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Diving into dumpsters for green gold

September 7, 2010

House of Sims/Flickr

It’s been almost two years since the Columbia City Council considered passing an ordinance making it illegal to pick up other people’s trash from the side of the road.  At the time I was working the City Council beat for the NPR affiliate KBIA. Going into the meeting I hardly paid attention to this measure on the agenda, thinking it would be a blip on the meeting’s radar.  Boy was I wrong.

When it was time for public comment on the topic, multiple people got up to express their disapproval of the measure, and let’s just say these weren’t all the type of people you would expect to protest such an ordinance.  I, along with (I’m assuming) the City Council believed the only people picking up trash would be homeless people looking to make some money off cans and other items.  The phrase “you know what happens when you assume” quickly took effect as Nicole Watson addressed the council.

She had on a nice beige pants suit, matching pumps, and nice gold jewelry.  She preceded to tell the council, “everything I’m wearing I got out of the trash.”  My jaw preceded to drop to the floor.  She went on to explain there was a whole community of dumpster divers in Columbia who would be deprived of a hobby, as well as a way of contributing to the environment if the council passed this ordinance.

Needless to say, the council didn’t pass the ordinance.  They simply made it illegal to take the blue recycling bags, because the city makes quite a bit of revenue from them.  I was fascinated by the woman and the subculture she represented. She wasn’t a liberal hippie college kid hellbent on changing the world and she wasn’t homeless or desperate for the items in the trash, after all her husband was a professor at the University of Missouri.  She just wanted to do her part for the environment in a way that helped her release some creative energy.  The way she found to do that was driving trash routes looking for anything she could sell as is, fix up, or use in an artistic project.  She sold her best stuff at Itchy’s flea market.

I was under the impression this would be a rare hobby.  But since doing a story on her and this concept of professional dumpster diving, I have been amazed at how many people I have come across who take part in this environmentally friendly activity.

Where other people see dilapidated barns, Mike Wolfe of "American Pickers" sees potential goldmines packed with rare finds and stories

There is even a new show on the History Channel called “American Pickers” following two men around the country essentially doing the same thing Watson does.  It is reminiscent of the traveling antique shows where people scour their basements or attics looking for old relics that might be worth something, but has a leg up in that it keeps the Earth cleaner, not just your house.

I felt this story was worth sharing because it is a fun way to go green, but has a certain stigma attached to it that might keep “clean” people from going green in this way.  Here is the link to the story about Nicole Watson so you can hear her shatter stereotypes for yourself.

(Click on Region 5, listen to winning entry for feature reporting called “Dumpster Diva”)

Here are some great sites with some useful tips if you are considering trying this hobby out.

If you want to see if there are other people dumpster diving in the area, or want to start your own group, here’s a website to help with that.

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