Diving for Treasure: dumpster diving at Cornell

By Cesca LaPasta

On my mantle sits an old-fashioned radio that is constantly set to 91.7, Ithaca’s premiere eclectic radio station, “The Station for Innovation.” I rarely ever turn it off, and its sound brings together the room in the same way the radio does aesthetically. It also came from a dumpster.

The radio was sitting right on top of a pile of paper and wood in the dumpster, a slightly atypical diving experience. Typically, to investigate the possible treasures, one needs to get down into the trash and explore the dark taboo that is the inside of a dumpster. At Cornell, the hauls are usually pretty full of great items that are thrown away separately or in see-through bags, so proper digging isn’t even required. Discarded printers, posters, and even working laptops can be found without much effort. Although it’s occasionally necessary to come in contact with gross food waste and unsanitary used items (like used sex toys, which have been known to come up occasionally), usually in the dumpsters on campus, the good objects are there for the taking without much hassle. Generally, Cornell is a diver’s paradise, full of useful things that have been thrown away simply to be replaced with the newest model, or because someone can’t be bothered to take their belongings with them to their next destination.

At first, I thought the radio just looked nice, but when I plugged it in and found it worked, it felt like a little miracle. There’s a spark of ecstasy in finding something really special that’s just been thrown away, like the feeling of having a delightful secret. These days, whenever someone comes over to my apartment and compliments the radio, I immediately reply,“I got it from the trash!”

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Art by Nadya Mikhaylovskaya

And I’m not the only one who’s found incredible things in the trash at Cornell University. Here are some anecdotes from people who have also found treasure not just in the physical gain of dumpster diving, but also in the practice and beauty of the process itself. Quotes have been edited to maintain the anonymity of the people and locations of the stories:

“I think dumpster diving is enticing in the same way that social media is designed to keep us checking it—both offer intermittent reinforcement (unpredictable random rewards). Unlike your Facebook notifications, however, if you put in a couple hours [of diving] at move-out time, you’re almost guaranteed to find something good. I also enjoy wondering about the untold stories of some of the more unusual items I’ve found.”

Unusual items found in Cornell dumpsters include:

-Working iPhones

-Six square feet of individually packaged dried corn kernels

-Hundreds of apples (though it later turned out they were used in experiments and not safe to eat)

-A deodorant bottle full of quarters

-The supplies to build an entire bookshelf

“I returned home with a nice 12”x30”x5” wooden trunk that I filled at the dumpster with high quality art supplies, a backpack full of photo paper (and other expensive printing papers), and $26 in stamps. I even left half of the art supplies and papers behind, because I simply couldn’t carry the weight nor volume of it all. The dumpsters were emptied the next morning.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, on average each person in the US produces 2.89 pounds of trash per day. In a year that adds up to 254 million tons of trash.

“Most of the useful items I find I don’t keep because I simply don’t need them. I do have a yearning to stop everything I find from going into a landfill, though, and I’ll usually leave stuff people might want beside the dumpster, [or] move it to one of the Dump and Run collection bins. But it’s a little humbling and sad, because I know literal tons of the kinds of items people need and spend money to purchase still get thrown out here every year.”

According to the 2016 Census, the US poverty rate is 12.7%. For some of us dumpster diving is a fun activity, but for others it’s a necessary act of survival.

“Two pieces of sorority art [found in a dumpster] grace my walls. A formerly-discarded rug is on my floor. The things people throw out without thinking about them are not as broken as those people want to think they are. And with the right mindset, they are not as useless as everyone tries to see them.”

We can all learn lessons from dumpster diving, even if we don’t want to climb in ourselves. Reusing is important in order to limit the amount of waste taking hundreds of years to break down in landfills and to slow down the incredible rates of production contributing to the degradation of the environment. In the current state of climate change, with 80 degree October days in Ithaca and terrible natural disasters being aggravated by rising temperatures, thinking about how our actions affect the environment is more important than ever. Dumpster diving can also help us reconsider what we throw away by viewing the items as things that other people could still benefit from and use, especially since so much of our waste is because of our constant unnecessary “need” to buy and consume. If you want to change the way you throw things away, consider donating used items to Goodwill or Cornell Thrift, participating in Ithaca’s fantastic composting program, or buying items in reusable containers at your local co-op!

Or of course, you could just keep throwing things away and we’ll keep diving to find the treasures.

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