Trash or treasure?

Sacramento City Council considers ban on Dumpster diving

Ming Lai (left) and Shaina Meiners aren’t habitual Dumpster divers, but they’ll be fighting for everyone’s right to rummage at the next city council meeting.

Ming Lai (left) and Shaina Meiners aren’t habitual Dumpster divers, but they’ll be fighting for everyone’s right to rummage at the next city council meeting.

Photo By R.V. Scheide

Shaina Meiners and her partner, Ming Lai, live in a one-bedroom apartment in Midtown. Lamps, plants, political books and mismatched kitchen chairs fill the living room. Several of the large, typically expensive household items—chair, leather couch, desk, wine rack—the couple obtained through Dumpster diving.

“It’s amazing what people throw out,” Meiners said.

Both are trained in permaculture, the creation of human living arrangements that mimic those found in nature. They grow a plot of vegetables in the Fremont Community Garden on Q Street, preserve their own food and live a low-impact, sustainable lifestyle. Going to the Dumpster occasionally—Dumpster diving—is part of that lifestyle. However, the city of Sacramento may be about to change all that.

On Tuesday, March 3, the city council will vote on a proposed ordinance that would make it illegal for citizens to scavenge materials from the green waste, recycling or garbage containers assigned to private residences and picked up by the city’s solid waste division. Currently, city code only criminalizes scavenging from recycling containers.

According to a staff report prepared by the solid-waste division, the revision was proposed in response to increased scavenging, a practice the report says causes littering, attracts animals and pests, leads to the theft of recyclable material and identity theft.

Criminalizing the act benefits public health and safety while preventing crime, states the report.

“We get calls from citizens and they’re not happy with people in their backyards and front yards collecting stuff from their cans,” said Edison Hicks, integrated waste general manager for the solid waste division.

Scavenging may indeed be on the rise, but opponents of the ordinance argue this is a result of increased income insecurity, unemployment and homelessness, as well as raised awareness of the ecological value of material reuse.

“What about compassion for people who need to dig through trash for sustenance?” Meiners said. While she and Lai don’t Dumpster dive on a regular basis, homeless people rifle through the Dumpsters in the alley behind their apartment continually. She and Lai attended a city council meeting earlier this month, during which six people spoke out against the proposed ordinance, including two self-identified homeless individuals.

Hicks, noting the existing prohibition against scavenging from recycling bins, counters that the new measure is necessary to make the law consistent. Under the ordinance, scavengers may knock on a homeowner’s door and ask permission to remove items from bins. The proposed ordinance only applies to single-family homes, which means scavengers can legally continue to poke through trash bins behind apartment complexes or commercial buildings, such as restaurants and grocery stores.

Local community activist Davida Douglas questioned the wisdom of the ordinance, considering that the vast majority of people rifling through garbage reclaim reusable or recyclable items that would otherwise end up in a landfill. In household trash, she’s found dish drainers, clothing, toasters and other small appliances.

“When I first moved to Sacramento, I was unable to secure a full-time job,” Douglas said. “Probably about 50 percent of the food I ate came from Dumpsters. It allowed me to have enough money to continue paying my rent and prevented me from becoming homeless.”

For some of those opposed to the ordinance, Dumpster diving in general is about organizing a real solution to combat homelessness and hunger. Criminalizing it in any form, said former mayoral candidate Muriel Strand, is “short-term, habitual thinking.”

Meiners and Lai plan to protest the measure at the upcoming city council meeting.

“Criminalizing reuse doesn’t contribute to our goal of becoming a more sustainable city,” Meiners said. “Not sharing food and resources in hard times, that’s criminal.”