Confessions of a Dumpster Diver

by Charles Bidwell, PhD

It's true. I confess it freely. I dig through dumpsters at least twice a week. Furthermore, I have no intention of abandoning my habit. Dumpster diving is good for my soul and I believe that it is good for Gaia. Bear with me while I justify my actions, however repugnant they may seem to you at first.

Digging around in other people's waste may seem disreputable for a retired clergy or for anyone other than the destitute among us. I am not destitute and I respect those who fend for themselves by sharing this resource and perhaps sharing part of my passion. The "canners", as those who collect cans and other items for cash refunds call themselves, come by early and tear open the garbage bags. I come by later, like a gleaner after the harvest, and recover some of what they have refused to take. I delight in these recoveries and I recycle whatever has any hope of a life above the grave of the city landfill dump.

One of our consumptive-driven society's great ills is the attitude that Gaia is an endless resource pool to be used for profit and a bottomless dumping ground to accept our disposables. A symptom of this dis-ease is that more and more things and people are being considered disposable or dispensable. Gay people, transgendered people, homeless people, "different" people are or have been considered dispensable. Items in need of repair, things we no longer need or want, containers and packaging, all are thrown away with no regard to what further life and use they may have. This attitude is disrespectful of the Creator of us all and of Gaia who supports our physical life. As a gay person, I am keenly aware of how I and my non-heterosexual companions have been discarded by others and of how I have rescued myself from their dumping ground. I hope that from our experience of being rejected we can develop a sensitivity to the profligate rejection and dispensing of God's people and Gaia's resources. Reclaiming my rightful life in the community may be the underlying source of my concern for people as well as resources.

However the reclamation inspiration originated within me as a passion, I confess it. I have always been frugal in some respects and profligate in others, but I know that the vast majority of the resources of this vibrant world, this Mother Earth or Gaia, are limited. Gaia's gifts deserve our respect for our progeny's sake, if not our own. The waterfalls and tides, the winds and sunlight are constantly renewed without our help. All else seems to be calling for considerate partnership.

For me, Gaia is a living entity to be treated with respect and not to be abused or subdued. I have tried to be her champion for years. While I'm rescuing objects from a dumpster, I almost feel like singing "Praise Gaia from whom all material blessings flow." I must also confess that I have discovered two spiritual aspects of this periodic dumpster diving.

The first spiritual aspect that came to me was one of recycling, reusing, and reducing loss. The recycling act has given me a sense that I am engaged in the profoundly Christian act of calling forth the discarded to a renewed life. As my friend Jill A. Ferguson calls it, I'm practicing "resurrection from the grave of the dump". We are too quick to condemn something to the grave of the dump. I see something that someone has discarded 'thrown away' they would say and I assess it for any possible further life. When they say "away", it always makes me wonder where "away" is. In reality, "away" is just another place in our living room on Gaia's body the lifeboat we call Earth. After assessing the object, I either leave it for whatever or whoever may also rescue it in some way or I rescue it for one of three resurrection lives. The first resurrection is as a contribution to the local recycling program for glass, paper, tin, plastic, etc. Many home owners do that routinely by way of their 'blue box', but our city has made no provision for the apartment and condo dwellers to participate and so much gets dumped into their alley dumpsters. The second resurrection type is as a potential for repair for a renewed life as an object of value to someone needing it, such as an appliance needing a new plug, a pot or pan needing serious cleaning up, or a lawn chair needing some rewebbing. The third resurrection opportunity for renewed life is the rescuing of clothing that is in good repair, but has been discarded for some reason known only to the former owner. Most items in these latter two categories collect in my garage (car house?) until some organization calls to collect them for distribution to the destitute or for sale in their thrift store to support their charity.

I have gained a second spiritual insight through the spiritual connection with those who dumpster dive to survive. I greet the "canners" whenever I encounter them. I also greet those who try to pass me, and I assume all other dumpster divers, as if I did not deserve their glance and certainly not their greeting. We rob ourselves of living in a friendly world when we reject someone on surface attributes. I have learned that we are all worthy in our Creator's estimation. How often we gay folks have been discarded from the tribe and shunned as being unworthy. How have you been made to feel like garbage? How have you found or been given your own resurrection and esteem?

I realize that I have been given the luxury of time and space to glean and store these resurrected items, but anyone can develop the supporting mindset to participate in this act of loving Gaia and loving others. You may not have dumpsters at your disposal and you may not be disposed to balance on the rim of a dumpster as you fish around among the contents. You can, however, think seriously about what you dispose of and seek a way of giving it a continued life in some form other than landfill. There are organizations that will come to your door to collect what you leave out for them give them a call. There are recycling bins in the parking lots of many large shopping malls sort your recycleables into those omnipresent plastic shopping bags and take them with you the next time you head for the mall. And say "Good-day" to the next person you see rescuing something from a dumpster; it could be me.