A few weeks ago, my daughters (aged 9 and 11) convinced me to go dumpster diving out in the alley behind our house in the City of St. Louis. We’ve gone dumpster diving a few times over the years. Based on the prior expeditions, my daughters fully expect that if they look through a few dozen dumpsters, they’ll find something valuable. You see, this is America, where people through away perfectly usable toys and games, as well as furniture, appliances and clothing. And even when you don’t find usable merchandise, you’ll see literally tons of single-use paper and plastic being thrown out. When you see the incredible piles of discarded usable things with your own eyes, it is all-the-more astounding. Even more surprising, if you’re looking the highest ratio of usable stuff, look in the dumpsters behind apartment-dwellers rather than the dumpsters behind expensive single-family homes.
Perhaps it sounds disgusting to go dumpster diving. If so, get over it, because it can be far more than an anthropological field trip–it can be like winning a mini-lottery. My kids and I have found several extremely nice coats, for instance (we washed them and gave them away to friends). We once found a working DVD player. We’ve taken home shelves and other items of furniture. We’ve found dozens of toys, which merely need to be cleaned up to become usable. As I’m finding these sorts of things, I keep thinking “Why wouldn’t someone take the time to donate this to Good Will of Salvation Army?” When people throw a valuable thing into the landfill, it’s gone forever–what were they thinking?
Here’s what we found on our recent expedition. First of all, I must digress. The City of St. Louis provides special separate dumpsters for Yard Waste Only and other dumpsters for general rubbish. On our recent expedition, I looked into 20 of of those yard-waste-only dumpsters. About half of them contained non-yard waste. This astounds me too. Why would someone screw up this incredibly sensible system for recycling vegetation by throwing plastic, food and paper into a yard waste dumpster?
And here’s a typical example of what you often find in a yard-waste-only dumpster:
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, people throw away massive amounts of single-use paper and plastic. Probably the biggest single category is cardboard pizza boxes. In our one-hour expedition, I probably saw 500 used pizza boxes.
But we also saw huge amounts of clearly recyclable goods that were not being recycled. Hundreds of glass jars, metal cans and plastics and immense amounts of paper, all of it headed for the landfill. We also saw hundreds of pounds of colorfully-inked food packaging. All of it carefully designed to catch your eye at the store, and then you toss it into the landfill. But, it’s not like you really toss it in–instead, a huge fleet of city trucks carts this packaging far away from the city in order to dump it into the landfill. It makes me wonder how many toxic chemicals were released into the environment in order to produce all of this food packaging.
We found several toys and many items of clothing that had been saturated in pasta sauce, meat grease or who-knows what kind of fluid. We decided to keep looking. What my girls ended up taking home for a quick clean-up was a little toy dog that they found inside of a woman’s big purse. You’ll see his photo below. My girls named him “Oscar” (after Sesame Street’s Oscar), and he now lives with us .