Dumpster Diving

At the end of each spring semester, the city of Berkeley stations gigantic Dumpsters next to student housing units for move-out. Over the course of the a week, the garbage level in these vessels rises, sloshing with anything from discarded furniture to electronics to clothing. A quick sift through any one of these Dumpsters is an audit on student consumerism and material priorities, exposing a remarkably dismissive take on utility and value.

Despite exhaustive efforts to advertise sustainability initiatives and energy conservation, the UC Berkeley student dormitories are still producing an insane amount of material waste. Waste, the garbage of lost possibility, is a performed label more than a substantive one: these discarded objects are prematurely aborted, often retaining salvageable qualities despite superficial imperfections. Banished to the oblivion of the Dumpster, these objects go to waste simply by being called waste.

But the mass disposal of these objects has its advantages: the so-called “Dumpster diving.” Known as the willful reclaiming of disposed objects, dumpster diving is a conservationist and creative practice of reuse — a direct challenge to consumer material culture. Scanning the Dumpsters in South Berkeley’s student housing areas, I found materials to furnish my entire future existence: dresser drawers, a wok, office supplies, a desk chair. My acquisitions were aligned with another’s abandon, mediated through a gigantic metal box.

These Dumpsters are not only holding tanks of possibility but also provide for new models of consumer profiling. Usually our consumption is monitored to develop and predict commercial trends, but I could sidestep that customer documentation by diving into that dumpster. Literally immersing myself in other people’s garbage put me in the position of the commercial taste-makers, auditing people’s waste to determine what they value or desire.

So instead of voting with the almighty dollar, I was abstaining through adoption, snagging up products for free with a little strategy and a lot of patience. The practice of Dumpster diving aims to subvert a person’s social, political and individual profiles based on consumerism and instead render that person’s status through rigorous reuse and community sharing. While dragging my freshly excavated dresser home, I realized I had become invisible to capitalistic marketing, and I started grinning uncontrollably.

When online purchasing becomes easier and more efficient, the consumer is never the only beneficiary: as markets become more accessible, so do we, as demographics. Notwithstanding surveillance through email or search engines, my identity as a purchaser of goods is constantly being developed in a feedback cycle of supposed needs and actual money spent. I navigate advertisements and coupons and come out the other end with my bags full of stuff, furnishing my consumer persona. But in the Dumpster, there is no surveillance, and I am not tracked — iberated from materiality!

Now it’s easy to talk up dumpster diving’s benefits, but as a practice, there are of course risks. For one, hygiene: diving for food requires more stringent strategies for collection. But the discerning diver who skims, and pays attention, has a good chance of staying out of the salmonella zone. Timing and packaging are of course also important determiners of safety, minimizing festering time and maximizing protection.

Strategies of waste reclamation are not without collateral damage. Not only is dumpster foraging an ultimately unsustainable mode of sustenance, but may also infringe upon the resources of people who live without homes,and rely on discarded food entirely. Regardless of legal precedent, diving may be considered stealing, whether out of the bin or from the hands of others.

So limiting the goals to non-foodstuffs simplifies matters and becomes a more discriminating practice. Digging through the incredible volume of perfectly usable materials, it’s hard not to be the dog-lover at the pound: you just want to take everything home. But I learned very quickly to defend against my hoarding instincts by only taking what I could immediately justify using. The urge to not waste can easily end up in gluttony, and it’s easy to end up with a whole lot of junk.

But where there’s lots of waste, there’s lots of choice. And standing in the orca-sized cavity of a Dumpster made visible a cross-section of a certain student consumerism, an amazingly dismissive one. These objects tossed into material oblivion were ripe for the picking, and I have outfitted my future apartment.