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[greenyes] NY Dumpster Diving class

Great article from yesterday¹s NY Times:


Turning Trash Into Gold: A New Urban Alchemy

Published: March 24, 2005

IT is the sort of bright, bitterly cold afternoon when exposed fingers and
faces instantly stiffen, but the turnout is good at a community workshop and
toolshed in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. Eighteen hearty New Yorkers sit
on red wooden benches, surrounded by homemade sawhorses and aging power

They are here to attend Dumpster Diving 301, a course on fishing for free
home-improvement materials?things like scratched doors and mismatched
kitchen cupboards?from construction waste bins. Yes, in a surprising twist
on continuing education these students have paid $20 to learn how to pick
through trash.

It is no revelation that one person's junk can be another's jewel. The art
of combing garbage is the subject of two recent movies by the French
director Agnes Varda, and Mother Earth News ran how-to's aimed at hippies as
early as 1970.

But few would have predicted the evolution of this scrappy practice into
something bordering on chic. "Mongo: Adventures in Trash" (Bloomsbury, 2004)
by Ted Botha offers New Yorkcentric tips from a book dealer who builds
inventory by culling sidewalks and from a suburbanite who cruises Manhattan
on bulk-garbage days, struggling with her desire to take home every orphan
chair and lamp.

One Web site,, provides a forum on hunting grounds and
tactics, and lists 171 groups of trash pickers
around the globe, 52 formed in the last year. The largest, NYC Dumpster
Diving Aficionados, invites newbies along for monthly forays. Naturally, the
practice has splintered into specialties. The students in the Gowanus
seminar, sponsored by an "art combine" called the Madagascar Institute
(, were do-it-yourselfers trying to cut
construction costs by sorting through nail- and-grime-ridden rejectamenta.

Their leaders were two seasoned teachers, Omar Freilla and Maureen

"I don't know about you, but I'm kind of cheap," said Mr. Freilla, 31, the
director of an environmental group in the South Bronx called the Green
Worker Cooperatives. He recommended canvassing high-rent neighborhoods like
the Upper East Side and Upper West Side (where "a lot of perfectly good
stuff gets chucked"), conjuring visions of tin ceiling panels wearing
perfectly peeling paint and moldings with pre-World War II personality, all
free for the taking.

"You think you can find handrails for staircases?" asked Loren Churchill,
who identified himself as an actor and yogi and who clearly could not wait
to venture among the glass shards and rotting shingles.

"You have to think differently when you use old materials," Ms. Flaherty,
30, said. Dressed in blue coveralls, she sat on a footlocker-size "window
seat," which she constructed from a found wood-frame window with a cracked
pane, plywood planks and a couple of old industrial door hinges.

She held up a length of snaggled oak flooring with an angry nail protruding
from it and described, to the class's delight, an air-powered gunlike
machine that can easily blow nails, even bent ones, out of boards.

After removing the nails and sawing off the jagged ends, Ms. Flaherty said,
"You can cover gaps with pretty molding that you've found and plug the nail
holes with wood fill." She says the effort knocks about 80 percent off the
cost of a new wood floor.

Like a lot of other Dumpster divers, Ms. Flaherty and Mr. Freilla?who said
he and his wife plan to buy and restore a home in the South Bronx using
found materials?practice the sport not only to conserve cash but also to
decrease Earth-clogging waste.

The instructors devised the course after they met at a mixer held by the
New York City chapter of Green Drinks International (, a
network of career environmentalists with outposts from Melbourne to
Minneapolis. Mr. Freilla preaches the importance of reducing waste, even if
it means lending an unofficial hand to contractors during demolition. Ms.
Flaherty suggests keeping a watch for building permits and construction-size
Dumpsters. For those who do not own a car or truck, she points out, a
folding shopping cart may serve as a hauling assistant.

After a round of introductions?the workshop included a housing developer
and a former Californian who said she has "long-range garbage vision" and
roams in knee-high boots?the instructors declared it time to hit the
streets. Ms. Flaherty, who had been out scouting that morning, led the way.

"You could do a New York kitchen with these," she said as her followers
gathered around institutional gray ceramic tiles piled on a sidewalk about
10 blocks away. Finding no takers, she walked briskly to a fenced-off dead
end overlooking the Gowanus Canal. An area of rampant illegal
dumping?despite community efforts to clean it up?the canal and its shores,
she said, often serve up good stuff. Slim pickings on this day, though,
beyond a chipped square of slate.

On Fourth Street near Bond Street, behind a set-design and photography
studio, the group encountered a trash bin overflowing with plywood strips.
"These will make nice shadow box frames," said one participant, who also
announced plans to turn the slate piece into a corner shelf.

Several blocks farther, outside a house under construction, loomed a
30-cubic-yard Dumpster piled with square beams and molding scraps. After
pulling themselves up to peer inside, some divers?those who knew enough to
wear old clothing, thick-soled boots and heavy work gloves?began to dig,
handing down finds that included two small wood-frame windows and a
genie-lamp light fixture with dents.

Trish Hicks, the Californian, showed it off. What are a few imperfections
when a fixture is free?

Some defects should be warning signs, the instructors said. Tunnels in wood
have usually been burrowed by termites; boards with water stains are often
warped; and "the smell of cat urine does not go away," Ms. Flaherty noted.
She also suggested that gleaners with children carry lead-paint test kits,
available at many hardware stores.

"If anybody wants to craft their treasures into something else, I can show
you how to use the tools," Ms. Flaherty said, ushering her shivering posse
back to the workshop.

Some took her up on the offer. Others jumped into their cars and headed
back to the scavenging sites in search of more perfectly good garbage.

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