Dumpster Diving to Nirvana

Why would a Buddhist jump into a dumpster? Ask the practitioners from the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple in Michigan. They’ve been doing it for over a decade and the results might be more lucrative than you think.

They’re collecting garbage to refurbish and sell at their annual fundraising sale. The goods they sold at last year’s sale, half of which came from dumpsters, raised $12,000. What they don’t sell they give away to people in need.

The Environment Report joined them, one day in fall, for a tour of the city’s prime dumpster hot spots.

“Stuff I have at home isn’t as good as some of these things people are throwing in the trash,” said Christian Hamerman, temple volunteer. He collects things like desk lamps, brand-name clothing and new coffee makers. One person’s trash is a Buddhists treasure.

Making the most of resources and reducing the need to create new ones is nothing new to Buddhism. For centuries, monks have gleaned fabric from corpses or rubbish heaps to make robes for themselves. Then, in an act of gratitude, they patch their robes over and over, making them last for many years. Finally, threadbare robes are given a new lease of life by being converted into doormats. Dumpster diving is a modern take on this ancient resourceful tradition.

Leaping into skips is not just for Buddhists. Other people dumpster dive for reasons that range from economic necessity to a philosophical belief in a low-impact existence. Freegans, for example, dumpster dive as a way to avoid supporting a consumer culture. Also, groups of anti-hunger collectives -- part of the Food Not Bombs movement -- find perfectly good produce in dumpsters to feed to people. Wherever people are discarding useable goods, someone else is likely to be retrieving them.

While dumpster diving might be a socially responsible and environmental friendly way to live, it’s not without stigma.

“I think, when I was growing up, I had this idea that people who jumped into garbage cans and dumpsters had to be really in dire straits, really messed up people,” said Lenny Bass, who has organized the Ann Arbor temple dives for the last 12 years. “That perception that I used to have flies against what I'm doing now. I have to combat that perception of myself and know that other people have that perception of me as well.”

While rubbish is often seen as dangerous and distasteful, Buddhists might see it in a different light. At its core, Buddhist philosophy is about realizing the truth of existence, not just accepting social conventions many of us regard as truth. The truth of trash is that much of it is simply useful stuff given a new name and put in a particular place (the trash can).

When there is nothing inherently wrong with reusing the spoils of dumpster diving, Ann Arbor Buddhists are keen to turn it into something beneficial for the temple and for others. Their acts of generosity and kindness are amplified by the challenging nature of the work.

“I don't come home from dumpster diving feeling like … I've become enlightened,” said Bass. “I come home and I'm filthy, and it's disgusting. And yet there's some part of it, that deeper part, that has undergone just slightly more of a transformation about how I see the world. And I think the more experiences you can have, putting yourself out there in these situations, the more you grow into a real person.”

When the Buddhists have finished going through a dumpster, sometimes they say a few words of gratitude for the treasures they have found. They might place a stick of incense among the rubbish, the way one might grace an alter. Being mindful of the value of trash contributes to a smaller ecological footprint on the path toward enlightenment.

How do you dumpster dive?

Dumpster diving is not for the faint-hearted. Here are some guidelines that might help a fledgling diver avoid trouble.


  • Find out local laws around trespassing and invasion of privacy.
  • Network with other dumpster divers. Share tips and experience. Look for local dumpster diving clubs.
  • Find the hot spots. Drive around and look for items left out on hard rubbish day. Check online forums for tips on where to go in your local area.
  • Wear clothes that are suited for the job, including gloves, long-sleeved shirts, thick pants and sturdy shoes.
  • Take a milk crate or something else to stand on so that you can peek into a dumpster. Take bags to hold your found items. Take a flashlight, if diving at night. Find a stick or long-handled fireplace tongs with which to grab items, so that you don’t have to actually get into a dumpster.
  • Late nights and early mornings, when dumpsters are fullest, may be the best time to dive. These times might also help you avoid a confrontation.
  • Make sure no one else is around. Even if you know diving is legal in your area, householders and shopkeepers might take umbrage at your freeganism. It’s easier to simply avoid the confrontation.
  • If confronted by a shopkeeper, householder or police officer, politely explain what you are doing. If it’s clear that you’re not illegally dumping anything, and that you’re leaving the place tidier than it was before, you might allay fears others have about what you’re doing.
  • Only take what you can use. There might be a number of dumpster divers relying on what you leave behind.
  • Clean up after yourself. If you’ve thrown garbage on the ground, put it back in the dumpster. Leave the area as clean as, if not cleaner than, you found it.
  • Don’t try to access dumpsters that are fenced or have “No trespassing” signs near them.
  • If possible, dive with a friend. It’s more fun, and also safer.
  • Be very careful to avoid injury from sharp objects.
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect your treasures once you get them home.
  • Don’t enter a dumpster when garbage trucks are in the area.
  • Keep your tetanus immunization up-to-date.

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  • Posted on May 2, 2008. Listed in:

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