I can’t remember the first time I ever retrieved an item from a dumpster, but it is definitely not a taboo activity in my family. My stepfather was a janitorial technician and was always finding reusable items that were tossed out by the businesses he cleaned. Sometimes he found enough office supplies that we could use for an entire year at school: folders, staplers, calculators, and electric pencil sharpeners. Whenever he found something he would bring it home and have a story to tell about where it came from or why it was thrown away. Perhaps some children would have been embarrassed to tell their friends that their school supplies came from a dumpster, but I thought free stuff was cool! I was always confused and upset why people threw away so much, but in the end excited for the treasures. Now that I think about it, there is a photo in the family album, of me as a teenager, shuffling through boxes of record albums that someone was throwing away. Boxes and boxes of record albums! Who throws away The Electric Light Orchestra?!?
Dumpster diving runs in my extended family too! One year I decided to go and live with my Aunt Martá. She was in the midst of building a new home and I wanted to help her with all of her side projects. Aunt Martá owned a landscaping company, managed a personal biointensive garden, and raised both chickens and ducks. Every day on her way out to work she would stop by both St. Vincent DePauls and Goodwill. On her way home she would check in again to see if she had missed something on her morning stop. Martá was always looking for the best deals on anything, no matter if she needed it or not. Even if she had three blenders, if there was another blender she would buy it. The reasoning was that she could gift it to someone else. Aunt Martá is a hoarder, but there was something special about her hoarding. She wasn’t collecting nick-knacks that were useless; she was collecting valuable appliances that would eventually become gifts for family and friends. Luckily she had a garage large enough to store everything she collected.
This woman is no-doubt a product of the great depression era. Her father (my grandfather) would go to a grocery store, see what non-perishable items were on sale, and buy those products as if he were stocking up for the end times.
One valuable lesson I learned from my Aunt was food, and how to not waste it. Martá had a deal worked out with the local co-op in town, in which she would take all the unsellable produce. This produce was legally referred to as “compost,” however most of the fruits and vegetables that grocery stores throw away have minor bruises, are misshapen, or overly ripe. Aunt Martá would come and pick up the groceries “compost” and take it home to her chickens.
The first time I opened up a bag of compost I was immediately shocked to find how much food was fit for human consumption. Carrots, potatoes, kiwis, oranges!
With a smile, she told me to separate between the food I thought was bad and good. The “bad” stuff would go to the chickens, and the “good” stuff would be cooked up for dinner. We both had a great laugh at the fact that she had been getting free organic food from the co-op for years. She told me that if the co-op knew she was eating from the compost, and not feeding all of it to the chickens, they would probably stop the program. Of course they would not want to get anyone sick, but Martá had been using the system for free food for a long time. Her tricks taught me a valuable lesson about how to wiggle around the rules, which is something I am constantly trying to do. Nothing wrong with taking advantage of something that is already flawed! … It’s in my blood, and so is dumpster diving.