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Dumpster Diving
Wired, September 1997
Words in Common: Essays for Canadians on Language, Culture and Society, Addison Wesley Longman, Spring 1999.
Cory Doctorow

I ran into Charles Platt at a party in New York and shamelessly grilled him on how you get published in Wired. He introduced me to his editor, and the rest is history.


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When my grandfather came to Toronto after the War, arriving via Halifax on a refugee boat from Hamburg, he went into business as a rag-and-bone man, riding a horse-drawn cart through the streets, salvaging scrap metal, fabric, paper -- trash. Eventually, the business grew into a scrap-yard, and raised the money for university educations for his kids, for a split-level ranch home in the burbs, and a condo in Lauderdale for his retirement years. He built his house on garbage, but it never struck home for me until I met Darren.

Tonight, Darren and Mike and I are cruising through the same suburb in Darren's police-auction paddywagon, and Darren handles the armoured truck like my grandfather drove his Caddy -- fast enough to make a committed cyclist like myself flinch, but with a great deal of precision as he weaves in and out of the late-night traffic on the icy streets.

We're whipping in and out of these sprawling, one-storey industrial plazas, slowing only to take a closer look at the dumpsters. We're all bit-heads, but we're not looking for unshredded hardcopy -- that's old news. We're after tastier trash.

Finally, we spy a likely-looking site, behind a strip-mall where they give swimming lessons to suburban kids and where the lone restaurant is perpetually going-out-of-business. Mike says goodbye to his girlfriend -- he's been gabbing with her on one of Darren's celphones, making plans to meet later at the Dance Cave. He puts on the super-warm jester's hat his Mom made for him the year before he dropped out of Electrical Engineering at Ryerson Polytech. Darren pulls into the driveway, past the circling minivans of parents waiting to pick up kids from swimming lessons out front, and pulls up around back, in front of a row of dumpsters. He pulls a woolly toque over his long hair and zips up his army-surplus jacket and puts on his heavy leather gloves.

I grab my own gloves and scramble to catch up with them. Darren's head-first in the first dumpster already, and a minivan pulls up twenty metres form us and switches on its high-beams. Darren looks at it. "A fucking vigilante. Thinks I'm here to steal" -- like it's a dirty word -- "Let him sit there. It's working light."

He goes back into the dumpster, his flashlight clenched between his teeth. He tosses something onto the ice at my feet. It's a 3/4" beta cassette, labelled "BONANZA EPISODE 87-5654." I peer cautiously over the dumpster's edge. Hundreds of broadcast-quality tapes. Darren's pushing them aside, looking for something a with a higher dollar-to-size ratio. The paddywagon's already half-full of spent laser-toner cartridges and 386s, occupying a lot of volume in a cargo space that was designed, after all, to transport humans in shackles, not the high-tech detritus of Toronto's profligate industrial parks.

There's nothing but re-runs in the first dumpster, so Darren moves on. He casts long, weird shadows in the minivan's headlights. I stare into their glare, and try to imagine what the guy behind the wheel is thinking. What must he make of three guys in their twenties, jumping in and out of the trash? What if he calls the cops? It makes me nervous. I mean, what we're doing isn't actually illegal or anything. Trash is a strange legal grey zone in Canada. The Trespass to Property Act -- a hunk of legislation dating back to the British North America Act -- grants property-owners and their rent-a-cops the power to ban anyone from their premises, for any reason, forever. The catch is, they have to actually ask you to leave -- serve you with a Notice Prohibiting Entry -- and you have to return for it to be Trespassing. And ever since a cop dug through a kerbside trashcan, looking for a ditched weapon used in a hold up, and the Judge ruled that he needed no search warrant to do so, Canada's trashcans have become fair game. So, as long as we don't make a mess -- that would be Littering -- we're on the warm and fuzzy side of the law.

Darren hits paydirt in dumpster number two. "Active matrix LCDs!" he says, and starts frisbeeing the laptop displays to Mike, who stacks them, dozens of them, on one of the prisoner-benches inside the truck.

Suddenly he holds one up, and his five o'clock shadow splits in a wide grin. He smashes the LCD against the frozen corner of the dumpster. "I got 500 of these things back home. It's a fuckin' clown show!" he says.

He's right. It's all absurd. In less than an hour, I've seen literally tens of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment, most of it too low on the dollars-to-volume graph to bother with. All of it in the trash. Darren's got a quarter-million dollar recording studio, built entirely out of garbage, in a warehouse a couple blocks from my own studio. Upstairs from it, in a soundproofed mezzanine, is a room completely jammed with baroque computer-trash: old SGI servers, NT boxes, 21" monitors, cables from here to Hong Kong, shrinkwrapped software, bookcases overflowing with manuals. That's just the stuff he didn't sell. Ten Darrens couldn't even make a dent in the trash.

The vigilante behind the headlights decides that he's not going to be a hero tonight. He switches back to lowbeams and pulls away.

We knock off early that night. It's cold out, a vicious icy windy bastard of a Toronto night, and out in the burbs, there's nothing to cut the gales, and they find the chinks in your long underwear and scarves.

He head downtown for Vietnamese salad rolls. I'm mentally cataloguing tonight's haul: a bushel of gold-tipped RCA cables for Darren, twenty-some PCMCIA modems, the LCDs, some old 386s, laser toner cartridges... To buy it all new would cost thousands, but Darren will sell it for less than a grand. Still, it's pretty good money for three or four hours work.

Cruising through Chinatown, looking for a parking spot, we pass a computer/stereo/camera store with a sign in the window: "16MB SIMMs -- $800!" It sparks a story from Darren.

"Yeah, I was at this distributor out in Mississauga, and they had a dumpster filled with little cardboard boxes, like so," he takes both hands off the wheel to show me 8" by 8", "and they each had a sticker that said, EMPTY BOX, DO NOT OPEN. You get that a lot, empty boxes they stick in packing crates so the stuff won't shift around. So I'm looking around, and I see one of these boxes, sealed, but with no label. I think, well, maybe someone in Japan just forgot to put a sticker on it, and maybe someone in Toronto didn't bother to look inside, and I open it, and there's ten sixteen meg SIMMs inside. $8,000 worth of RAM! And people wonder why RAM costs so much! Sold it for five grand."

Over green tea, Darren gets philosophical. He's a small-town guy in his early thirties, come to Toronto thirteen years before. He's a recording engineer by trade, but he's worked as a sound-guy on shoots in the Peruvian jungle, and produced a direct-to-video trash horror movie, Fireballs. He's a drummer -- long hair, stubble, an easy smile and a faraway stare. He's drummed with a dozen touring bands, and once tried out for The Who. They didn't take him.

For him, philosophy is an occupational hazard. You can't spend half your time alone in dumpsters without formulating trash cosmologies.

"Those guys who go after tin cans and pop bottles, those garbage-pickers, they're fuckin' nuts! Why waste your time on a nickel-bottle, when you can sell an empty toner cartridge for ten or twenty bucks? They're nuts, man." He looks genuinely upset. He gets upset when he talks about trash. But he also swells with pride, describing this strange little niche he's carved for himself.

"These guys in Agincourt caught me in their trash one night, and the next time I went back, I found ten CD-ROM drives, and they'd smashed 'em up with hammers, so I couldn't sell 'em. It's criminal. This is useful stuff! Why would they want it to end up in a landfill?"

Good question.

Darren took me out again, just me and him in his landlady's ancient Buick. The night started slowly, as we cruised past empty dumpsters.

We're in Motorola country, but that dumpster -- source of hundreds of flip phones and batteries -- is off-limits these days. Darren dropped in one night and found someone else was already into the trash. Two guys, in fact, pulling out featureless black boxes, the like of which he'd never seen at Motorola. They became...aggressive, and chased him off. He figures that they're pros, industrial spies working with someone on the inside to spirit out top-secret tech via the trash.

"Funny story," he says, as we pull away from a sports-card printer, empty-handed again. "The cops around here like to pull me over, just to see what kind of stuff I've got tonight. So, a couple months ago, I got some sports-cards from this place, and they pull me over, and the cop says, 'Are you kidding me? You found these in the trash? My kid spends a fortune of these.' So I come back a couple nights later and bam, there's the cop, head-first in the trash, pulling out more cards. Hell, I don't care. Plenty more where that came from.

"Speaking of which, there's one more place I want to check out. These guys moved a couple months ago, but they still haven't put a dumpster out at the old site. There's got to be tons of stuff, just waiting to be trashed."

And there is. Acer America Corporation has a big old 40 cubic yard dumpster out. It's about a third full. Darren smiles and sticks the end of his flashlight in between his teeth.

That dumpster is the night's big score. We find: 400 laptop batteries; five 15" trinitron tubes; half-a-dozen laptop harddrives, most of a carton of shrinkwrapped PowerPC monitor adapters -- I think of the $60 adapter I bought a few weeks before and wince; voltometers and multi-testers; and enough miscellaneous monitor hardware to fill the whole back seat of the Buick. Cash value? CDN$10,000.

Of course, it's going to take some effort to turn the garbage into money. There's a monitor guy who takes in the monitor trash, and for every two units he can build from it, Darren gets one.

Only half the laptop batteries can be salvaged, by cannibalizing what good cells remain in the other half. The salvage guy will keep half of those. That leaves Darren with 100 power packs, retail CAN$200, and if Darren can find a used buyer at $75 a pop, that's $7500 right there.

After we've spent a good two hours sorting the trash and loading it, Darren carefully restores the dumpster to its original state, making sure that the same kinds of trash are back on top, that there are no suspicious holes or bootprints showing. With luck, Acer will fill the dumpster over the next week, and by the time the trash is up to the rim, he'll have to start "tunneling" in it, building corridors shored up with cardboard flats from the recycling bin a few yards off.

Darren drops me off at home, a couple blocks from his recording studio -- Gomi Sound, www.gomi.com, 1.416.516.9888 -- at 2AM, then goes home to unpack the haul. I'd offer to help, but I'm freezing, and my stomach one big bruise from using it as the fulcrum to lever myself into the dumpster. Darren's as graceful as a gymnast, vaulting dumpster-lips, making impossible twists in tight corners, stooping double for long stretches while he burrows.

Acer America Corporation didn't know what to make of my phone call -- "Hi, I'm a freelancer writing a piece for Wired about a guy who made $10,000 off the stuff you threw out when you moved."

I ended up speaking with Marc DeNola, head of security and safety for Acer.

"Every product has a product life in a high-tech field the product life can be quite short," he said, over the phone. "At some point a decision has to be made as to whether there is any salvage value from [old equipment], or whether it is to be discarded."

"When something is discarded, it means that the storage costs are greater than the value of the item."

Why not donate these items to charity, or hold a yard sale, or give them to schools?

Karen Grant, of Editorial Edge, Acer's PR company, says that schools aren't interested in salvage -- they want working systems. As to yard sales, "It's something we'll have to look into."

And why are the dumpsters at the new Acer site kept indoors, behind locked doors? "It's part of the comprehensive security program -- these days, we take security much more seriously."

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