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.

Iowa City promotes environmental education in local high schools

Focus often eludes high school students with seven different classes covering seven different subjects and too much homework to jam in their backpacks at the end of the day – but on Thursday, April 5, EcoCentric and Envirocity, environmental clubs at two Iowa City high schools, teamed up with Iowa City Summer of Solutions to concentrate class discussions on one issue: the environment.

The daylong event, Focus the Classroom, encouraged teachers to relate the subjects they teach to current environmental issues. Last summer, Zach Gruenhagen, Bailey McClellan and Noelle Waldschmidt from the Iowa City solutionary team worked to complete a website with sustainability-focused lesson plans for every subject area, to help teachers more easily integrate the environment into their classes. In addition, presentations ran all day from environmental leaders in the Iowa City community, including Tim Dwight – a Iowa City High graduate and former professional football player.

Dwight, a popular speaker at both high schools, co-founded a renewable energy company called Integrated Power Corporation after retiring from the San Diego Chargers. At the Focus the Classroom event, he gave presentations extolling the virtues of solar energy.

“This shift [to renewable energy] that I’m going to talk about is your generational shift, and it’s going to be massive. Producing energy with wind and solar will change the world because those resources are available anywhere, and you’re going to see it,” he told students at West High school.

Dwight was joined by others including New Pioneer Co-op Outreach and Education coordinator Scott Koepke, Iowa City recycling coordinator Jen Jordan and University of Iowa Director of Sustainability Liz Christiansen. The speakers brought everything from live red wriggler worms to a battery-powered experiment that converted salt water into bleach. In a presentation at City High, teacher Mike Loots turned the students loose and after ten minutes, students from miscellaneous classes, with varying investment in sustainability, were almost all raising their hands to share an idea – from a trash clean up by the mall, to more vegan options at lunch, to guerilla gardening.

“A lot of times, as much as teachers try to bring in outside applications of what we’re studying, it’s really nice that we can see how to take what we’re learning and apply it to the world around us. You can actually go out and change things … and Focus the Classroom really reminds us of that,” said West High senior Javier Miranda-Bartlett, a member of EcoCentric and participant in the day’s activities.

According to Miranda-Bartlett, the message definitely reached the students in attendance.

“[My favorite part was seeing] the enthusiasm my classmates had for the whole concept and just how they actually got pumped, which surprised me. Also, [I loved] discovering that we have this wealth of resources of really knowledgeable people that are willing to help and work with us, and it was really empowering,” Miranda-Bartlett said.

Check out this video for a little background on past & current ICSOS work. Thanks to Nathan Meyer for his awesome video skills!

Applications for ICSOS are still open! Apply at – we’re looking for help with our local garden and energy efficiency campaigns!

Iowa City making noise

It’s been an exciting week in Iowa City. One of our program leaders – Zach Wahls, maybe you’ve heard of him – has been fighting hard for marriage equality across the nation the past few months. He gave a speech a while back to the Iowa legislature, and it’s been blowing up the Internet (again). It recently hit 12 million views – woah.

It’s pretty easy to be proud of our friend. It’s also been pretty easy to get excited for this upcoming summer. We continue to work on projects from this past summer and have been planning away for new ones.

Update on 2011

IC is on the verge of something great. Our Solar Schools project – an initiative to install solar panels on two local schools in the Iowa City Community School District – has grown tremendously. After working with the school district, the project now includes at least 10 schools, and our team has been working tirelessly to get this passed. If the project is approved, it will be the largest solar project network hosted by a public school system in the nation.

Looking forward – 2012 projects

Our Power: Born in the Twin Cities, the Our Power program is a home weatherization initiative for low-income households in the Iowa City area. The program combines strong outreach and educational components focused on energy/environmental benefits of winterizing homes, the effect on residents’ energy bills and local resources for homeowners and renters. We recently received an $8k grant from Re-Amp, an alliance of foundations focused on clean energy issues, to get the project off the ground.

Iowa City Roots: Jumping on the local food bandwagon is easy to do in Iowa City, where our community’s educators, farmers, expert gardeners, parents and students all have a common goal: feed our kids with fresh, local and HEALTHY foods! We’re in the planning stages of this bloomin’ awesome project, which aims to construct and maintain 6 community gardens in public parks and schoolyards throughout the growing season of 2012. Partnering with the Parks and Recreation department of the City of Iowa City, the ICCSD, the Johnson County Local Food Alliance and dozens of community members, we have received a bounty of support thus far; the planning will continue through the dormant winter months as we secure land and funding–be on the lookout for things to start sprouting up come March!

Internship program: We working with the University of Iowa Career Center to create internship opportunities for U of I students interested in gardening, green economy work, clean energy issues and other community-based projects. Our team incorporates leadership development and youth empowerment in all aspects of our organization, making us aptly suited to be a Community Based Learning partner with the University. We are also working with professionals in local green businesses to match interested interns with sustainable companies in need of help and innovation.

White Roof and Neighborhood Compost Pilot projects: still in preliminary stages, these two projects aim to involve community members in simple intiatives that make a big impact. White roofs are perhaps the easiest way to engage businesses in sustainability, and with a lively downtown business community, we hope to provide white roofing services while partnering with local hardware and home improvement stores. The Neighborhood Compost Pilot is a branch of Iowa City roots, and hopes to bring composting intiatives to the community garden centers we’ll be working with.

Who we are

Our team is led by Zach Gruenhagen, Hadley Rapp, Zach Wahls, Tom Frakes, Eleanor Marshall and Kerri Sorrell. All of us are Iowa City natives or students at the University of Iowa. We’re committed to building a model of sustainability in Iowa City, one that can hopefully be replicated in other parts of our state. Iowa may be small, but we’ve got a lot of potential to do big things in this unique community.

Interested in keeping up with Iowa City Summer of Solutions? Check us out on Facebook, Twitter and at We can’t wait for what promises to be an exciting, exhausting and exhilarating summer.

p.s. – Did you know Grand Aspirations is in the running to win $25K in the Pepsi Refresh Project? We’re working with the Progressive Slate to fund-raise towards our amazing programs and leaders. You can vote every day in December, so mark your calendars! Share this link: with your friends online and help us spread the word! Go team!