Don’t be a wasteful little puke

Charitable thrift stores can use your end-of-the-semester discards.

by John Hoff

If you want to get some idea what it will look like when the United States pulls out of Iraq, just check the alleys behind student housing this time of year. You could literally outfit an army with the desks, clothing, reading material and food tossed away like the owners have their own magic lantern right next to the keg.

This weekend I went scrounging through trash near the University with a film crew. It was part of a television pilot under consideration by a cable channel, kind of like the “Antiques Roadshow,” only with free discarded stuff. There are worse ways to get on television, but most of those ways involve eating maggots on “Fear Factor.”

With three crew members being paid by some production company from Van Nuys, Calif., depending on me like I was their safari guide, I wanted to make sure cast-aside goodies came quickly and impressively. The solution was simple and has worked ever since I was a little kid, way before I wrote two books on the subject of dumpster diving. (Editor’s note: Dumpster is a brand name, but it is Hoff’s practice to not capitalize it.) Just go near campuses at the end of the semester. American college students have got to be the most wasteful people on the planet.

Ah, the end of the semester. It’s like harvest time, only the crop is furniture. Better bring a truck, because you’ll need it. Better be picky, because you’ll fill the truck up pretty fast. What to do with all that discarded furniture? Crafty divers of dumpsters just throw it in their garage and have a yard sale in the fall, when college students move back in and want to buy furniture.

Dude, it’s like that “Circle of Life” song from the Disney “Lion King” cartoon. Dive, stash, sell, repeat. Circle of life, baby.

Oh, sure, grocery stores are pretty wasteful, too. They don’t seem to know about the tragically obscure and under-publicized Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donations Act, so it seems like stores are afraid somebody will get sick and sue if they donate to a food bank.

There are also really lucrative waste patterns when dear, sweet older folks die and the kids, (whomever they are) can’t stand dealing with all the leftover junk. Or maybe they actually think an estate can be settled in, like, a weekend. I guess grandma saved all that stuff for decades just so some stranger could pick it up from the curb. Gee, thanks, somebody’s grandma, nice old chairs.

But nobody can beat college students for their maddening lack of thrift and frugality. I guess when a person buys crap on credit it’s not like real money, so it’s just fine to toss out last winter’s wardrobe and buy a whole new ensemble. The trash is full of little mysteries, like why somebody was thrifty enough to buy so much Hamburger Helper, but then just put it all in a box and tossed it away. Did their hamburger stop needing help? Also, why just one crutch? Don’t crutches come in pairs?

Eating pasta doesn’t make a person frugal, not when that same person tosses out the pasta pot, colander, leftover pasta and unopened jars of Ragu at semester’s end. Why don’t you just give up your shallow attempts at being thrifty and eat out a little more? Village Wok has some excellent noodle dishes and at a good price.

But let’s get back to the evacuation of Iraq, shall we? I’m not sure if we’ll leave that country with our flags flying high to the strains of martial music, or if embassy personnel will be clinging desperately to a helicopter skid as insurgents come pouring through the perimeter. But either way, there is a local thrift store operated by the Disabled American Veterans that is doing a lot to help myself and other vets.

The store is right on University Avenue in St. Paul, within sight of the state Capitol. The stuff in the store is very neatly organized, I might add, like somebody was getting ready for inspect-shun.

Whether you’re conservative or liberal, in favor of the war or opposed to it, giving stuff to the veterans’ thrift store strengthens the moral legitimacy of your point of view when you decide to rhetorically rumble with the other side. If you don’t care for the veterans’ thrift store, there are others, like one fine Goodwill location, which sells clothing by the pound because marking all the prices is too much of a pain in the backside.

Besides, you can get a tax deduction for your donations. Oh, sure, the deduction will be for rummage-sale value, not retail, but if you just finished your taxes, you might have learned that a few more deductions could have gone a long way. Besides, even if you don’t need a tax deduction, it’s simply the right thing to do. Somewhere in our city tonight, a man probably is contemplating the armed robbery of college students. And why would he plan such an offense?

Well, part of his rational motive might involve the need to buy a toaster oven that works 100 percent of the time, plus some decent CDs and maybe a mattress which isn’t full of pee stains from the previous five owners. So why not make the world marginally better, and just take your stuff to a thrift store instead of casting it to the curb? What did your toaster oven do? Did it offend you, somehow, that you would treat it this way?

In my first book on dumpster diving, I referred to college students as, um, wasteful little pukes, or words to that effect. In retrospect, I could have been more tactful in that particular section. I would be happy if the day came when I would be forced to say, “It was true that, at one time, college students were extremely wasteful. But in about 2006, something changed. College students just woke up and stopped wasting so much perfectly useful stuff.”

For the past two semesters I have read just about every letter, editorial and column in the Daily, suggesting ways to make a better world. But as the academic year winds down to a close, the message in the dumpsters is loud and clear. And that message is, unfortunately, “I really couldn’t care less about the planet or its people.”

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].