Dumpster Diving and Internal Income

ACORN ACORN International Organizing

dumpster-diving-e1423706610249-620x289New Orleans   When I’m in India the hawkers, street sellers, and even the recyclers always, and I mean always, ask me what it is like for people who are in their profession in the United States.  When I answer the hawkers for example, and say that compared to India, we have almost none, they look at me incredulously, smile, and shake their heads, clearly not really knowing if I’m giving them the truth or pulling their legs.

The more than 100,000 recyclers in Mumbai or Delhi or other large cities who collect and then sell to brokers based on their specialties of copper or paper or whatever would be similarly confused.   They assume that the richer the turf, the higher the yield, and just maybe the recyclers are right, and we should look at this differently even as a social enterprise.

I read a piece in the February issue of Wired about a fellow named Matt Malone in Austin, Texas who for the last nine years has wildly supplemented his day job by dumpster diving, largely in big retail establishments.  In two nights of digging through trash with the reporter, he found stuff he could sell for $5000.  In India this would have supported a dozen recyclers in our Dharavi Project in Mumbai for a year!  In the US it might support a lot of organizing, if done on a systematic basis.

Malone had a day job and got into dumpster diving the same way that hundreds or maybe thousands of organizers have before him.  He was assigned by his techie outfit the task of coming up with a plan to test a client’s security.  He made the natural assumption when starting with nothing that he might learn a lot about them from their garbage. Organizers, especially union organizers, have dumpster dived for decades for old payroll printouts which give a sense of the size of the staffing, wages, job classifications, and other information.   Malone’s investment is minimal.  He has a flashlight with a magnetic clamp so he can affix it to the side of a dumpster.  Other than that, a pair gloves and clothes that can handle rough wear, he’s pretty much set.

Here’s the kicker though.  He thinks if he worked at dumpster diving 240 days per year he could make $600,000 annually.  That’s the kind of figure that gets your attention.  My recycling members in India would be ashamed to have me as an organizer, if I didn’t look into this dirty gold mine more closely.

Is dumpster diving illegal?  A 1988 Supreme Court ruling in California v. Greenwood held that “when a person throws something out in a public space, they have no reasonable expectation of privacy.” Greenlight to go!   The only yellow warning light has to do with trespass. If the dumpster is on private property or marked “no trespassing,” then you could have a problem.  According to Wired, Malone operates with what he calls the “move along rule:  if a store employee, security guard, or police tells you to ‘move along,” you should….”  In other words, like in all of organizing, as I’ve always said, “there’s no substitute for good judgement.”

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be work.  I’m also not saying that there aren’t costs involved, just as I know from watching our Indian recyclers work.  It meant a lot when we got a pickup in Mumbai.  You need an area to sort.  You have to make the sale and do so at a fair price.

It’s hard to find money for building peoples’ organizations.  As the saying goes, “money doesn’t grow on trees.”  But, seriously, there may be a gold in the garbage that we are well qualified to mine!


Chambers Brothers – Time Has Come Today (live)