Treasure hunting in students' castoffs
by Amy Kuras
From the April, 2021 issue
Last August, my friend Tom arrived late to our weekly socially distant gathering (My Town, December 2020) because his dumpster dive had taken longer than expected. He explained that he had been going every day since the containers appeared on the old Fingerle property and was acquiring quite a collection of useful stuff. We were intrigued (and I was somewhat jealous), so after consuming our snacks and drinks, our entire crew of ten headed down to see for ourselves.
At least eight mammoth forest-green dumpsters were arranged in a line from Hill to Madison. The parking lot was well lit, displaying a jumble of chairs, sofas, desks, clothing, toiletries, food, books, mattresses, and garbage, piled high in and around the containers. Boxes were filled with items, some well used but others brand new, tags still attached--trash bags stuffed with barely used cleaning products, toiletries, and clothing; textbooks in perfect condition; notebooks with two or three pages of scribbled notes; coffee makers, dishes, and silverware. It was overwhelming.
A few of us dove in as the others watched with a mixture of amusement and horror. Balanced precariously on four-inch ledges protruding from the dumpsters a couple feet off the ground, I was able to reach in and grab trash bags, rip them open, and explore their contents. There was plenty of garbage mixed in, and occasionally I would get a whiff of rotting food. It was tiring work. Fortunately, my exercise regimen had prepared me physically for the endeavor. Tom crawled right into the dumpster, fearlessly digging through the cacophony, handing me items that looked promising.
While we were mining the dumpsters, a continuous stream of trucks, cars, and pedestrians continued to drop off additional items. Rental companies, landlords, and students were taking advantage of the opportunity to empty apartments free of charge before the fall term began. It seemed to be a much-coveted service, with a constant flow of goods being deposited and removed; we were
not the only ones there to see what we could find.
When U-M students leave town, garbage bins line the streets of Ann Arbor filled with typical dorm-room items. I have collected my share of brooms, pots and pans, half-used laundry detergent, and the occasional chair or desk discarded as they move out. But little did I know that the City of Ann Arbor, in cooperation with the University of Michigan, provides dumpsters to facilitate their departure, centralizing the accumulation of discarded wares. If you figure that around 20,000 people move in and out each spring and fall, with thousands of living spaces being vacated, you begin to get a sense of the enormous dimensions of this seasonal testament to the wealth and entitlement of this privileged university town.
I visited the dumpsters three or four times last August and brought home a bedspread, a bicycle, cleaning products, a vacuum cleaner, an electric skillet, a reading light, storage containers, clothing, towels, sunscreen, books. I even scored a still-frozen, unopened five-pound bag of broccoli that I made into a delicious broccoli salad and served to our friends at the next gathering. They ate politely, if somewhat reluctantly. I felt just a tad smug serving the salad on paper plates with napkins (in unopened packaging) that I had found on a previous scavenge.
Tom filled a good part of a barn that he leases with finds from the site. He slowly sorted through his collection, finding some valuable antiques and good-quality furniture that he would keep and restore. He sent us daily photos of his collection and brought some especially nice sweaters to one of our social events. I gladly took several that helped me endure winter in style.
The dumpsters remained for about ten days, during which time they were repeatedly emptied and carted to the landfill. Unfortunately, many discards were buried too deeply to reach, even before backhoes crushed the contents so that more could fit. On one depressing trip, Tom found a partially crushed antique piano (he managed to salvage some of the wood).
Apparently, in non-pandemic years, philanthropic organizations sift through the contents to resell them at places like the Kiwanis Thrift Sale and the PTO Thrift Shop. Tom, an avid thrift shopper himself, made multiple trips to Kiwanis, generously donating unneeded items, washing clothing and linens, and making sure everything he found was in working order.
Just days after the dumpsters were removed, I saw a new wave of students moving into their dorms and apartments, hauling boxes and bags from Target and Bed Bath & Beyond. All I could think about was how much of exactly the same stuff, most of which was in perfect condition, was blithely tossed in the trash just a few weeks prior by their predecessors on the way out of town.
I have no idea how many cubic yards were hauled away, and maybe the pandemic contributed to an increase in the volume of discards as the students rushed to leave town, but there was a missed opportunity to provide for people who cannot afford to furnish their homes so easily, who don't have the luxury of throwing away what they own to lighten their load as they leave town. Would it be possible to advertise an event, so that people could drop off items in a way that others could grab things without having to crawl into the garbage bins? After some set period of time, the remainder could be disposed of, hopefully sending a whole lot less to the landfill where it will rot for decades to come.
As a former bureaucrat, I know just how difficult it is to change protocol. It would be more challenging, time-consuming, and maybe even more expensive to host such an event. It would take cooperation between the city and the university and staff to organize, market, and facilitate. It would take thought and care on the part of those donating what they would normally toss without a second thought.
I know how easy it is to throw stuff in the trash, how every week it disappears from sight, to be buried in some faraway landfill. I am not especially hopeful my idea will come to fruition. If not, as a minor consolation, I will again scan the streets during the spring move out, and wait for the dumpsters to return.
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