Sandy goes dumpster-diving

So it is Monday morning after Duke’s 2013 commencement weekend – and I put on old clothes and running shoes and head for campus. A year ago an outing on this day produced a windfall [3 carloads] of free perfectly good items from student dorm rooms that we rescued from campus dumpsters and sold at Recyclique: fans, books, mirrors, rugs, coolers, etc., whatever did not fit on the plane, had been put in big clear plastic bags and pitched. Many were just stacked outside the dumpsters, which were overflowing.  

So I get to East Campus, and realize that things are different this year. Only one dumpster has useful stuff leaning against it, but most are either emptied or have been replaced with lockable compression type units. West campus too.  Nada. Only one potential target: a gigantic construction-type dumpster on East filled to the brim with big plastic bags of dorm stuff.  So I ease around to the side near the bushes, climb up to the rim and begin to pick out items.  Less than five minutes and a Duke campus policeman appears out of nowhere: “Can I help you?” 

So without hesitation (or reflection) I lied: “I’m looking for a book.” 

“For a book?” he repeated with skeptical eyes, as if to say, tell me another one. So I did.

“Yeah, I threw it away by accident.”

“What kind of book?”

“It was an art book.”

“An art book?”

“Well I don’t remember the author, but I know it’s in a bag on this side.”

“Do you have any connection with Duke?”

“Yes, I’m a Duke alumnus.  I’m an anthropologist. I teach at UNC. “ (at least that part was true).

At which point, he begins to be nice, explaining that Duke does not allow people to go through dumpsters, but says I can get my book, and he walks away.

So I climb back up, retrieve “a book” and a couple of small items, and slink back to my car.  But I have a plan:  I will come back after 5 pm, I resolve, when this guy has gone home.

So it turned out that Trinity Heights was full of good pickin’s anyway from people moving out of student houses who were leaving piles of furniture and household items on the curb. I score two strong metal shelf units, a wood bookcase, a brass hat stand, a storage ottoman, a floor lamp, and beaucaup small stuff.  Not bad at all.  I unloaded it at the shop and spent the afternoon working on other things.  But that giant construction dumpster was still lurking in my consciousness.

Come 5:30 pm, I resolved to give it another try.  I parked at a bit of a distance from the dumpster, walked around to the side covered by bushes, and climbed up again. Less than two minutes, and snap!  The same campus cop pops up out of nowhere. Must have had the dumpster staked out.  

“Still looking for that book?” he says to me with a glib smile.

So I jump down and tell the truth, my name, that I’m with Recyclique, that I’m completely bummed that my timing was so bad this year, and that he is not going to let me retrieve useful things that will soon be dumped in a landfill. He sympathizes, and tells me TROSA was on campus all weekend reaping donations before stuff got trashed.  He gave me his card – Officer Eric L. Hester – and offered to help me get on a list of charities for next year. I am pleased at least to hear some recycling is happening on campus.  Then Officer Hester tilted his head at me and said, “You’re not really an alumnus are you?”

“I am, in fact, class of “78” and I really teach anthropology at UNC too.” I insist. 

He seems to believe me, but gives me a certain kind of look.  I can almost see the gears turning in there as he ponders what on earth happened to the value of a Duke degree that alumni can be reduced to going through dumpsters.  I wanted to explain.  But it seemed too complicated, so I thanked him and drove home.

8 comments to Sandy goes dumpster-diving

  • mike moorman

    Congratulations on a fine adventure.

    Having found lots of wonderful stuff walking to elementary school as a kid I can identify with the scavengers high.

    My uncle Orville made a small business of collecting the leavings of students at KU (Lawrence Kansas). Greek house moms would call him at move out time. He would clean and organize the booty then re-sell it at a weekend long yard sale to the following years students. One year he told me that he cleared $5k.
    The down side was experienced by his sister who had to clear it all out for the estate sale.

    My working theory is that some of us suffer from a mutant gene that makes us see way too much potential in almost anything.


  • Connie Leeper

    Proud to know you Sandy. Ever want a dumpster diving partner…I’m your diver.

  • pradeep

    It is nice to know that people like yourself care enough to not worry about their “status” when it comes to being green and recycling stuff that will go into a landfill. A lot of folks from Ivy league and other institutions of higher learning are the architects of our current recession which continues to destroy the lives of people in US and the world – that is nothing to be proud of. I feel you are doing better with your learning by running recyclique and caring for people and in turn getting good karma.

    Perhaps a better way is to do this is to get on the charity list and/or spread the word in duke/UNC etc, so students can donate their stuff before they throw it in the trash – not just at the end of the year but anytime they have something that they need to dispose of including clothing/music etc.

  • April

    Sheesh! Glad Recyclique has the option of getting on the list for future donations and that Duke has such an infrastructure in place, but it’s also such a shame institutions feel they have to go to such lengths to quash innocent, well-meaning behavior in the name of..what is it–image preservation? Risk management?

    • sandy

      Unfortunately, to get on Duke’s list they wanted us to be able to take a bulk amount and hire a box truck; and they were happy with how it had been simplified with just a couple of charities and so hesitant to work with us — so it got too complicated since we’re so small, and close to the bone.

  • John Emerson

    Mike has it right, I believe. You are blessed (cursed) with the salvage gene. Members of my family are similarly blessed (cursed) with the gene, so I understand your compulsion for dumpster diving.
    I am not able to dive with you, but if you need a getaway driver let me know!
    – – – John

  • Duke campus security can be quite uptight about letting outsiders benefit from their waste stream. About a year ago, I was hanging out at the Bryan Center, doing some work on my laptop, and enjoying fresh meals from Au Bon Pain and the other cafes, when I noticed that, at closing time, they’d clear the shelves and stuff all the food into plastic bags, and wheel it all out to a garbage compactor.

    Of course, I was shocked at the wastefulness. I started asking questions, and not surprisingly, campus police showed up to ask me if I’m a student, and what am I doing there, and then they asked me to leave, citing that it’s a private campus and I was “making people uncomfortable”.

    I’d like to pass on what I saw. I posted some photographs. Please spread the word, there is fresh food at Duke and it’s going to waste.

  • Mary Anne McDonald

    Good for you to try to ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ at “the Big House.” I am cursed with the same scavenging gene and passed it on to both of my children.
    Duke needs to go the extra mile and work with you and other small organizations to reduce their waste stream. Let’s talk about documenting the items that are going to waste and show Duke some photos when the current students move out this Spring.

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