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The word dumpster is a proprietary eponym, and through propriety eponyms we see how in language commodities become inseparable from everyday life. In 1935, George Dempster and his brothers, John and Thomas, were making good money with their construction company. The more business boomed, the more they had to throw out, and so they invented the Dempster-Dumpster. It was a hit. “Dumpster” eventually became a catch-all term for garbage disposal bins of any type. And while the Great Depression forced the Dempster Brothers into bankruptcy, their invention lived on.

The dumpster lives on today as the official address of waste. For the Dempster Brothers, waste was unusable cement. For the dairy industry, waste is a cow with mastitis. For Walmart, waste is any product past its expiration date.

How can something amorphous like waste be defined? Anthropologist and dumpster diver David Boarder Giles says objects become waste by virtue of them being thrown away. Dumpster divers frequent the back alleys of big box grocery stores where dumpsters are expected to contain perfectly good food. In dumpsters, a ripe apple transforms into garbage. To take something out of the dumpster, and to make something out of it – eating, wearing, repurposing – is then to revoke its status as waste. In 2015, cultural theorist Jenny Odell was the Artist-in-Residence at the San Francisco municipal waste management facility (the city dumpster). She sorted over 200 pieces of waste and ‘obsessively’ researched each object’s previous lives (origins, materials, uses). The objects – dolls, VHS tapes, third generation gaming consoles, figurines, sneakers – eventually went into the archives of the recently opened Museum of Capitalism. “Trash,” Odell wrote, “is less an identifiable category and more like a psychological judgment that is as reversible as it is arbitrary.”

Item 63: SupraModem 2400 (C) Jenny Odell, The Archive of the Bureau of Suspended Objects, 2015

Many things find themselves inside dumpsters because someone held an object in their hand, and thought they did not want this anymore.

Earlier this year, a man was crushed under the steel lid of a Value Village dumpster in Vancouver. Later this year, a different man was found unmoving in a dumpster truck in Victoria.

Online, networks of dumpster divers share and discuss necessary lock-picking methods for big box and industrial dumpster diving. These stories are shared alongside stories of being socially or criminally judged for what they do.

BEWARE Premises Under Surveillance © Dionne Co 2019

There are people who say that dumpsters are locked for good reason. For those who believe in its form of reason, they say we ought to lock dumpsters because we ought to protect what is ours, including our own shit. The same people say we ought to lock dumpsters because if not then waste will be everywhere and the city will go rancid. They say we ought to lock dumpsters because it is important to preserve the order of cleanliness, hygiene, and civilization; including the precious ideas we have about leading good, sustainable lives.

Plastics to throw more plastics in a back alley in East Vancouver. © Dionne Co 2019


Notes and further reading:

1. Over the holidays, my partner and I sorted through our stuff. We’ve been feeling the urge to throw perfectly good things away in the name of convenience. We live in a housing crisis, and we don’t have a ton of space. Too much stuff is also anxiety-provoking. Yes, to treat perfectly good things as waste is a symptom of privilege. Like many others, we both live in a society that makes imperative this endless accumulation of stuff. Like many others, we know this cannot continue. People want to learn methods of knowing their things intimately - asking them, “do you, Object, spark enough joy in my life?” People are desperate and tired of having too much. At the same time there are always people who are systematically and historically prevented from simply having enough.

2. I live in a city where the majority of people value ecological consciousness. A recent survey highlights how majority of British Columbia residents consider the environment and the climate as the top 2 contributors to their well-being and quality of life. 62% of people in the Greater Vancouver Area said they are “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about climate change.

3. I live in a city where people find it virtuous to throw plastics in their correct containers (here, the city provides us blue recycling bins). It seems less important to hear that these bottles we “correctly throw away” are eventually dumped in other neighbourhoods in other countries. For example: Manila, the city I grew up in, is one of Canada’s infamous international dumping sites.

3.5 There are also parts of Manila that remain pristine, such as New Manila, where I first lived. New Manila looked like the American Dream. The streets were lined with trees, single-family houses, their corresponding green front lawns. There was order and schedule to garbage collection. Such communities were gated, landlocked, and secured with private armies. Despite the rest of the Philippines being known for white sandy beaches, in Manila you do not want to come near the water. In Manila you will see that bodies of water are natural dumpsters. Walking along bodies of water usually meant holding your breath.

4. Smokey Mountain was an informal slum city in the heart of Old Manila. It was named as such because the city infrastructure consisted of garbage that accumulated itself into the shape of a mountain over time. It was ordinary to hear news about flammable plastics causing wildfires and killing multiple residents. When the mountain was officially closed in 1995, many remaining residents migrated to a different dump and made another city out of it. For more on this, see information about the Payatas Dump, and the economies of scavenging that is often overlooked in Western theories of cities. See also Kathleen Millar’s book Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor in Rio’s Garbage Dump (Duke UP, 2018).

Volkswagen Graveyard

“The world is on fire and the arsonists are in charge.” Naomi Klein

Decade of Fire is a film about the South Bronx burning between the years 1970 to 1980. It burned for 10 years because the City of New York let it. In this part of the city that many African Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants called home, capitalist-landlords and the racist state jointly decided that urban renewal meant, as James Baldwin said, “Negro removal.” The state with its evil genius orchestrated a narrative in which those most affected were also the most vilified. I remember one resident who shared how the unending fires made it natural for her to sleep with her shoes on because you just never know.

“Good Morning Teacher” © Perla de Leon, from the 1980 series “South Bronx Spirit”

A few months ago, I met a woman in group therapy - Californian, blonde, and affluent - who shared how her paranoia of sudden and intense natural disasters recently led her to sleep with shoes on. The climate crisis hovers over many of my recent conversations, but this is only because we who cannot pay our way into survival find it impossible to turn away from the disappearance of life as we know it. The world is burning, we are facing a collective existential threat, but 40 years ago people terrorized by fires were already sleeping with their shoes on. As Mary Annaïse Heglar said, “for 400 years and counting, America itself has been an existential threat to Black people.”

In 1993, Octavia Butler wrote The Parable of the Sower, a work of prophecy masquerading as science fiction. The novel is set in the 2020s where cities and societies have collapsed in the face of climate disaster and neoliberal greed and selfishness. In this future world, water has become so expensive that ‘whole blocks of boarded up buildings are left burning in Los Angeles. Of course, no one would waste water trying to put such fires out.’ —————————————

In 2017, Beacon Rock Golf Course (in Washington State) posted this on their Facebook page with the caption, “Our golfers are committed to finishing the round!”

Related ideas, references and further reading:

1. The Pantone Institute’s primary colour for Spring 2020 is “Flame Scarlet.” WhoWhatWear says, “This confidence-building fiery red is more about determination than Republicanism. This “here-I-am, pay-attention-to-me” shade is more indicative of the women’s movement, Eiseman said. “Obviously, red always gives that voice to women.”

2. Naomi Klein (2019) On Fire.

3. Decade of Fire (2019) Dir. Vivian Vázquez Irizarry and Gretchen Hildebran.

4. James Baldwin, interview from 1963

5. Mary Annaïse Heglar: “I want you to understand how overwhelming, how insurmountable it must have felt. I want you to understand that there was no end in sight. It felt futile for them too. Then, as now, there were calls to slow down. To settle for incremental remedies for an untenable situation. They, too, trembled for every baby born into that world. Sound familiar?” More at

6. Octavia Butler (1993) The Parable of the Sower. Grand Central Publishing: NY. 2017 review:

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