Pavement prizes

Dumpster-divers give household debris a new lease on life
Wednesday, August 13, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:22 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

In the first two weeks of August, when many leases begin and end, it’s a trash-picker’s paradise as many people throw away worthwhile items they no longer want. Working TVs, stereos, building materials, records, furniture and personal possessions are among the items local Dumpster divers have found.

“My dad and I used to go out and look for bottles in old junkyards,” said Gail Plemmons, 53. “He kind of started me on my obsession.”

Since those days, scavenging and recycling trash has become more than a hobby for Plemmons, a teacher’s aide in between jobs. She has become a regular, and her persistence has been rewarded.

“I virtually never buy anything new; it’s saved me a lot of money,” she said.

Plemmons has found basics such as food and furniture, including an office chair she has used for the past 15 years.

She has also found items that are a little more personal. A few years ago, she found an unlabeled cassette tape. The tape turned out to be a man’s voice explaining why he had chosen to commit suicide. It included his last will and testament.

Recently, Plemmons has found a good way to put her pastime to use. She found herself burning fires every night and decided it would be less wasteful to build a wood-burning stove. In the trash she has found bricks, concrete blocks, metal and refrigerator grates to fit the purpose. While she prefers to find things curbside, Plemmons is willing to Dumpster-dive when necessary.

Beyond being a pastime, this means of avoiding consumerism is a way of life for her.

“I’m a maniac recycler; that’s part of my philosophy of living easy on the Earth,” Plemmons said.

Regular scavenger Lisa Groshong, 33, said August is the biggest trash season of the year. Groshong and her husband, Trevor Harris, 32, have been digging through trash and finding useful items for years. Both are working professionals, but they don’t let the stigma of Dumpster-diving stop them from searching the trash.

Among their best finds are a working television and two working stereos, and turntables.

“If you’re a fan of outdated technology, then the trash is a good place to look,” Groshong said.

Similar to Plemmons, most of Groshong and Harris’ searching serves more practical purposes. Harris said most of the things he finds are mundane, but also very useful. Hangers and small coffee tables are typical finds, but finding clothes is hitting the jackpot for Harris.

“I don’t buy a lot of new clothes. My fashion is pretty much dictated by what I find in trash piles,” said Harris, adding that he’s found Abercrombie and Fitch and Eddie Bauer sweaters in relatively good condition.

Once in a while, the scavengers can’t find a personal use for their newfound belongings. When that happens, they turn to recycling. Groshong and Harris turn over these items to their friends and acquaintances. Plemmons does the same and habitually gives to the Salvation Army and other charities.

Harris said late May and early August are the best times to find trash when thousands of college students are changing residences.

“Everyone knows college students are the most wasteful people on the planet,” Groshong said.

Residential trash piles in college neighborhoods and apartment complexes yielded the most useful finds.

Not all college students are wasteful. MU student Eli Lopatin, 20, finds nearly as much trash as he generates.

He first started Dumpster-diving in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he found a working phone and Nintendo video game system last summer. In Columbia, items he has found have not been as remarkable, but possibly even more practical.

Recently, when he was in the process of moving, he found cleaning sprays and carpet cleaner which he used to clean his old apartment. He’s found plenty of items for entertainment as well, addingabout 20 records to his collection from trash piles including albums by AC/DC, the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin.

While a friend of Lopatin’s took the wasteful college student theory to heart by finding unopened macaroni and cheese and trail mix in residence hall Dumpsters, he prefers a different type of trash bin.

“The best Dumpsters are always at thrift stores,” Lopatin said.

One thing most Dumpster-divers share is an affinity for the spontaneous nature of their searching. While Plemmons schedules her hunts around trash days, she rarely looks for specific items. Harris agrees.

“I love the temporary nature of trash piles,” Harris said. “You see it and you’ve got to grab it then.”

Despite all his success, Harris is just as interested in the search as what he’s found.

“I go there more for the anthropology than the stuff,” he said.

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