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2007, Miami Herald

DUMPSTER DIVING: Your trash is their treasure

It can be smelly and hazardous, but the diversion known to its followers as Dumpster diving — augmented by diving clubs, instruction manuals and thousands of websites — can turn up some joyful finds amid the mounds of discarded items.
BY NICHOLAS SPANGLER
nspangler@herald.com

Randy got lucky around midnight, in a giant Dumpster behind a sporting goods store near South Miami, with his girlfriend watching.

He held up a right-footed skate and a Kansas City Chiefs football helmet, both shining new.

Lovely Vanessa beamed proudly from the parking lot, which, unlike the Dumpster, was dry, flat and odorless.

Then Randy’s brother Joel and their pal Luis uncovered some perfectly good Wilson tennis balls. Surely no men thus blessed demand more. But only a fool would leave this magnificent wet bed mat spiked with cushiony ergonomic stalagmites. This concluded the dig. They packed the loot into the trunk of Randy’s Nissan and headed to the next site.

Dumpster diving, they call this, and they do it once or twice a week. They are hardly alone. It is practiced by college students, like these four, and anarchists, and teachers, and pack rats, more middle class and fewer desperately impoverished folk than one might expect.

There are Dumpster diving clubs, instruction manuals, Dumpster veterans and 44,200 websites that deal with diving in some fashion, according to the computer search engine Google.

The veterans post advice on the websites: Any medical Dumpster is stupid to dive. Not only are there actual lethal germs circulating in there, there are also needles, broken glass, and other biohazards.

They vent their frustrations:

Tonight my first stop at a small bakery only wielded a couple loaves moldy bread and 6 bags of corn tortillas. Tortillas were sweaty and had a few ants on the bags, smelled really fresh.

They warn newbies not to inadvertently spoil it all: Do not use the stores actual name in your posts. Disguise it IE selpats (read it backwards) we need to disguise the names of companies so that companies do not search the internet and find that we are diving at there stores.

Few of those postings originate from South Florida, which is a pity, because down here we produce an astonishing, never ending, ever growing mass of quality waste.

Commercial haulers in Miami-Dade County remove about 2,740 tons of waste every day. Miami-Dade’s Department of Solid Waste Management, with four pickups per week, averages 3,614 tons per pickup daily. The city of Miami’s Department of Solid Waste picks up 866 tons of trash and garbage each day.

TRASH VS. GARBAGE

The distinction between trash and garbage is of critical interest to a Dumpster diver: ”Garbage” tends to refer to household waste and leftover food, often quite stinky; ”trash” includes furniture, some appliances, and some generally organic material like grass clippings.

Randy and his crew do not do food and shy away from residential waste in general. ”That’s banana peels, rats, rotting stuff,” said Joel. “We do mostly retail.”

Trial and error have taught them to focus on a few large chains — they did not want to say which, and perhaps draw locks or guards to their favorite sites — and Randy maintains a database of store addresses, mileages and directions on a PDA he keeps in his Nissan.

If there’s a ”No Trespassing” sign or a lock, they leave. Everything else is fair game, and legal, as far as they know. Vanessa works at a law firm and owns a full set of Florida statutes; there’s no law against it, at least that she can find.

`NOT A GOOD IDEA’

But there are health risks, said Sarah Simpson, director of corporate communications for Waste Management, the nation’s largest commercial hauler. ”For safety reasons, we strongly discourage people from going through Dumpsters,” she said. “It’s just not a good idea. You don’t know what’s in there.”

Occasionally, for Randy and his crew, what’s in there has been broken glass and sharp metal edges, so they travel with a first-aid kit and a large box of baby wipes.

A more recent addition is strap-on headlamps, because they dive by night.

”That’s when the trash is out,” said Joel. “And the employees, and the security guards are at home.”

This night, they head to a home furnishings store in Kendall, with a brief detour to a gas station for beef jerky and Red Bull.

Joel recounted the highlights of two years of diving: “Couches, vacuum cleaners, inflatable mattresses, Faberware knife sets, computers, books, fountains.”

Fountains?

“Fountains. The little ones, like for gardens.”

Yes, South Florida’s Dumpsters are filled with fountains for the taking. Joel and Randy have five at their house; Luis has two.

At 1 a.m., traffic wasn’t bad and it took no time in getting to Kendall. Randy pulled into a particular strip mall.

The front parking lot of this mall was landscaped with mulch and shrubbery and looked pretty good, actually. Considerably less, somewhere in the neighborhood of zero, had been spent landscaping the alley behind the mall, a region never intended to be seen. From this side, the mall was featureless, absolutely flat, like the back of a movie set.

A TRIUMPH

The Dumpster was deep, and when Randy climbed in, only his head was visible. There was silence and then a triumphant whoop.

It was a Dumpster bonanza: puck-size cakes of clear soap with daisies suspended in the middle, vacuum cleaner parts, a stainless steel spice rack, two perforated garden hoses and a plastic fountain made to look like granite and failing ridiculously, which was obvious even under a half moon and the flickering fluorescence of the security lights.
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South Florida, U.S.A. appears three times a week. If you have a story idea, e-mail nspangler@herald.com.