be cool. If asked why you're standing in a dumpster, it's best to go with the always-believable "I'm moving soon, and I'm looking for boxes."

But the strictest of diving codes, the one you must follow, is this: Don't make a mess.

"There are a lot of punks out there who will get in a dumpster and just start throwing all the shit out," Steve says, nearing our first stop. Once people start making a mess, more stores start locking up their dumpsters, and that's bad for everyone.

Instead of pulling right into an alley, Steve drives by once and peers down the long drive to make sure it's clear. It is, and he pulls in behind the shopping center.

"That's Bealls' dumpster," he says, nodding to one bin as we pass. "That's probably the grocery store because there's the cooler," he says, pointing to another dumpster. "And here's Big Lots."

He parks the Xterra next to a bin and gets out. The orange glow of security lights rains down. Steve throws back the lid. There's some cardboard and trash bags, but he says it's no good. We throw the lid back on another. Nothing. We're back in the car in less than five minutes.

Down the road we pull in the CompUSA parking lot and park next to the dumpster. Behind the store, it's dark and quiet, creating a scene that, in a horror movie, would have to end in a gruesome death. Steve peers in the bin and sees something he likes. He clicks on the flashlight and shines it into the half-empty can. Putting his foot on one of the bin's ledges, he hoists himself up and over. He's in. He begins to tear open bags and inspect their innards. Soon he hands me a two-drawer stackable CD storage case and an over-the-chair back massager.

"It looks like it's just missing a power supply," he says. "Maybe I can find the manufacturer and get a replacement for cheap. You'd be surprised what stores throw out."

Still, this bin is not producing and we're off to another. Driving from CompUSA to our next destination, Steve passes by the Melbourne Square Mall. The red sign of Office Max catches his eye, and he looks back over his shoulder as we barrel down U.S. 192. The store was not on his list of planned stops. He wonders out loud if it would be a good dive.

"Malls are a little too high-profile," he says and keeps driving.

The next stop is a mom-and-pop computer store. There's a van in the parking lot and he pulls up next to it. This draws less attention. In the dumpster, there are plenty of small computer parts, but apparently nothing of value for Steve. He pulls out a piece of metal.

"Ooh, this looks good," he says. Then he reconsiders. "Actually, I can hear what Misty would say: 'You fucking packrat.'" The piece goes back where it came from, and we're out of there. It's 11:15 p.m. We've been diving for an hour now. Three stops, three crap draws. In the car, Steve asks if I mind going back to the Office Max in the mall.

"I got an itch."

• • •

Dumpster diving has been getting some bad press lately. Identity thieves apparently love to dive for sensitive credit information. One Feb. 8 story in an Alabama newspaper reported that a couple had been arrested after trying to pass off checks pulled from the trash. A sheriff's officer was quoted as saying, "That is called dumpster diving."

Technically, yes, they were diving in dumpsters. But to the people who frequent dumpsterworld.com, criminals give everyone a bad name.

It's not only bad press divers disdain, however; it's any press at all. Of the more than 50 people I contacted for this story, only two offered to let me come along on a dive. Mr. Bobo, the administrator of dumpsterworld.com, never responded to repeated e-mails asking to talk, and my requests for help on the forums fell on deaf ears.

There are two reasons for this. One, as was explained to me many times, is the fact that the more attention diving gets, the more stores will lock their bins for liability reasons. Reason No. 2 is that with more light on diving, more people want to participate, reducing the amount of swag. To keep their activities under wraps, members on dumpsterworld.com go so far as to alter the names of stores they dive. For instance, you might write that you got some good stuff from Pet Dumb (Pet Smart) or dove last night at Poor One (Pier One). This ensures that companies won't find their store's name on a site devoted to diving.

Even among the forum's members, secrecy is the norm. When a Central Florida diver asked if people in the area wanted to group-dive, others responded positively, but when it came down to going, most were hesitant to share their more bountiful dumpsters.

Frankly, it's easy to see why divers don't want to talk. In addition to the link between dumpster diving and the media's scare-story-of-the-week, identity theft, there is another slice of the diving community that has received some less-flattering attention. Freegans – a cross between "free" and "vegan," though you don't have to be a vegan – are people aghast at America's overconsumption; in an attempt to abstain from the conventional economy, they use what others throw out. Media coverage of freegans hasn't always been kind. On a Dec. 16 edition of ABC Nightly News, the female anchor introduced a story like this: "They're called freegans, and they're eating other people's garbage by choice." With a smirk on her face, she handed off the story to a correspondent.

Finally, there's the "ick" factor. Garbage is garbage. By definition, it's something you don't want.

"I'm disgusted by really raunchy stuff, too," says Steve. "But you just get kind of used to going through it."

• • •

We pull into the mall and make our way to the Office Max. We stop about 40 feet from the dumpsters in an alcove next to the store. Steve tells me that when we get out I should walk fast but not run. Shining from behind us, the streetlamps cast long shadows across the pavement. Besides the low rumble of cars on U.S. 192, our footsteps are the only sound here in the vacant lot.

We make our way to the dumpster and open it up. It's about half-full of white trash bags and free-floating items. "Looks good," he says and asks me to hold his flashlight. He gets himself up and gingerly straddles the edge. His other foot swings over, and he disappears into his second dumpster of the night.

Up to now, I thought I'd hop in with Steve when he found a fertile bin. Now that I'm here, I'm rethinking my plan. The smell is not overly pungent, but it's not a bouquet of roses, either; it's something akin to a car sitting in the sun all day with a pizza on the dashboard. I peer in and see a few ants skitter across the dumpster wall, and I can't get it out of my head: This is trash. Our previous sites required little contact with garbage, but Steve is hunched over, shin-deep in it now. I can't do it. I designate myself the night's point man and stand guard next to the dumpster.

Steve, on the other hand, is on a roll. Every few minutes his hand sticks up out of the bin offering me something. Three-ring binder, plastic folder organizer, paper cutter minus blade, another three-ring binder. After 15 minutes of this, I get bored and peer over the edge. A small beam of light twitters about like a firefly. He is ripping open bags and peeling unopened packets of highlighters off the dumpster floor. He's obviously a seasoned veteran, focusing on one corner at a time. He picks up every bit of trash, inspects it in the light and makes a split-second decision on its keepability. Sharpie pens: yes. Glow-in-the-dark erasers: yes. Unopened case of individual pot-size Folgers coffee bags: hmmm … yes. After he exhausts a corner, he moves on to the next and repeats the process.

Soon, there is a pile of items next to my feet. Every few minutes a car, probably some mall employee leaving for the night, drives by, and I slink back behind the dumpster. Around 11:45 p.m., the white SUV of the mall police rolls by with its yellow lights flashing. Not paying attention, I am caught out in the open as it passes, and I try to stand as nonchalantly as you can when you're next to a mall dumpster at midnight. The security car never slows, and Steve, buried in the dumpster, continues his exploration.

After 30 minutes in the bin, Steve pops his head up like a mole peeking up out of the ground. He's done. He climbs the wall again and lands outside the dumpster. We grab the haul and lug it to the car. We leave the dumpster just as we found it. Steve has not made a mess.

The yield: 12 three-ring binders, five unopened two-packs of highlighters, six unopened two-packs of glow-in-the-dark erasers, four packs of vinyl letters, two staple pullers, 15 Sharpie markers of assorted colors, two plastic desk paper trays, a 12-inch paper cutter minus the blade, three magazine holders and the coffee.

If I were still a college student, this would be a useful stash. Even by conservative estimates, this was a $40 dive, and I'm eyeing those Sharpies, dumpster juice or not. After feeding the trunk full of office supplies, Steve stands outside the car under the streetlamp and relaxes after the tedious dive. He pulls out a cigarette. Drops of sweat roll down his bald head as he takes slow deliberate puffs.

"How would you rate this night?" I ask. He thinks for a second.

"I'd say about a five out of 10," he says. "I got some solid usable stuff but nothing great."

"So what are you going to do with all those binders?"

"I don't know, but I've got them," he responds. "I can use them for something or I can bury them or whatever. They're mine now. Who knows, maybe I won't use them, and I'll throw them away."

And the cycle continues.

 
 
 
 
 
HOW TO DUMPSTER DIVE

Deciding to rummage through other people's garbage at midnight is a bold move … and one not to be taken lightly, given the possible legal and olfactory imppcations. Here's how the pros do it:

Preparation

2. Dumpster selection: Pick your target before you leave the house. Study garbage collection schedules and note the amount of security on site. Diving at night is always preferable.

To get in, or not to get in

4. Should you keep it? You've pawed through mounds of funky debris and hit the jackpot. But is your treasure worth dragging home? Everything looks full of wonder and promise in a dumpster, but be rational. Are you just going to toss it back in the garbage stream?

1 . Preparation: Wear old clothes and stock up on flashpght batteries. Make sure your significant other knows you are rummaging through trash rather than picking up girls/guys at a bar. Keep phone numbers handy (friends, relatives, lawyer) in case you need to make bail.

Dumpster selection

3. To get in, or not to get in: That is the question. It's not always easy to get in and out of dumpsters and God only knows what you'll land in, so make a quick assessment before you leap. Computer parts and unopened packages are good, spoiled cabbage and rotten beef are not good.

Should you keep it?
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