You just never know what you might find. It’s like trying to guess the name of a gnome who weaves straw into gold just for you. Guess from here to kingdom come, you’ll never guess ‘Rumpelstiltskin.’ Only by sneaking up in the dead of night will you know the correct answer is, ‘three wool sweaters and a portable pet cage.’ Dumpster diving is outrageously unpredictable. You have to do it to believe it.
-John Hoffman, The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving
I started dumpster diving for food in college. And I became addicted. To the rush. To the material benefits. Dumpster diving involves sneaking, climbing, running, and exploring. It can be exhilarating, so different than the docile student’s life I led during the day from behind a computer or a desk. The city started to feel like a playground, my life a game in which I could play at being a pirate, on the search for buried treasure. And there was treasure everywhere.
It is what the Situationalists would have called inverting the everyday, and what I call dumpster magic. The act of taking something out of the trash transforms the object’s meaning. Every product passes through a cycle of meaning before reaching its end in the trash. Produce starts out as a pile of seeds and passes through various stages (which humans assign various stages of meaning and monetary value)—seedling, plant, crops, and finally, vegetables. Once in the grocery store vegetables become products with ISBNs and a price tag to tell us it’s worth. Taken home this object may then become part of a regular lunch, or perhaps even a special birthday feast or gift. Unsold vegetables are thrown away, rendering them trash, rendering them worthless.
Through this whole process, we remain open to the fluidity of meaning and worth (seeds being economically worth less than plants, plants and harvested vegetables being worth less than value added products like jam or wine), but the “trash” stage is the point at which this fluctuation of meaning halts, despite the fact that items in the dumpster may be physically identical to items previously labeled as groceries and assigned a dollar value. Once trash, things pass into the material dead, so to say, and may never return. This is, at least, what we are taught.
When we break this taboo by dumpster diving we call these objects back from the dead, giving them a new life and assigning new meaning and emotional value. Trash becomes food, energy, and life. Baguettes are revived as food, and then, in the perverse excesses we often dumpstered them when I was in college, swords for play fights, food for pets, and fodder for the compost.
Trying to understand how it was that a $25 sweater in a high-end resale shop could be had for twenty-five cents at the Goodwill store across town, how it was that last year’s $40 pair of jeans could sell six months later in the thrift store for $1.40, I began to realize something: price tags aside, these sweaters and jeans carried no inherent value. Their value was a shifting process, as much a matter of their context as their content–and even more interesting, the process didn’t move in a straight line. The object was originally of great monetary and emotional worth might later be discarded or given away as “worthless,” only to reappear in a charity store with a small fraction of its worth restored–and discovered there, might well find all its lost grandeur restored, and more, if now reimagined by someone as a ‘collectible’ or ‘antique.’ Sweaters, tea sets, toasters–they seem solid enough, but their meaning remains malleable.
-Jeff Ferrell, Empire of Scrounge
Objects thrown away, rendered useless, dead, might become a valued treasure in the hands of a collector, or a scavenger who has just chanced upon the exact thing that she needs for a project or her basic survival. A trashed sweater may be revived in its original name and purpose or it might be revived as a bed for a dog or cat, re-sewn into a skirt or a curtain or a pillow, unraveled and re-knit or used to tie things together, or wipe up a spill. You wouldn’t buy a sweater and use it for anything but a sweater. But, really, why the hell not? Because of the monetary values assigned to various objects by the economy. It’s kind of strange and stilted when you get to thinking about it.
The trashing of an object, in this way, seems to free us of its pre-assigned intention because it frees the object from its monetary value and economic meaning. If you buy a desk at the store you are not only buying a construction of wood and screws and drawers, but buying the concept “desk”—an object that you will place in your workspace and write letters on—and buying into its assigned worth. These assigned values create boundaries that limit our imaginations. You would pay 100 dollars for a desk, but would not pay 100 dollars for a desk-sized portion of firewood, so you do not dare to re-imagine the desk as firewood because this does not make sense within the order of the economy. If a door costs 100 dollars and wood for your wall costs 30 dollars, you’re going to buy the wood for your wall. But freed of a monetary meaning, found on a pile of trash and taken home, you might use the door as part of a shed wall, a roof, or as firewood.
This concept follows us everywhere—into a whole cultural tendency to label and categorize and refuse to accept alternative definitions for commonly accepted items. A couch is for sitting on. It is not for dirty shoes, or dogs, and it is certainly not for drawing on. Yet the garden of the squatted house where I live is filled with couches that we have pulled out of the trash. Dogs and feet are welcome on them. People draw on them. People break them apart and build them into other things, fasten them onto bikes. The trash, having freed these objects of monetary worth (I worked hard to buy that couch (and that concept of couch) so get your dirty feet on the floor where they belong…) leave us freed of these categorizations, free to re-imagine objects and redefine them, limited only by our own imaginations and ambitions.
In this disposable culture, among these abitrary concepts of value most everything is rendered worthless. Everything is worthless, and we are surrounded by endless piles of worthless objects. The others publish books with advice about de-cluttering our homes and living “simply:” more objects that will ultimately be stripped of all value and meaning. A certain brand name tag on a shirt or a pair of pants might translate to a higher acceptable monetary value, but out of the store, as seasons, in the fashion sense, come and go, it quickly loses this monetary value until it finally is laid to rest among the dead, the trash. Tragically this culturally acceptable monetary value tends to have little to do with the objects real value—what is the value of the tree cut down to make the paper for a book? What is the value of clean air, whose pollution we pay for by paying for things made in smoke spewing factories? What is the value of the hair shorn from the sheep and spun into the wool that made that sweater? An objects monetary value has little to do with these questions. Especially in the case of government-subsidized industries.
I have my own ritual for assigning objects worth and it has nothing to do with where the object came from (though I admit I tend to value items I got out of a good trash picking adventure most of all). The sterility of store bought items bores me, so I take the time to alter most everything that comes through my hands, thus instilling each object with a highly personal value. Besides, seeing a shirt re-imagined as a curtain or a couch re-invented as a bike-seat gives me a thrill, as if I’m looking through a window at the apocalypse.
This is sort of weird and personal, but it gives me a rush to see commercial bric-a-brac in a down and dirty survival context. For example, when I see cardboard shacks in the Mexican colonias, I always feel a little rush when I see the words ‘Pringles,’ or ‘THIS SIDE UP,’ or ‘IBM.’ It’s so…post-apocalyptic. So that shelving unit in the chicken coop always gave me a small charge, and I get a rush from burning wood crates with produce trademarks stamped on the ends.
You see, commercial products are constantly hyped, creating little ‘recognition centers’ in our heads. So, when you walk down a busy street or store aisle familiar products seem to leap at you screaming, ‘Buy me!’ But seeing the product in a compost-splattered ‘no bull’ context is like mental anti-toxin. You see the product leap out at you and think, ‘Our hogs like that!’ You begin to feel layer upon layer of artificiality stripped away as you peer in dumpsters and use what you find.
-John Hoffman, The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving