Trash Etiquette

Trash etiquette? Is there such a thing? Having lived for quite a few years in a midwestern city, I can assure you that there certainly is. It was the power scooter/wheelchair that made me think of it.

We throw objects away all the time. Most of the time, the stuff we pitch would never be of interest to anyone else. Who would want old food wrappers or empty jars or cans? But we all know about the other stuff – things that are not worth the effort of trying to sell, but that might be of use to someone. This is the stuff that is the subject of some rules.

Most of us have heard the term “dumpster diving.” I have never gone dumpster diving, and do not plan on starting. I have, however, occasionally taken other people’s trash. It is these rules of etiquette that makes it all work. The first example I can think of is the vacuum cleaner.

When I was in law school, three roommates and I lived in a 4 bedroom townhouse apartment. These were cheaply built places that were constructed with students in mind. The complex was built around an oval street – Green Ash Court. I don’t know why they called it that, as I don’t recall any ash trees there. Although I guess the buildings were green and several of us smoked in those years. But I digress.

In the central island of Green Ash Court was the trash dumpster, where we would throw our bags of refuse for pickup. One evening I saw something sitting right outside of the fence that surrounded the dumpster. It was an old vacuum cleaner. Eureka! (sorry) We had no vacuum but did have some grungy carpets that cried out for one. The placement of the vacuum clearly signified that it had been abandoned, but by someone who had hope that perhaps someone else could use it. Had it been hopeless, trash etiquette would have dictate that it go into the dumpster instead of sitting on the ground outside of it.

I walked over, looked it over, and decided that it was worth a closer look. I took it home. It was really old, one of those upright sweepers that weighed a ton and had a permanent cloth bag. Its problem was that the belt for the beater bar was missing. Surely, I thought, this would be an easy fix. A local vacuum shop fixed me right up with a new rubber belt. While I was there I bought a new bulb for the headlight. Doesn’t every good vacuum need a headlight?

That old Eureka vacuum served me until I got married. Marianne had, of course, higher standards. Her excuse was that the old Eureka had no attachments, but I am pretty sure that she had no interest in wrestling with a vacuum sold during the Truman Administration. After she bought a new one, I did what the prior owner had done – I put it out at the curb separate from the trash can. I think someone took it. Who knows, maybe it is still working.

I have given away several things like this. A couple of old lawnmowers, the occasional piece of old furniture, and even a swingset. Each time the item has gone out to the curb near the trash cans, and each time it has been picked up by someone with either a need for the item or by someone with an intent to resell it.

Usually, I have put a sign on the item, something like “works” or “free”. Etiquette says this isn’t really necessary when something sits next to trash cans, but it is helpful to confirm the item’s condition or status in case there is ambiguity.

Ambiguity can a problem, like when I recently saw the neighbor’s power scooter/wheelchair. I’m not sure what you call it – it has four small wheels and a comfy-looking upholstered seat. It spent two or three days sitting at the end of someone’s driveway. But what was it there for?

I don’t know the person, but I have seen an older woman who lives there and who appears to regularly use such a device. Is this an old one that is getting pitched? It did not go out with trash cans and there is no sign, so it was unclear.

I had no need or desire for such a thing, so It didn’t really matter to me what happens to it, but I wondered “Who would take such a thing if it is not absolutely clear that it has been abandoned?” Is this a test for cold-heartedness? Is there a camera there to trap unwary evildoers into stealing some handicapped person’s way of getting around? Or is it being given away to anyone who might need it? A sign would have been helpful here.

After about three days, the scooter-chair disappeared. I wondered if maybe someone with a more aggressive approach to curb-shopping than mine (or someone with a total lack of conscience) came along. Or maybe the owner took it back inside. It turned out to be the second one, because after a couple of weeks it was out there again – but this time it was near the trash can.

I don’t know if anyone adopted it before the garbage truck got there (it was “heavy trash week” which comes once a month where I live) but it was good to know that my sense of trash etiquette was affirmed.

COAL Update:

Last week’s COAL article on Curbside Classic was about the 1963 Cadillac Fleetwood that I should never have bought but was extremely satisfying – when it was not costing me money.

38 thoughts on “Trash Etiquette

  1. Like you, I have left many items at the curb, primarily during our annual (I’m envious of your monthly!) heavy trash pickup. It is surprising what some people will take.

    Case in point: Several years ago I bought the acre directly behind us. Part of the deal was to clean out the storage locker of the owner, as he had moved to Seattle. The annual pickup was rapidly approaching.

