Another Woman's Treasure
By Shelby Baseler, Jenny Justus and Hannah Sturtecky | Published by the Columbia Missourian
Dumpster Diving Divas rummage for buried treasure
By Hannah Sturtecky | Published in the Columbia Missourian and the Associated Press
The cold nips at Robin Evans as she rifles through a dumpster outside the Dollar Tree, a place she often goes to search for good finds. Holding a flashlight at midnight, she cannot trust only the parking lot lights to show her what treasures the dumpster might hold.
Evans also receives help from the headlights that shine against the bricks at the back of Dollar Tree as her friend, Careyann Courtright, waits in the car to see if the dumpster is worth getting out to look through. It isn't, so the two light their cigarettes and drive to a new dumpster, hoping their next stop will bring better luck.
Courtright and Evans use dumpster diving as a way to make money by pawning treasures that they find. However, they don't just look at dumpster diving as a way to make money; they also do it to strengthen their friendship and help others by giving some of their finds to friends, family and people in need.
Courtright and Evans have been friends for more than 40 years and have shared an interest in dumpster diving for a long time. Only recently has Courtright helped Evans feel more confident about what they do.
The two call themselves the Dumpster Diving Divas, a name they recently came up with because of their "devious personalities," Courtright said. Ever since their first dive together, the two have found it difficult to stop.
"Once you find a couple of good things, it's really addicting," Courtright said.
Dumpster diving has become a somewhat cultural norm as freeganism rises. Freegans are people who live off limited resources, hoping to minimize their ecological footprint. By reducing their use of resources, they hope to live on freedom, generosity and community, according to freegan.info. The website states that activist freegans boycott big corporations they see as responsible for environmental destruction.
According to a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of food in the United States — estimated to be worth about $165 billion — goes uneaten.
Most freegans are known for diving for food, often in grocery store dumpsters. Courtright and Evans find this idea unappealing and do not identify themselves as freegans.
"I still can't believe people (are) doing this for food," Courtright said.
Instead of diving for food, the divas are looking for buried treasures in the trash, valuable items they can sell to pawn shops or give to those in need. They tend to seek out individuals to help rather than charities.
Evans recalled a time she saw a little boy with no shoe strings in his boots, a dirty shirt and pants that did not reach his ankles; she took one look at him and knew she had to do something. She took the child to one of their storage sheds, containing things she's found while diving, and gave him new clothes. Evans said it was worth it, just to see the kid "grinning from ear to ear."
"What comes around goes around," she said. "I like helping people. That's my greatest reward, I guess."
Not everything they collect in their dives are clothes and knick-knacks; the two have also found valuable oddities, which they store in one of over 10 storage sheds.
Courtright said she found a diamond ring during one dive and wears it every chance she gets. The two also found three letters signed by Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States.
Right now, the letters sit in one of their storage sheds along with other items they have found throughout the years. One 5-by-10 storage unit alone holds enough of their belongings to fill it all the way to the ceiling. The two keep most of their items together in shared units.
Courtright and Evans agree that if they ever discover something valuable when diving, they share it or split the reward.
"We don't fight over anything, like 'That's mine, I found it.' None of that — it's all cool. It's totally cool," Courtright said.
If done right, pro dumpster divers can make thousands of dollars digging through trash, salvaging waste in popular areas. Some places that tend to be more lucrative include commercial, residential and industrial dumpsters.
The Dumpster Diving Divas also managed to find a Lee Reynolds painting appraised at more than $2,600 on the side of a road. Reynolds, born in 1936, has paintings going for $3,200 online.
Despite how lucrative dumpster diving can be, the two say they find their greatest rewards in their friendship with each other and the joy they get when they get to help a friend in need. They also enjoy the idea of not knowing what they might find next.
"I've been doing this since I was a kid. We just get a lot of cool shit," Evans said.
Evans started when her dad first took her to a dumpster dive as a child. From there, she carried the habit to her foster family and now her friends. She started as a form of survival, but now she considers it a fun way to get some extra cash.
"I didn't have anything for the longest time," Evans said.
Evans said her experience has taught her that dumpster diving can also be dangerous and not always legal.
It is important to be safe when going diving, especially at night. Courtright and Evans emphasized the importance of going with a friend and carrying a legal form of protection such as pepper spray, a taser or a knife.
"It's never good to go by yourself, and you always carry something with you," Courtright said.
The divas understand that diving can be dangerous, not just from the threat of other people but from the law as well.
In the United States dumpster diving is legal except where prohibited by local regulation. According to a 1988 Supreme Court ruling, California vs. Greenwood, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit "warrantless" search and seizure of garbage left outside because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.
However, if a dumpster is enclosed in a locked area or a "No Trespassing" sign is placed nearby, then the person might be questioned, ticketed or even arrested due to an expectation of privacy, according to the ruling.
"I'm already sketchy about getting in trouble with this 'cause I already have been," Evans said.
Evans was referring to an incident when she and Courtright found a set of night vision goggles and decided to take them. They were later informed by the police that the goggles had originally been stolen from SWAT.
"There are dangers to dumpster diving, and that is one of them," Evans said.
Although Evans and Courtright try to remain within the legal boundaries of dumpster diving, many people still look down on the idea of rummaging through trash.
The two said the mess divers leave behind is a common reason people frown on their actions. That's why Evans and Courtright believe it's important to leave the dumpster better than they found it. It's their most important rule.
"If you're low enough or if your perception of how a person is is dumpster diving, then you're not really a person I would want to hang around with anyway," Evans said.
"Really the only ones who would have any criticism about it is the people that put the good stuff in the dumpster, so thank you," Courtright said.
The "divas" are protective about which dumpsters they look through, hoping they will continue to have good luck with them.
"We don't want anyone stealing our good spots," Evans said.
When the two go on a dive, they are often gone for days at a time, not knowing when exactly they will be home.
It can take hours to thoroughly look through a dumpster, and they try to hit two to three a night for three or four days in a week, traveling anywhere from Jefferson City to Columbia. The divas go on such extended excursions because they understand it takes time and patience to find worthwhile things.
"When they say one man's junk is another man's treasure, they mean that, you know?" Evans said.