Dumpster Diving and Freedom   (July 18, 2009)

Two reader commentaries on dumpster-diving reveal much about freedom.

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Correspondent Rich H. offered this comprehensive account of a lifestyle based on re-use, freecycling, bargain-hunting and "dumpster diving" in the broader sense of making use of cast-off goods:

Almost everything I have is either directly from "dumpster diving" or bought from the money saved by dumpster diving. In my case I'm going to define dumpster diving as not only getting usable items from the garbage but buying real cheap stuff that's usually broken from yard sales or bigger items from classifieds for dirt cheap because they were broken. I've never taken food from a dumpster though. I've found that gardening and buying/bartering from local farms is better for me.

In many ways I would not be where I am today if not for dumpster diving. When I was a kid I would go to the town dump and pull out bikes, radios, TVs, lawn mowers or whatever I wanted. I learned how to fix and repair anything.

I would sneak into the dump after hours and quietly pull out what I wanted before they came and covered it with dirt. If the items were too big to carry home on my bike I would stash them in the woods and come back for them with the garden tractor and cart. We lived about 2 miles from the dump. Lucky for me an abandoned railroad bed ran from near my house to near the dump.

How does this relate to how I live today? I'm 50 years old now and I still get what I can from dumpsters behind stores and broken stuff from family, friends and freecycle.

I never made a whole lot of money doing computer consulting(hardware and software). I took in a lot of money but then the taxes would eat up 50% of it. So I 'opted out' and stayed home with the kids while my wife went to work at a local bank. But even so we are able to live a lifestyle that would take 2 to 3 times what we make now.

Here's some examples of how I've saved money:

1. All our computer equipment - laptops, printers, etc. are hand me downs or from freecycle or literally plucked from the garbage cans and dumpsters of businesses nearby.

2. Every car I've owned I bought for cheap, fixed up, drove for a few years and then sold for more than I had in it. So I drive for free. My latest car is a $300 Civic that I put $300 of parts into. Now I'm driving it around and getting 50mpg to boot. Compare that to my neighbors that spend $500/month for a car lease or loan payment plus $150/month for gas.

3. I made my living doing basically what I learned from dumpster diving. Taking some process that's broken and fixing it. In fact my first job - computer technician at IBM - was a direct result of learning electronics in the process of repairing broken electronic stuff from the dump. I then saved the money I made during one year of employment at IBM to pay for my 4 years at college where I learned programming.

4. Almost all our furniture is either picked up from the curb or paid next to nothing for it at yard sales.

5. Since I never bought $5,000 computer systems or $20k, $30k, or $40k cars I saved all that money in the bank.

6. That money I saved was used to build a nice zero-energy house. We have no utility bills and no mortgage. A good investment that's way better than any other "investment" out there (that I understand). And compare this to my neighbors that pay $2k to $3k/month for mortgage and $600/month for electric and heating oil.

7.A local organic veggie farm is more than willing to pay me with food for fixing their farm equipment.

Whenever I put something back into service I got from dumpster diving I think how much money I would have had to make before taxes just to afford to buy it new. It's great knowing that, for example, my free laptop and printer did not generate any money for the government by me putting it back into service instead of going to a landfill.

So, where would I be if not for dumpster diving? It's hard to tell. But probably not where I would like to be.

For me dumpster diving is a way of life. Living off the crumbs thrown out by the rest of the people who buy new stuff.

Thank you, Rich, for this inspiring account of a low-cost/low-impact life free from debt. The word "freedom" is usually employed in a political context of civil liberties and human rights--yet if we as a nation have slipped into a debt-serfdom in which all our time and energy is expended in making payments on all that debt (mortgage, auto/truck loans, credit cards, student loans, back taxes, etc.), then exactly what measure of "freedom" is left to us?

The credit/debt machine and the State (all government) both prosper off what I call transactional churn--the constant purchasing of new goods and services which can be taxed and which require credit transactions which then generate enormous fees. Buying used goods with cash eliminates all transactional churn and truly "starves the Beast"--in this case, two sides of the same Power Elite coin: the State and the financial Plutocracy.

As I discuss in Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation, this life of debt-serfdom is presented as "The American Dream," a life of fulfillment and happiness. Yet if this was true, why are so many people living this life not just unfulfilled but miserable, frightened, filled with anger/rage, and doped up on drugs legal and illegal?

Perhaps the "Dream" was all just about raking in immense profits, and not at all about personal fulfillment and happiness; maybe the "Dream" is simply a well-cloaked nightmare.

Correspondent Caroline M. provides a window into the structural obstacles our legal and regulatory systems create for any semi-formal attempts to freecycle/freegan on a larger-than-individual scale:

Janet's writing on dumpster diving made me think of my time as a VISTA volunteer at a food bank. One project was trying to get the restaurants to donate that food to the food bank rather than throwing it in the dumpster. The restaurants were concerned over liability, but also they didn't want a truck with the food bank logo on it pulling up to their back door. They were afraid people would think they were getting instead of giving.

The food bank was working on a hold-harmless agreement form and was going to offer an unpainted truck. The truck had to pass health dept standards and they were still working on that when my year was up, so I don't know if they ever got the project off the ground.

We do manage to tie ourselves in knots, don't we?

Thank you, Caroline: and yes, we do. In other words, it's "cheaper" in a supremely litigious society to insist on taking perfectly edible food and other consumables to the landfill than to take on the risks of lawsuits and the regulatory burdens of recovering and distributing the goods.

Perhaps our legal system is not so much a system of justice but rather an induced state of destructively profitable mental illness.

Breaking news: Correspondent Richard Metzger's new site Dangerous Minds is now available for your browsing pleasure. Scroll down for his review of the new Harry Potter film and some amazing video/music clips. Enjoy!

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