    Many pickup loads of stuff was carried out of that locker. Books and magazines donated to the library, a few cabinets were kept, and the rest went to the curb. Amongst all that were a mattress and box springs, some really ratty furniture, and other miscellaneous stuff. It all went to the curb, with the volume in my front yard being almost to the point of embarrassment. Almost every bit of it was repurposed by others cruising residential areas for treasures.

    Anybody doing this is often a good deed that doesn’t really seem like one, but is.

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    • The one that most amazed me was the swing set. My kids had outgrown it and the boys and I managed to carry it still-fully-assembled to the curb – mainly to sit there until I figured out what to do with it. A couple of young guys with a rental box truck knocked at the door and asked if I was getting rid of it. I was so thrilled I helped them load it. I have my doubts that heavy trash would have accepted it.

      There is a teeny part of me that thinks it would be great fun cruising nice neighborhoods for just that kind of stuff, then cleaning and selling it. It would probably be fun for about the first day, but still. I guess I love the thrill of the hunt.

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  2. I’m not sure this is about dumpster etiquette as much as it’s about the beauty of long lasting appliances! I’m still using a Hoover Upright I bought in 1985, and as an apartment dweller, I’ve never really done anything with it except change the bags; it’s not like I’m cleaning acreage here. It has a way to detach a hose and use a few “add-ons” to clean tight spaces, so that’s good enough for me. My mother was a cannister vacuum fan, and as such, when we kids were on cleaning duty, I dragged that canister up and down the stairs, and I didn’t think it was all that good on the carpets; this is before “powered heads”, i.e. the ability to power a brush in the head to groom the carpet. It seemed like someone designed a vacuum cleaner to have all these attachements, none of them that worked well, and to have far more accoutremounts than anyone wants. I vowed never to own one! I revelled in my friends use of a decent upright, and when I ‘came of age’, I bought one for myself and have been happy ever since! But I digress…

    Being a life-long apartment dweller, I’ve always used a dumpster, and people leave all kinds of stuff around them, a lot of which looks “redeemable”. Fortunately, old age has made me smart enough to not pick through items, which I will then take home and not fix ether, and then just throw away at a later date. The city I live in, has a long history of professional alley recyclers (read Sanford and Son style rickity pick-up truck driving junk-yard owners), who pass through the alleys and neighborhoods on a daily basis and sweep up anything of value, even for metal reclaimation. No need to mark anything on the curb, if it’s on the curb, and a moving van with an open gate isn’t next to it, it’s gone most likely same day, and I say “good on ’em”! They are an asset to the community! I read a story one time that in Japan, people throw out perfectly working technology items because the culture as a whole, are early adopters and replace almost everything with whatever is the latest and newest. They do not spend 15 years with the same TV like I do. There are actually companies that take tech items out of the trash and resell it in other countries, and many times, don’t even have to do any repair, it was working perfectly! Apparently no one in Japan had “depression era parents” like I did!

    BTW,the dumpster is a guage of the fall of Western Civilization. In retirement, I live in a lower to middle income neighborhood, but it’s the first time I’ve lived with a certain contingent of people who will get out of their cars, and dump their car trash on the tarmac, right next to their car, and then walk past the dumpster to their apartments. Raised by wolves or illiterates is the only answer!

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    • It is interesting how different cities/areas have different trash habits and systems – I cannot recall regular street scavengers in my area, but they are clearly in yours. And yes, people who throw trash on the ground are irritating. My street isn’t terribly busy, but it is occasionally used as a cut-through and I pick trash up out of my front yard probably every couple of weeks.

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  3. Our neighborhood doesn’t work well for that, it’s bounded on 3 sides by parkland so there’s no traffic passing through. Also, they eliminated heavy garbage night years ago, I always found it fun to watch the scrappers cruising around with insanely loaded pickup trucks.

    When I had two good rims & tires to dispose of I brought them to my son’s water polo practice at a downtown pool. As we went in I left them at the curb with a “free” sign on them, got him to the change room, walked back and they were already gone. 🙂

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    • Tires and rims can be tough to get rid of – you did well. Another bad one was tube televisions. I waited far too long to set working CRT televisions out by the curb and had to pay a recycler to take them.

