The Culture of Throwing Away Anything Not Perfect

Last week I was out walking my dog on trash day. As I was walking past my neighbor’s trash heap (I say heap because they always have more trash than will fit in the trash can and they just pile it up on the road), I noticed a cute wire basket that was decorated with painted wooden sunflowers. I knew that it would look perfect in my kitchen, so I picked it up to see what was wrong with it. It was in great shape, except it was missing some dividers inside that would have turned the space into very useful compartments. The holders for the dividers were still there, but the slats themselves were missing. I knew that I could make some little dividers to fit it, so I decided to take it home.

As I was walking away with my new find, the door to the house flew open and the woman came running out.

“You can’t take that,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked. “It was in the trash.”

“You don’t just take stuff out of people’s trash,” she said.

“Why not? Clearly you didn’t want it. What’s wrong with someone who has a use for it keeping it out of the landfill?”

“Well, uh,” she stuttered, trying to find the reason why this wasn’t okay.

I waited.

Finally, unable to come up with a reason (other than she didn’t want someone else to have her stuff), she challenged me. “Well, what are you going to do with it? It’s all broken.”

“It’s not all broken,” I said. “It’s only missing these dividers. I can make some of those out of some old scraps of wood, paint them to match the basket, and it’ll be good as new.”

“Huh,” she said, realization dawning. “I lost those dividers when we moved. I never thought to try to make new ones. I just wrote it off as broken and unusable.” (I didn’t even point out that, even without the dividers, it was still a nice little basket.)

“A lot of people do that,” I told her. “Sometimes all it takes is a little thought and ingenuity and you can salvage things to be useful again. A lot of people write off things that still have useful life left in them.”

“Do you do this a lot?” she asked.

“What? Pick things out of people’s trash? Sometimes, but only if I see something I can really use and it’s easy to get to. I don’t dive into dumpsters or turn trash cans upside down to see what’s inside. Even so, I’ve found quite a few things this way that I’ve been able to get good use out of.”

“We always seem to be throwing out so much stuff,” she said, waving her hand over her trash heap. “We buy and toss so many things. Did you know our garbage rates went up because we can’t keep it down to one can’s worth a week? Maybe I need to think about things a little more before I throw them out.”

“Or you could at least have a yard sale and make some money. You probably could have sold this basket for a little money. Someone like me would have been willing to repair it.”

She stood there, thinking about what I’d said. I could see what was coming next, but I waited.

Finally she asked, shyly, “Can I have the basket back? It really did look good in my kitchen and I hate to get rid of it if I can fix it.”

“Sure,” I said, handing it over. “If you need help making the dividers, let me know and I’ll show you how.”

I’ll admit, I was a little sad to see it go. It would have looked nice in my kitchen. But I was glad to have shown her the frugal light. Hopefully she’ll think twice in the future before throwing something out that is still good. I doubt she’ll be out scouring trash piles for her own treasures, but if she repairs or repurposes just a few things as a result of our conversation, I will have at least kept a few items out of the landfill.

Sometimes people just need to see that things can still be useful. We’re so conditioned in our culture to toss out anything that is no longer perfect. We know that we can easily go to the store and buy a replacement, so we often don’t even attempt to repair or repurpose something that has been wounded in some way. Plus there’s a stigma attached to keeping “broken” items. Sometimes simply showing someone how something can be made new, attractive, and useful again is enough to nudge them along the less wasteful path. I hope my neighbor learns this lesson.

I didn’t tell her that a year ago I took a perfectly good, almost new, vacuum cleaner with all the attachments from her trash heap. It was a bagless vacuum and all it needed was a new $20 filter and it was as good as new. She might have asked for that back, too, and I’m not giving that one up.

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13 Responses to The Culture of Throwing Away Anything Not Perfect

  1. adreamwarrior says:

    While I’m not a “dumpster diver”, I do see alot of the things people throw out on my route.

    One of the things I have noticed is that the higher the value of the house, the more trash.

    Over the years I have “picked-up” several new or nearly new items. One thing I always do when I see something I would like to have is go knock on the door and ask.

    I have only been told no once, and I think that was because the couple was going thru a very messy divorce (I found this out later).

    I think of it like hunting on private land. “Always Ask Permission”

  2. Hilary says:

    I set up an entire store at my college with stuff people threw out at the end of the year. It was very successful! I think if you are used to buying things resale, then the “dumpster diving” thing becomes more normal because it’s just free resale. My hope with the store is that it would educate people about buying resale (or picking up free things for that matter!)

  3. minnie1928 says:

    I see so much stuff that is thrown away that is completely useful. If people really don’t want things that are still usable, why don’t they donate to the local Salvation Army or similar organization. Around here we have trash pickup 2 times per week. I usually only put one can out about one time out of three pickups (every week and a half or so). Other houses put 2 full cans out twice/week! To put this in some perspective, we are both families of 4. However, my recycling can is always full and always out, while there’s is not.

