Lars Eighner’s “On Dumpster Diving” is a haunting and eye-opening account of what it means to be poor in America. Eighner, who was homeless for years, shares his experiences of scavenging through dumpsters for food and other necessities.
Although dumpster diving may seem like a desperate measure, Eighner argues that it is actually an ethical way to live. He argues that those who have more than they need should not waste their resources, and that those in poverty should not be ashamed to scavenge for what they need to survive.
Eighner’s story provides a unique insight into the realities of poverty and homelessness in America. His story challenges our preconceptions about these issues, and forces us to confront the ethical implications of our own consumption.
It is often stated that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Someone’s garbage may be someone else’s greatest treasure. In his essay about working as a dumpster diver, Lars Eighner discusses how internal wealth versus external wealth has become a battle between happiness and self-sufficiency. The internal riches including happiness and self-reliance are always battling for supremacy against all that people desire – money.
Poverty forces individuals to define what is valuable and what is not. Dumpster diving, or as some refer to it “scavenging” has been around for centuries. It was not until recently that this term gained a negative stigma. Eighner uses his experience as a dumpster diver to argue that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and that there is nothing wrong with scavenging if it provides for your basic needs. Poverty stricken individuals are constantly forced to decide whether their morals are more important than their stomachs.
Eighner begins his essay by providing the reader with a detailed description of what he carries with him while dumpster diving. He refers to these items as his “tools of the trade” (Eighner, 1). These “tools” allow him to be as efficient as possible when diving. He has a pair of gloves to protect his hands, a screwdriver for opening lids, and a plastic sack to put his findings in. He also mentions that he carries with him a sense of “pride and self-respect” (Eighner, 1). This is an important detail because it shows that Eighner does not believe that dumpster diving is beneath him.
As Eighner begins to dig through garbage cans he is constantly forced to decide what is valuable and what is not. He often finds himself questioning whether or not he should keep certain items because of their sentimental value. He recalls finding an old photograph of a couple in a dumpster and feeling the need to keep it because it reminded him of his own relationship. In the end, he decided not to keep the photograph because he could not justify lugging around something that did not have a practical use.
Eighner’s experiences as a dumpster diver provide insight into the life of a poverty stricken individual. Poverty forces individuals to re-evaluate what is important to them. Dumpster diving allows individuals to find value in items that others may consider worthless. Eighner’s account challenges the negative stigma surrounding scavenging and provides a unique perspective on poverty and ethics.
Eighner is also having a difficult time juggling delicate values while still hanging on to a form of existence that matters deeply to him. Eighner begins his story about being homeless as an individual almost in a prickly manner, delving deep into the term “scavenging” (p.21). He uses long-winded topic sentences to deliver an authoritative warning.
For example, in the first paragraph of his essay he states: “I remember my first meal dumpster diving. I was not yet homeless but had been “sleeping around” for a while-crashing with friends, staying in cheap hotels, sleeping in my car-and had just about reached the end of my resources… I was looking through a grocery store dumpster for food one evening when I saw something that turned my stomach: a headless chicken still oozing blood onto the garbage bags below it” (Eighner 21).
This opening is significant because Eighner immediately pulls his readers into his world by giving them a visceral image that is hard to forget and also difficult to read without cringing. However, he does not stop there. He goes on to explain how this experience made him feel: “I was both repelled and intrigued by what I had seen. The chicken had been so recently killed that its blood was still wet; yet there it was, among the garbage bags in the dumpster” (Eighner 21).
Eighner continues in this same vein throughout the essay, providing readers with detailed accounts of his experiences dumpster diving and living on the streets. He writes about the food he has scavenged, the people he has met, and the places he has been. In doing so, Eighner gives readers a rare glimpse into a world that is often hidden from view.
He understands well about the dumpsters he dives in and their origins. He explains, “I can’t be sure I’ll be able to tell if it’s bad or not if I don’t know what it should look like when it’s excellent.”(p.25), he is exceptionally analytical and deep even in the most basic of forms, and that is what makes his writing so exceptional. He knows exactly when to dive, how to do it properly, and how to do it ethically.
He talks about how he got started and how, in a way, it was by accident. A man he was living with at the time, left to go on a trip and came back to find that his stuff had been thrown out. The man then went through the dumpsters to try and find his belongings, which is where Lars Eighner first got the idea. He states that “the genesis of my own practice of dumpster diving occurred during a period when I was employed full-time but not earning enough money to live indoors”(p.23).
He knew that he needed to find food and shelter and he did what he had to do in order to get by. It is interesting how even though he is dumpster diving, he is still incredibly clean and takes care of himself. He talks about how he washes his hands constantly, combs his hair, and tries to stay as presentable as possible. He does this so people will not think poorly of him and also because he has pride in himself.
He then goes on to talk about the different types of dumpsters there are and how each one varies. He states that “the best dumpsters are those behind restaurants and supermarkets”(p.24). This is because they usually have the freshest food and it is still edible.
He talks about how he has found meats, vegetables, fruits, and even baked goods that were still good to eat. He also states that you can find some interesting things in dumpsters, such as: clothes, books, and even furniture. He has found some amazing things that people have just thrown away and he has been able to use them and make them his own.
He talks about how people react when they see him dumpster diving and how most of them are shocked. They cannot believe that someone would actually go through the trash to find food and other items. He states that “people who work around dumpsters become inured to their contents”(p.26). This means that they see so much garbage on a daily basis that it does not phase them anymore. They do not think twice about throwing away perfectly good food or other items because they are so used to it.
Lars Eighner ends his essay by talking about how dumpster diving has helped him in many ways. He states that it has “provided not only material things but also a sense of security and safety”(p.27). This is because he knows that he will always be able to find food and other items if he needs to. It has also given him a sense of pride and self-sufficiency. He does not have to rely on anyone else for anything and he can take care of himself.
Dumpster diving is not for everyone, but Lars Eighner makes it seem like it is a perfectly normal thing to do. He is extremely knowledgeable about the topic and he writes about it in a way that makes it seem easy and doable. He also makes it seem like it is an extremely rewarding experience. He has found many different items that he has been able to use and he has even found food that was still good to eat. It is interesting to see how someone can make something so negative, such as dumpster diving, into something positive.