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      • I used to tell this to people in Indianapolis when I lived there, a highly republican and low taxed state, and they couldn’t believe me, but Milwaukee has had mandatory recycling since 1990! Over 30 years (including companies, not just residents)! The city gives you a single stream recycling cart in blue, right next to your green trash cart, and they pick it up 2-3 times a month (trash is weekly). Anything big or weird, like a couch or electronics, you can call for a pick-up (there are requirments) or take it to one of two or three dump facilities for free (your drivers license is checked to make sure you are a city resident). I could not believe in the 20-teens, that Indianapolis recycling was voluntary…sheesh…when I lived there, I was also appalled to find bad, almost poisonous water quality, and a lot of other things that scared me. I gues that’s how you get that 1% property tax!

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      • The WSJ had an article awhile back about the dirty little secret of most of those citywide recycling programs – it seems that most of the stuff in the blue cans goes to the incinerator. It seems that the process of separating metals, glass and the many different kinds of plastics is either totally ineffective or impossibly expensive and the demand for almost any of those recyclables other than aluminum is quite low.

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      • Depends on how committed your community is to recycling. No one makes money at it, but at least Milwaukee (and Wisconsin) is trying whereas Indiana couldn’t be bothered. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that it’s problematic doesn’t give the republicans the right to ignore it and dump everything into a landfill (which is Indianas thing, might as well be the 50’s)! In conversatons with the actual recycling people in my city, the big problem is recycling contamination, i.e. people just throwing everything into a recycling bin, instead of what can actually BE recycled, which ends up getting the load trashed! If a city trash person, while empting your recycling, finds trash in there, you can be cited (altho they usually just hang a tag on your cart warning you to be careful). My apartment, which has to have private trash removal, will check the recycling before they “truck” it, and if it’s “contaminated” they’ll warn the owners and fine them! You know there are very wealthy, and very republican suburban communities around me that are totally on board with recycling and have a high level of fidelity with it (and a high level of education)! I think recycling is one of those things that get’s politicised for zero reason. BTW, my community also has trash people that are city employees, making a decent living, and not private companies with slightly higher than minimum wage employees.

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      • It is my understanding that China banned American trash a few years back (which was where much of our reclying was sent) and the bottom has fallen out of the market for most recycled materials (especially plastics). Many cities, not just in Indiana, have been incinerating it because there is nothing else they can do unless they are willing to charge residents the full cost of the program, which they have been unwilling to do.

        I agree that things should be different, but that should probably start higher up the production chain that churns out so much plastic packaging that gets pitched. I read somewhere that the average American generates twice as much trash now as 40 or 50 years ago. As someone who has opened way too many packages containing kids’ toys, I wonder what was wrong with the cardboard boxes we used to get things in. It would seem to be a good idea to create incentives against too much commercial use rather than trying to clean up the mess downstream as we have been trying to do.

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      • You are absolutely correct J.P., any recycling expert will tell you that proper recycling starts with using less packaging (and less, less, less of everything), and packaging that is more easy to recycle. I thought I read a couple of years ago, that everyone was going to put the ki-bosh on those heat or electronic welded plastic hang tag packages, and yet just today I bought an item from Dunham’s I had to wrestle with to get open, and then was left with a bunch of little plastic pieces that weren’t suable for recycling. A number of years ago, a pal was in Russia, and brought me a bunch of “Commie Bloc” photo items, and they were all packaged in cardboard boxes and wrapped in white paper. It was both weord, and kind of cool, too. Bring back those cardboard boxes!

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  4. Curb-shopping is a classy-sounding term, for sure. But I am not above dumpster diving, either. When Mrs. herb used to have to travel to different clients in other parts of town I would look in their dumpsters, sometimes finding good stuff. Living in a military town, people have to leave precipitously pretty often and can’t take everything with them. But they usually leave it outside the dumpster. When we moved in here there was furniture left that was nice but not useful for us and we would put it out with a free sign taped to it.

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    • I had not thought of the choice trash-pickings in a military town. My area is kind of the opposite, there were a lot of older people who had lived here for decades when we moved in, and as those houses came up for sale, lots of stuff would get left at the curbs when decades of accumulations were cleared out. The best of it was offered at yard/garage sales, but the rest was at the curb.

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  5. JP – we have a lot of “scrappers” coming around on Sunday nights/early Monday morning before the trash man cometh and they will fill their pick-up truck beds with scrap metal, then take it for processing per pound of metal and then profit by that. I offered my neighbor my old garage door and he was chomping at the bit, standing on his front porch, waiting for the installer to leave.

