Sociologist immerses himself in dumpster diving

Sociologist Jeff Ferrell spends “a couple of hours each day” dumpster diving. Here is some of what he has discovered while dumpster diving:

“There is a stereotype that (dumpster diving) is done mostly by the homeless. Yes, many were. But they were generous and helpful to me and helped me survive. But they were only one group doing this.”

Ferrell said there are several categories of trash pickers. “The good old boys,” he says, are an ethnic mix of mostly older males who drive pickup trucks and scrounge for scrap metal.

Some, Ferrell said, are immigrants from Mexico and Central America who came looking for the American dream and were left with “scraps of the American dream.”

Another group Ferrell describes a “freegans,” people who came out of the vegan movement and consider eating thrown away food less harmful to the earth than “going to Walmart to eat a vegetarian sandwich.”

Alternative artists also make frequent dumpster dives, searching for scrap metal, broken glass fragments and other material.

Ferrell’s friend, Dan Phillips, builds low-income homes in Texas made entirely from salvaged items.

“These people are not lazy, ignorant and shiftless,” said Ferrell. “They are remarkably resourceful and smart.”

The last group of participants, said the professor, are those who shop retail and don’t have to dumpster dive to survive.

This is not an area that many Americans spend much time thinking about but texts like Ferrell’s Empire of Scrounge and the 2001 book, Rubbish!, written by two archaeologists working on the University of Arizona’s garbage project, shed some light on what happens to what we throw away.

It is also interesting to note that Ferrell seems to become quite involved in his research. The article also mentions his research time of five years as a graffiti writer (published in the book Crimes of Style).  In both of these instances, studying dumpster diving and graffiti, it would be near impossible to conduct a typical survey or even a broad range of interviews due to the more hidden and deviant nature of these activities. Additionally, this consistent insider perspective can provide much different information including insights into motivations and social hierarchies within these activities.