  4. Diane says:

    In our neighborhood people leave usable things beside the garbage can and others frequently pick them up to refurbish. Some are not even damaged – just “outgrown”. No one seems to object to others picking things up!

    When our office was in a nice apartment complex, people would leave brand new items next to the dumpster when they moved. We got lots of new items this way, without any effort other than picking them up.

    The sad thing was that if no one picked up these items they would be picked up with the trash… and there was a Goodwill store right across the street!

    People were not only too lazy to bother moving their possessions when they left, they couldn’t even deliver them to Goodwill.

    Unbelievable to me! Glad your neighbor got the message!

  5. jacasimov says:

    I also take usable items fro,m people’s trash if I have use for them. Sometimes, I’ve even turned around and resold them at a yardsale when I realized I couldn’t actually use them. I see nothing wrong with it, throwing it away is relinquishing your hold on it, you can’t control what happens after that. Personally, I think people should be pleased someone found a use for their cast-away items.

    The only real objection I have is when people go through the cans themselves. I’m not sure why I feel that way but it feels really invasive as if they’re trying to find information or something. I try to shred everything but I’m always a little bit weirded out by the idea of someone picking through my papers. Plus, very unsanitary to pick through the cans. Don’t believe me? Smell one.

    I also leave things out on top of the cans for people to take if I can no longer use them. They’re always gone in a day or two.

  6. Robb says:

    GREAT article! Thanks Jennifer! I really enjoyed reading it and I agree with you and the other posters!

  7. Cindy M says:

    I live on a fairly busy street corner. One thing is sure these days, anything I put out on my driveway or curb will disappear. I once contacted my waste collector that I’d be putting my old washer at the curb (they do monthly pickups on the bigger stuff). I looked out my front window not 10 minutes later and it was gone. I’ve had any kind of scrap wood taken. I put 2 used beat-up lawnmowers out and a guy in a gorgeous red sportscar pounded on my door and was thrilled to take them for me. Ditto 2 old window air conditioners in bad shape. I say God bless, if you can figure out how to make use of any of my old stuff, go for it. I think it’s wonderful that all of us can benefit from each other’s castoffs.

  8. ThiNg says:

    Loved this article!

    I stick a free sign on all the stuff I don’t want to toss. It’s always gone in 1-2 days. If it’s electronics I put it on the porch with a sign.

    Saves me driving to the dump and paying to get rid of it!

  9. janette says:

    My sister is the boss at the city dump and every week during the summer,she calls us to let us know what people have brought in to be thrown away. People only have to pay to dump stuff not to take it out of the landfill,so we have totally furnished our back yard of lawn furniture terra cotta ots and even plants and shrubs from the local greenhouse at the end of the season. We got our dining room table and an antique Hooser cabinet from there also. Our kids bikes come from the dump every summer and it’s so much fun to see what there is each week. Everything is sorted into different areas at the dump so we are never in the area where there’s food garbage…just usable furniture and metal. It’s a blast and our house and garden look like we spent a ton on our stuff. If we decide that we don’t like something, we just take it back!

  10. Pretty says:

    I make sure anything I throw out in the trash is completely destroyed (ie – clothes cut up) or has stuff too nasty to dig through added to it. Ever since my husband threw out my vacuum cleaner that I had between my car and the trash cans that was waiting for me to take to the repair shop by mistake, and someone took it off my curb within 5 minutes I make sure no one gets anything from my garbage again. I can never replace that vacuum, and I’ll be d**ned if anyone else gets anything else off of me. I work way too hard to buy my stuff!

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  12. Rob says:

    Well, legally, once it hits the curb, it’s public property. You’re fully within your rights to dig through people’s trash, and take whatever they’ve put out. I’ve got this *really* nice big painting in my room that my dad picked back when he was a garbage man. Not a print. A painting. As in somebody took the time to mix colors and use a brush on canvas. Someone tossed it out and the only problem with it is a small rip, like someone had accidentally poked a finger through the canvas. A small piece of masking tape on the back, and it’s as good as new.

  13. Harrison Davignon says:

    I try not to throw things away. For example my old computer desk and chair are beat up a little but still solid. I’m selling them on craigslist because I switched to a standing desk, because I don’t want to sit to long. The chair vinyl needs a small sewing job and desk can be spray panted and it will be solid and new again. I used scrap wood to build a shelter for a woodworking log i’m drying out. My new desk and chair are used. I think the problem with our waste is we live in a instant gratification society, so we don’t have the patients or time to find a new home for there old stuff and don’t want to take the time to look for used stuff. selling and giving away and finding used things can save you money and help the environment at the same time. My standing desk and chair new probably would have been 180 dollars, but instead I spent 110 dollars. Those small savings can add up quickly. So A combination of to many disposable products and not enough time is what creates so much waste.

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