    Years ago, a neighbor retired and found himself with too much time on his hands. He had fixed everything in their house, from day one and also his car. He had a workbench in the garage and he would go around on trash day and bring home small household appliances, yard equipment and fix them, good as new – bikes were his specialty. He’d fix them up and sold the bikes which he’d place on a corner of his property and they’d go at $15.00 a piece. He had so many small appliances that he gave them away to family members and then his wife nicely suggested he take them to the Good Will or Salvation Army which he did and then he went scouting for more.

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      • He could fix anything. He had so many bikes, all sizes and even 10 speeds which were popular at the time. He even wrote out a guarantee for each bike sold, that if anything went wrong, the person could bring it back and he’d fix it for free.

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  6. Pretty fun having a Cadillac at such a tender age JP. Who wouldn’t feel special riding down the street in it? When parking in the driveway, it took up a good part of the driveway! I was looking at the form and size … looked low to the ground, but not like a low-rider. The steering wheel was so large and looks so “open” doesn’t it? My grandparents lived in attached houses in Toronto – that was the norm in many old neighborhood. Every house had a garage in their backyard that was accessible through the alleyway. Because the transportation system has always been pretty awesome there, with streetcar, buses (and later the subway), there was no need to have a car if you worked in the city. My grandparents never learned to drive, so they, like all their neighbors rented their small garage out. I thought of them when reading about your storage solution.

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    • That Cadillac was indeed huge. I never tried to get it in our garage – it might have fit, but it would have been really close. When it wasn’t costing me money, it was a joy. 🙂

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      • My father had a 1972 Impala that he only drove on weekends because shortly after he bought it, the plant where he worked moved to another city, next door to a cement plant and he’d leave work to find the car was covered with cement dust. He got a used VW Fastback which he kept on the street and parked the Impala in the garage. My car, a 1973 VW Beetle, was in the driveway, always parked backwards, because if it rained or snowed it wouldn’t start otherwise (It was a lemon, likely because it had no clutch, just first and second speed.) So my father got used to driving the VW Fastback, not the Impala and the garage was a tight squeeze. He veered too far to the left one time and hit the porch, smashing the left fender of the Impala. He drove it only on Sundays before and drove it even less after that episode.

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  7. I inherited an old 1940 style canister type vacuum cleaner from my Aunt Marion when she died in the early 1980’s and my dad was cleaning out her house, and it served me for years as I was seldom home. When I finally put it out at the curb I was amazed that someone took it – but by then it had probably achieved museum status – I looked out early the next morning and saw some guys loading it into their truck. I agree with the etiquette – esp. for something like a wheelchair scooter they should have indicated that it was free for the taking and/or works, otherwise how would you know? I’m not above scooping something up if it’s in good shape – I got a nice white arbor (worth $300) new that way, and last summer, a set of four white wrought iron bistro chairs which I intend to reupholster the seats on someday as they are water-stained.

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    • I have been more of a donor than a donee when it comes to this kind of curbside recycling, but not completely – I am trying to remember the last thing I took from the trash somewhere. I think it was a couple of old wooden skids someone had put out – I was thinking that I could use the wood for something.

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      • I’m not a regular scavenger either, but if I see something useful on my street or my mom’s I’ve been known to stop and look….and occasionally take if I can fit it in the trunk!

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  8. I’m surprised that your Cadillac was so well equipped with fancy features like power windows and cruise control, not things I associate with cars back then? A friend of a friend recently bought an old red Cadillac, in mint condition I think – I wonder what he paid…

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    • I’ll bet he paid more than $400. But then he probably has a nicer car.

      I think the cruise control was my biggest surprise on it (including the fact that it still worked). The control was nothing like we have now, but was a thumbwheel on top of the dash with numbers to (theoretically) correspond with the speed you were setting. When you changed speed, there was none of the button-pushing we are used to, but instead you would just roll the little wheel forwards or back. If you spun it ahead quickly the car would go into a really hard acceleration. That maneuver was kind of fun when you are 19. 🙂

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      • It sounds basic, but still the idea was there. My parents didn’t get A/C in a car until well into the 80’s. I remember my sisters wedding on the hottest day of the summer and the relief I felt climbing into the best man’s car after the ceremony and finally getting a blast of cool air!
        His Cadillac is apparently well maintained with white leather seats inside and spotless according to my friend. I will ask him when I see him, well I’ll hint….I don’t really know him that well as he is a friend of a friend of mine who went to the Queen’s Garden Party with us. He goes to a lot of classic car rallies etc. I was kind of disappointed it wasn’t a convertible, a red car should be a convertible regardless of the make. Or maybe they don’t make Cadillac convertibles?

