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for people who care about the West

Your trash is my treasure


It's garbage day as the new year moves along, and the streets of Crested Butte in western Colorado are lined with black plastic bags filled with kitchen gadgets, coffee pots and designer bedding. Last year's unwanted items sit abandoned at the curb to make way for this year's must-haves.

You can tell a lot about a community by its trash, especially by how long it takes for stuff to get snatched up and recycled into someone else's household. From TVs to Foreman grills, and from almost new 12-cup coffee makers to halogen lamps, resort towns like mine are a gold mine for the garbage-meister.

One local dumpster diver gained notoriety by making a small fortune on eBay, cleverly transforming somebody else's junk into the desirable niche category of shabby chic. That weird picture frame you threw away because no one you knew wanted it? It just sold to a buyer in Croatia who was looking for exactly that -- and who outbid 15 people to pay 20 times more than its original retail price.

I proudly tell visitors to my tiny alley cottage that it's almost entirely furnished from garbage, yard sales, or -- if I have some money to play with--  thrift stores. In fact, my home is the epitome of Nouveau Trash décor: My oak dining table was on the street with a "free" sign taped to it. A curved glass curio cabinet and its companion sideboard were advertised as "Free, get it out of here." Rescued houseplants, end tables, dressers, bookshelves, lamps and planks of wood have all been happily scooped up and put to good use in my rooms. My Depression Era-grandmother would have approved.

It is true that a resort town's wealthier population of second-home owners offers better pickings than most. You have only to drag a sled or little red wagon through six square blocks of fertile hunting grounds during my town's trash day to get both you and your home fully furnished.

"That's what's nice about second homeowners," the husband of a young couple told me. "Carpet, electrical fixtures, half of our living room and all of our bedroom was 'given' to us by second homeowners who were throwing stuff away."

Some people have even built their entire homes from the ground up, using recycled construction materials that were either discarded from building sites or banished from houses that were remodeled. This is, perhaps, the ultimate in green construction.

Once you begin to talk admiringly of trash, friends sometimes confess to their own hauls, though one friend dubbed it "harvesting" when he lived in Gunnison, Colo., home of Western State College.

"College kids just throw everything away at the end of the school year," he recalled happily, "because mommy and daddy pay for it all. The dumpsters got filled with microwaves, TVs and cement blocks. Once, after graduation, I found a Gerber Leatherman knife, socket sets and a flashlight that would record your voice message. I even found a complete oil change for my Ford pickup truck."

Many refuse-recyclers, however, are reluctant to admit their hobby as curbside-curators. "I don't want anyone to know that I have their stuff," one man insisted  A woman I know agreed: "I don't want to be known as a dumpster diver, though I do it."

If you yearn to get in on the action but, like my friend, you're squeamish about being seen rummaging through your neighbor's castoffs, start your search for treasures late on the night before trash gets picked up. The pickings for guttersnipes are fresher then, and you're less likely to be noticed.

In the summer, though, even the bears are aware of trash day, instinctively anticipating its arrival the evening before and helping themselves to easy curbside cuisine. Even with the mandatory bear-proof containers that most towns have adopted, this makes pre-planned nighttime treasure hunting more of an adventure, since you have to outwit the large, hungry bruins that will be enthusiastically shredding the "free stuff" bags as they dig for the happy meal buried within.

Despite the embarrassment and competition from wildlife, more and more people are getting savvy about this ultimate treasure hunt. For me, I've come to think of garbage day as just another farmers market, this one featuring ousted gems with my name on them.

Dawne Belloise is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a freelance writer and photographer in Crested Butte, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].