Chronicles of a new dumpster diver

Cross-posted from

By Eleanor Marshall, Iowa City Summer of Solutions Project Leader

The landfill is only about 8 minutes outside of town, but that’s thing about Iowa: once you leave city limits there isn’t much difference between 8 and 80 miles. It’s all endless rolling hills and rising corn stalks: waves of grain that are as foreign to a city dweller like me as the actual ocean is to America’s heartland. I mean, I’ve seen King Corn and volunteered on organic farms, but my roots don’t grow from this rural landscape – I’m just being introduced.

And we were every bit the gawky tourists – our station wagon sandwiched between semis dropping of massive loads, driving against the flow of traffic, grasping desperately for the broken lawn chairs the stoic guy with the pick-up just pitched without a second glance. It’s uncomfortably foreign-feeling to be around what is really just an accumulation of the contents of the trash below the kitchen sink or last month’s garage sale rejects. But that’s our whole point. Determined to reclaim trash and transform it into art –  and teaching children at summer camps and challenging local artists to do the same – our art supply shopping spree came with a mission but not a line-item list. We’re still not even sure what to expect.

I’ve gone dumpster diving before, but this was my first visit to the dump: the final destination. It’s probably embarrassing to admit that I kind of expected to be scavenging in an enormous heap of trash like the kids in documentaries about third world countries. But even when you drop things off at the actual landfill, they’re just plopped into more dumpsters and only later laid to rest in the mass grave that lurks somewhere out of sight from the dumping grounds.

But even the dumpsters holding just a few days’ worth of discards turned out to be practically bottomless goldmines. From mangled bikes to barely creased microbiology textbooks (I wonder if there’s a chapter on landfill microbes…) to an entire truckload of size ten shoes, each find was a diamond – a wind chime or bench seat waiting to happen.

I was most dumbstruck by the number of unopened items that literally go from distributor to dump truck without a single use – not even a pity test run. A sampling of our still-sealed finds includes: a fondue set, a wine corker and cooler, a coffee maker, several sets of durable plastic plates, and mountains of un-opened gauze packets.

Of course, my favorite finds were the old ones – some discarded photographs or the old, elegant doorknobs we spent a good half hour scooping from the bottom of the scrap metal bin.

Finding this stuff invoked the weirdest mix of exhilaration and outrage. There was an instinct awakened when I liberated my first trash treasure: urban living meets American pionner scrimping every scrap and innovating its second life. I felt like a savior…until I considered how little I was saving just compared to how much I throw away – and then that multiplied by hundreds of thousands. And, my god, the brand new appliances! As much as I like taking them for free, I can’t help but wish the sofas and the shelves weren’t thrown out in the first place, even if that means they wouldn’t be mine in the second place. With all the secondhand stores, recycling centers, and other uses awaiting even the shabbiest of items, it seems inexcusable to just toss it all away in endless piles.

And the cherry on top is that it’s technically illegal to take this stuff. If someone wants to throw it away, they get their way – even if they don’t want to own their toaster or tent anymore, they get to make sure no one else can have it. There are a lot of reasons behind the rules – privacy, safety, liability – but the outcome seems almost childish.

In fact, the entire concept of taking all of our waste and burying it in the backyard (or someone else’s, rather) seems laughably primitive – but it’s ironically become an emblem of modernization and urbanization and the weirdness of the way city folk send trash “away” and keep consuming in excess.

Maybe, in the end, I’m glad I could only see the dumpsters, not the dump. Because it’s important that we look – that we watch our lifestyles all the way to the end of the line – but I don’t want to get lost. Right now, I can’t solve or stop landfills, and just lamenting them is wasted energy. We’ve got enough waste on our hands – it’s time to create art.

To learn more about Iowa City’s Sustainable Art project (and our other projects this summer), visit or find us on Facebook.

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