Dumpster Fever: The New Fishing

Serial thriftiness leads to my getting hooked on a new sport that’s almost as much fun as fishing

dumpster diving
It’s not the Potomac, but it has its rewards.By the author

I have to vacate my house by the end of the month, meaning I need boxes and, especially, bubble wrap. Bubble wrap costs about as much as hair transplants now, up to 45 cents a square foot at Staples. I need at least 500 feet of the stuff, which is $225. Figuring that stores throw out acres of the stuff everyday, I went dumpster diving. That probably sounds weird to many of you. Weirder still, I enjoyed it and plan to do more. I got a headlamp, gloves, and a knife and started at about 9 p.m. on Saturday, driving to strip malls close to my house.

Most dumpsters had no bubble wrap. They just use tons of plastic wrap these days. But every once in a while, I’d find a few square feet, then 20 feet, then nothing, then another 15, etc. Then I got dumpster fever. It was like fishing. You roll up to some dumpsters and it’s like a fishing hole. You start to get a feeling for whether it’s going to be productive and which particular dumpsters look promising. And I started to figure out the patterns. You don’t, for example, want anything out of a restaurant dumpster, which is smelly and gross. But furniture stores, electronics stores, and many others will occasionally have bubble wrap, sometimes lots.

Behind one strip mall, I was boosting myself up to look when a voice said, “What you doing there?” It was the security guy, who had what sounded like an African accent. I told him my predicament and said I was looking for bubble wrap. Always best to tell the truth if you can. We ended up talking for 20 minutes. He told me that the discount furniture place probably threw lots out daily but had only two tiny dumpsters. “They get emptied twice a day,” he said. “Dumpsters can get expensive to rent, so I guess they figured that was cheaper.” Then he told me to call the strip’s Foot Locker, ask for the manager, Joe, and offer to come by whenever they were throwing out the day’s boxes and wrap. I think he was happy just to have someone to talk to. It’s a pretty lonely job.

I tried to stop at 10 p.m., but the impulse to try “just one more” was overpowering. I didn't drive home till about 11:30, happy to have found a new hobby. A few days later, I told Paula Smith that I was worried because I was starting to enjoy the same weird stuff she was, like dumpster diving. She was horrified that I’d gone at night.

“You dummy. Absolute worst time to go,” she said. “They see some whack job with a little headlamp, and a lot of ’em freak out. You gotta remember, a lot of ’em are little guys who don’t get to bust somebody very often. Plus, strip malls are private property, so you could get arrested for trespassing.”

Further, some dumpsters that are open during the day are locked at night to deter illegal dumping. She said that, generally, the best time to go was early morning, about 4:30, because a lot of the trash trucks come by 5. Particularly in Georgetown, where the streets are too narrow for trucks and merchants have to roll dumpsters to the street the night before. “If you go often enough, you can get to know the security guy or whoever takes the trash out. Course that can be good or bad, depending on the guy. It’s like anything else.”

I had dinner with her and Gordon—pheasant, applesauce made from apples she’d picked up around the neighborhood, olive bread from a bakery where she has coffee and has persuaded the owner to give her the day-old stuff (“toast it and it tastes like today’s”), and a salad of greens from their garden.

“It is like fishing,” she agreed when I shared my thoughts on dumpster diving. “It’s also just like foraging. There’s all kinds of good s$#+ out there if you know where to look.”