“I’m sort of a Nietzsche-type person, so I don’t mind touching this stuff without gloves,” says Phil Stewart, his hands inside a trash bin outside Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library.
He pulls out dozens of tote bags: black bags, blue bags, white bags, each from a different business conference. Beneath them are press passes, an unopened jar of jam, gourmet popcorn, and cassette tapes of Peter and the Wolf in Arabic.
“Still,” he says, “it is strange what people throw away.”
Stewart, a 53-year-old Arlington resident, is not putting his hands in the trash because he needs to. He’s there because of all the great junk to be found.
As they move out of their campus housing at the end of each academic year, Georgetown students pitch scores of valuable items they don’t care to keep. They fill several open Dumpsters and dozens of smaller garbage bins. A lot of what ends up inside isn’t refuse, and people like Stewart know it. They come from other parts of the city to dig through the things that students don’t want to take with them.
In many cases, these students’ trash would be just about anyone’s treasure. Around 10 p.m. on the evening of May 20—only a few hours after the last graduation ceremony of the weekend ended on Healy Lawn—one man showed off a plastic bowl full of spare change he had found. “Is good because, you see?” he says, rattling it around. “Money.”
He and a female companion dug inside a Dumpster near the corner of 37th and N Streets NW and sorted their loot, pulling things out and looking them over. They stood items all around the edge and put what they wanted into a huge plastic sack and a white cloth bag. They conferred in Spanish, sorted through their plunder, and showed what they found: a bottle of laundry detergent, Rice-a-Roni, Lipton tea, Hunt’s pasta sauce. They dug up a toaster and a blender. The man opened a purse and examined it for change, then he handed it to the woman playfully. She smiled, then she flung it away.
Each time the man held up something, he said, “This is good.”
After about a half-hour, they got out of the trash. The woman hung the cloth bag over her shoulder and took plastic sacks in her hands. The man winced, then huffed, then threw the giant black sack over his shoulder. He bid a quick goodbye as they walked into the night.
In an area beside Gaston Hall, people had stowed even more exquisite trash: a mop and push broom in good condition, two pristine glass coffee tables. Nearby, two boxes of commencement programs crowned a Dumpster.
In a way, the Dumpster-diving is a nod to the university’s religious heritage. The Old Testament commands farmers to leave portions of the crop for gleaners, peasants who would follow the reapers at harvest and collect ungathered grain. Just as many of these ancient gleaners were foreigners living among the Israelites, many of those scavenging Georgetown’s trash are Spanish-speaking immigrants.
“Now, I’m not trying to put it on any particular race, but, yeah, that’s basically who it is,” says a university facilities employee. “Now, you might have some of us, the workers, be going through the stuff as they clean out the dorms. But as far as the Dumpsters, that’s outside people.”
Certain segments of Washingtonians, when they have things they no longer want, go to classified ads or Craigslist or Freecycle.org to find homes for their junk. But for students weary from exams and eager to get out of town fast, university Dumpsters are their Craigslist, and they find plenty of takers all the same.
Margaret Marrer, who moved out of a place at 35th and Reservoir Streets after graduating this year, admits to discarding a few decent items. While her roommates sold their furniture to incoming tenants, Marrer kept most of her stuff and didn’t have room in her car for a broken-down-but-still-usable futon and a perfectly good coffeemaker.
“It was my roommate’s, but she left it there,” Marrer says. “I should have taken it, but I didn’t. I don’t really drink coffee.” She threw the items in an on-campus Dumpster before driving home.
Fatima Asvat, who lived on campus this year, says a number of student groups, like Books for Africa, set up places in her dorm where she could donate unneeded clothes, food, and books. She also said students would go around campus, checking in dorms for still-usable unwanted goods, but that there was “no actual system” for donating.
There is such a system across town at Georgetown University Law Center, says pro bono coordinator Holly Eaton, whereby students can donate “non-perishable food items and your clothes and even your household goods during the move-out.”
University spokesperson Julie Green Bataille says there’ s few limits to what can end up in the trash. “No hazardous materials, paint or solvents are acceptable items for the trash dumpsters,” she wrote in an e-mail, “but there are no other policies about trash contents.” But Georgetown’s scavengers have a short time left to lift students’ treasures from the bottoms of the cans. As of press time, all the Dumpsters were gone, save for the one at 37th and N where the couple had found the small electrics.
A few days after that late-night scavenge, a man who identifies himself as Valentino roots through the same Dumpsters in the evening while a woman watches. He wears a dirty white T-shirt, gray pants, dark boots, and a cell-phone clip on his belt. The Dumpsters are full of mattresses, garbage bags, and a beer bong or two.
Asked what he’s looking for, Valentino says, “Everything.” And he lists loot from the day before: “Computer, CD player, digital camera, TV.”
About 45 minutes later, as Valentino’s companion struggles to free a rainbow umbrella, a young man named Christopher Wirz jumps up onto the side of the Dumpster. “A subwoofer!” he exclaims, and begins to pull on gray speaker boxes with booze blotches all over them. Then he decides against taking them out.
“It looked like someone dumped beer on it,” he says.
Wirz, who attended SUNY Buffalo, says this sort of trash was “unheard of” at his alma mater.
His girlfriend, Georgetown student Elizabeth Donderewicz, had found a CD player in a dorm hallway that day. It was still in the package. A few days later, she found a “very nice, new refrigerator” in a Dumpster.
“I think it’s remarkable that people feel that it’s OK to do that when there are so many people who could use these products that they throw away and that there are boxes and collection bins available, and they don’t even use them,” Donderewicz says. “There’s so much waste going on.”