Cook: Joy to the Dumpster

Cook: Joy to the Dumpster

December 21st, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Mardi Gras beads. Lots of coat hangers. Fake mistletoe. Two dozen VHS tapes (a Paul Newman film, "My Cousin Vinny," a Ray Stevens collection, "Blazing Saddles").

Potatoes. Pomegranates. Lettuce, in a bag. A few mangoes. Slightly bruised bananas.

"Great! I just ran out of bananas yesterday," said my friend, waist deep in garbage.

Merry Christmas, from your local Dumpster.

Each year, for the holidays, an old friend and I spend a few hours crawling through our local Dumpsters. Traveling to the alleys behind strip malls and big box stores in the area, we crawl, peek and scavenge through the trash ... and love every minute of it.

"I've Dumpstered frozen pizza, even frozen fish. It still was covered in ice," said my friend. "Once, I even found beer."

In recent years, Dumpster-diving has become a fad of sorts, as food critics (Andrew Zimmern of "Bizarre Foods" based an episode on it), documentary filmmakers and national media have spotlighted on the act of scrounging and the people -- often called "freegans" -- who do so.

Each year, Americans throw out around 250 million tons of trash, says the Environmental Protection Agency. Such numbers are incomprehensible (250 million tons?!?) but a trip to your local Dumpster helps bring the problem to scale.

Peeking inside, you never know what you'll see. Rotting food. Mounds of cardboard. Thin plastic garbage bags split open and oozing. Broken glass. Bleach, poured over the trash by store employees, which ruins everything inside.

Or ... vegetables and fruit with barely a bruise or wilt. Perfectly good items, bound for the landfill. Last year, I found several poinsettias. Still in the pot, wrapped in shiny red paper. They became Christmas presents.

Earlier this winter, we found a Dumpster with hundreds and hundreds

of greeting cards. Birthday, wedding, retirement, Halloween cards. Stacks of the $7.99 cards that play recorded music when you open them. Probably $1,000 worth of cards (but not a single envelope).

Etiquette exists: Don't take more than you need, close the lid when you're done, and don't trash the site around the Dumpster.

Even though it feels outlawish in a juvenile way, it's also liberating. This small counter-cultural act seems more honest than a system that throws out so much stuff while people are starving and our planet peaking in available resources.

Dumpsters can be seen as symbolic of a larger problem: We live in a throwaway culture.

Unchecked materialism produces a society that values objects more than people. And certain types of people, the message goes, are more valuable than others.

Hollywood and advertisers dictate what we must look like. Talk like. Sound like. Act like. And the only way to achieve such an image is to buy this product. That product. More and more products.

Otherwise, we're tossed out. Marginalized and ridiculed. (Teenagers are acutely aware of this pressure. Eating disorders, suicides, binge-drinking, all consequences of a throwaway culture.)

Homelessness. Poverty. Families sleeping in cars parked next to Dumpsters. While I playfully scrounge each winter, others rely on it daily.

So diving in the trash can be an act of resistance. A hopeful reclamation of good things. Trash, into treasure.

After all, it can't be dirtier than coming down a chimney.

•••

For the past 13 years, the local chapter of Food Not Bombs has been serving free food -- hot vegetarian soup, bread, desserts -- every Sunday at noon at Miller Park. Most times, it's the homeless and poor who show up to eat.

Each week, volunteers collect food (otherwise bound for the trash) from area grocery stores and farmers.

Tonight at 8, there will be a benefit concert for FNB at Sluggo's on Cherokee Boulevard. Local band Big Kitty is scheduled to play, along with other local musicians. The event is donation-based.