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      • “Or maybe they don’t make Cadillac convertibles?” – Oh, they very much did. The big/regular Cadillac (like mine) offered a convertible up through the 1970 model. From 1971-76 they offered one in the (slightly) smaller Eldorado line. There was all kinds of hoopla in 1976 when Cadillac (and probably lots of dealers) were hawking it as “the last convertible” and lots of older folks paid way too much for them as “collector’s items”. Then the company brought a convertible back in the mid 80s. I think Cadillac got sued over that one. I never liked the later ones that well, but about 1968 and earlier would make for a great car.

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  9. Our house is located on a 4-lane US Highway that sees about 20,000 vehicles per day. So just about everything we put out at the curb disappears. Well, there are some exceptions…

    Back in the 1990s, I bought a used three-person mauve couch for my first apartment. It had some stains, and collapsed springs, but it looked comfy and was cheap. Dad cut out a piece of plywood to fit under the cushions, which made it nice and firm… and off I went with my couch.

    That couch saw me through several bachelor apartments, but after marriage, it was relegated to the basement. And since our current house has a creepy, unfinished basement, a couch down there only served as a habitat for spiders, so I decided to get rid of it.

    Margaret and I lugged it out to the curb one Saturday, and my poor old couch just sat there for the next 3 days. Occasionally, someone would stop, and a few even lifted the cushions, but no one wanted it. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed. The trash guys eventually hauled it away that Monday.

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    • Eric, BTW, the bed bug problem is so ubiquitous, that in my apartment complex, we’ve all been warned not to pick up street furniture made of fabric. If they can trace a bed bug infestation to a piece of furniture you’ve brought in to your apartment (and they have actually done this before), you will be assessed the entire bill for bed bug erradication! No one where I live would get near street furniture made of fabric!

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      • That’s a good point… though a depressing one. I’d rather be under the impression that folks didn’t want my couch because it was ugly, rather than that people are creeped out by a swelling infestation of hard-to-kill bugs!

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    • You remind me that one hard rule we have had around here is that upholstered furniture without a known provenance is not admitted into our house. And yes, it is kind of sad to find out that something you have kept around for a long time cannot even be given away for free.

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  10. Like several folks above, our trash pickup is on Monday, so anything I figure someone might want goes out on Saturday. The broken garage door opener (with the 10′ long metal track) didn’t get taken by the trash people, so I think I put it out 3 weeks in row before the right scrapper came along.

    Living near a large University, the prime curb-shopping is the move out weeks in May & August. My all time prize, was a 42″ wide screen plasma TV. It was old enough to not be HD, but was great for movies on DVD. It was probably close to $1000 new, and cost me $10 for a new remote. That and getting it up half a flight of stairs. Oof!

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    • I remember the oodles of abandoned stuff in the many moves from college of both me and my 3 kids. It is all about cost/benefit, and that stuff can become more trouble than its worth. That TV sounds like a great score! You make me think of mine – it was a sturdy wooden futon frame that the neighbor put out when I was working in the yard. It was perfect for college kids and served two of them after we bought a new mattress for it.

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  11. All my adult life, I have occasionally picked up free curbside offerings. I helped my middle son furnish his home with neighborhood recycling when my wife and I lived with his family for extended periods when their kids were young. I remember how much good stuff my Mom and older friends had hired people to haul away when they downsized and I seriously considered setting up my unemployed youngest son in a storefront and lend him my truck to stock and manage a thrift store with his wife.

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    • Geoff, depending on where you live, this could be a pretty interesting idea! In addition to “neighborhood offerings”, you could glean stuff from estate sales. The person that handled my parents house, after my Moms passing, had contracted with us to clear the house completely at the end of the estate sale. He recommended we get everything out we wanted prior to the event. At the close of the third day, a subcontractor showed up with a big clean box van, and his people stripped the house (and garage!) clean of everything left, for an agreed upon price with the estate sale manager. The subcontractor had an inner city “junque” establishment, and I’m sure he did just fine after his fee to the estate manager (which of course, ended up in the mix with whatever profit we were getting). That’s why there’s really no way to “cash in” on an estate sale for the most part. We got incredibly little money for my Mothers and Dads life (that is why they warn you to take whatever you want out before it begins) ; but were surprised at the close of the last day, t have a completely clean house! Not a paper clip on the floor left!

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