I started dumpster diving because of free boxes. I live on the edge of Hyde Park, an affluent neighborhood surrounding the University of Chicago on Chicago, Illinois’ south side. My boyfriend and I used to go for neighborhood walks and stop to pick through curb-side boxes, often left by students moving out of their school-year accommodations, full of free stuff like clothes, craft supplies, cookware and books.
After a while, I started paying more attention to things left in alleys. Chicago’s alleys are not the crooked, cobblestone paths of my childhood imagination; they are small roads that run parallel to the streets in the city grid. They are communal driveways, back entrances to apartment buildings and home to dumpsters. Sometimes when people move, they also leave larger items like coffee tables, dismantled dressers, floor lamps and, of course, mattresses. I realized that free boxes were a rare treat, but there were always things to find in alleys. Sometimes I’d notice an overflowing dumpster full of holiday decorations, costume jewelry, cosmetics, and University of Chicago-branded clothing to pick through. Eventually I started opening dumpsters. Before long I found myself biking up and down alleys with an empty backpack.
My mom thinks dumpster diving is gross and dangerous. She urges me not to eat dumpster food. Some of my friends agree to join me … as long as we wear gloves.
But as I’ve told friends, dumpster diving is like a big, gross, grown-up treasure hunt. I have gotten pretty good at it. I rarely dive at store dumpsters, but I know the landscape of my neighborhoods. I know which kinds of buildings will have productive dumpsters, like the apartment buildings with transient student populations. I know how to spot an interesting dumpster from afar (a mattress leaning against the side is a tell-tale sign) and how to quickly identify a bag full of styrofoam, cans and used cotton swabs. I like the thrill of the search and the excitement of finding something really cool. It is endlessly satisfying to present friends with jade rollers, exfoliating sugar cubes, desk lamps, washi tape, high-heeled shoes — new, in the box — potted plants or greeting cards for every occasion. One of my friends recently moved, and I gave her a dumpster card that said, “Hope your new apartment isn’t haunted.” I now have real AirPods, a Bluetooth speaker and a night-sky projector that I use on my bedroom ceiling. I’m currently wearing jean shorts and an embroidered shirt from dumpsters. A tall, paper-lantern-style lamp is the centerpiece of my office, and I love telling coworkers that I found it in an alley.
Dumpster diving has both ethical and spiritual overtones for me. I have never had anyone yell at me when they see me sifting through garbage bags, but people give me funny looks. And I’ve encountered cat litter and rotten food. But although I sometimes want to hide from passersby, I’ve realized that I don’t care what they think. I reject the idea that it is shameful for people to find ways to survive in the cracks and alleys of the city. I reject the dichotomy between dirty and clean — in all its manifestations. I could easily avoid dumpsters and alleys, but by going to alleys, I enter the city by a different way. I have talked to all sorts of people while dumpster diving. It has never felt territorial: there’s plenty to go around. I have pointed out scrap metal to the guys who trawl the alleys in their battered trucks, and I have helped two older women load a chaise lounge into their car.
By embracing a taboo, by embracing the funny looks and disgust, I am doing something holy and foolish. It is a strange thing to take joy in going to a dirty, unpleasant place. Many people are ashamed and afraid of garbage. I don’t believe it is inherently appropriative or artificial: I’m not taking resources from others or playacting at poverty. On both a social and spiritual level, it means something to reject the things we’ve been taught to worry about — like the judgment of strangers. It has become a practice for me.
Dumpster diving has made me less of a consumerist, less likely to fall under the spell of the cheap plastic stuff I idly browse while waiting at the pharmacy. I know where that stuff ends up. So many things that should never have been manufactured — like fast fashion and kitschy decor — end up in the trash. Even the flashiest new technology will end up in the trash before long.
The United States is overflowing with stuff. From my time at Catholic Worker houses sorting through huge piles of clothing donations, I knew that poverty is not primarily about a lack of stuff: it’s about a lack of resources and access. There is more than enough stuff to go around. Most stuff we interact with are partial-petroleum products made in sweatshops, hauled across the world by truck and container ship, sold cheaply, discarded readily and shuffled off to a landfill or incinerator.
I flip-flop between self-righteousness (I’m saving the world!) and sheer disgust (How could anyone be so wasteful?). I remind myself, though, that it’s easy to condemn wastefulness but harder to deal with its socioeconomic causes. Egregious consumerism is disgusting, but the college students who empty their apartments after graduation are not villains. When I graduated from college, an international student friend asked me to hang on to some sentimental possessions for her; she just couldn’t take everything home on the plane. Moving is time-consuming and expensive for everyone, but it is especially hard for people with less privilege and resources.
In the scope of ecological disaster and social injustice, dumpster diving is small potatoes. I know this. It is just one way I choose to bear witness through my life and habits. I find things I can use in dumpsters, at the church rummage sale, and in my local Buy Nothing group. I canceled my Amazon Prime subscription.
You don’t need to dig through the trash, but Christians do have an obligation to interrogate our relationship to possessions and consumption. The grossest thing about garbage is how it reflects a culture of extraction, exploitation and pollution. Dumpster diving is one small, personal way to disrupt that culture.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abby Rampone is a writer from Vermont. She has lived at two Catholic Worker houses, an intentional community called the Women’s Interfaith Residency Program and the Fireplace Community in Chicago, Illinois. Abby writes poetry, rescues cats, cross-stitches and supports climate justice movements like the fight against Line 3. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in comparative literature from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and a Master of Divinity in interreligious engagement from Union Theological Seminary.