Make no mistake, there is a war playing out on Humboldt State University's campus. A way of life is under siege.
For decades, as the final days of a school year ticked down, one could count on campus dumpsters to overflow with a treasure trove of goods. There were clothes and shoes, jewelry and watches, and even electronics, furniture and small appliances — things like microwaves and mini-fridges. It was enough to make scavengers rejoice, and rejoice they did, plundering the dumpsters with a holiday zeal, making off with enough loot to decorate an apartment or redistribute to friends and family. Hippie Christmas became a May tradition for many, something to be counted on and looked forward to.
But that was before a band of do-gooders and so-called charitable institutions whipped down from Mount Crumpit to infiltrate Whoville, HSU, and declare war in the name of the environment, social good and sustainability.
Hippie Christmas sits on the brink, its glory days long since gone with only uncertainty on the horizon. Well, uncertainty and a smattering of small shrines on lawns and vacant lots throughout Arcata.
It's the afternoon of Friday, May 15 — less than 24 hours before students are required to vacate all on-campus housing — and Trista Dowdy and Hollie Hutson are emptying bottles of mustard, mayonnaise, hot sauce and other assorted glops and goos into one very disgusting garbage bin.
"The Tapatio bottles are the worst," says Hutson. "They take for-ev-er to empty out."
The pair volunteers with the Waste Reduction and Resource Awareness Program's (WRAPP) Donation Dash — a four-day event on campus that boldly tries to divert as much of the departing students' stuff from the waste stream as possible. There are hosts of recycling bins — accepting everything from bottles and cans to light bulbs and clothes hangers — as well as donation areas for clothes, household items and office supplies. And then there's that gross food bin, which is bound for a nearby hog farm.
In total, the program collects about 30,000 pounds of material that would otherwise end up in a landfill and sends it elsewhere, whether it be to a recycling center, a compost pile or a family in need.
Less than 24 hours before she will walk across a stage in a cap and gown, senior economics major Jesse Carpentier stands in the courtyard of the Sunset dorm, which is filled with neat rows of dumpsters and bins. Carpentier, WRAPP's outgoing manager, says she came to HSU from San Diego, having fallen in love with the beauty and culture of Arcata. A couple of years ago a book, Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, changed her world.
Carpentier says it got her thinking about how the United States has a linear materials economy, meaning resources are extracted to make things that are then used and thrown away by consumers. One of the problems with such an economy, she explains, as a volunteer behind her fills a garbage bag with dozens of clothes hangers, is that it's dependent on continuous and escalating levels of consumption for growth. It's not sustainable.
So Carpentier says she started changing her own consumption patterns. She began riding her bike more and driving less. She packed a reusable coffee cup and did without the disposable ones, claiming she hasn't used a throw-away cup in more than a year. She says she cut pre-packaged snacks — and the waste that comes with them — out of her diet, and started buying in bulk at the Co-op and Wildberries, using reusable containers. Pretty soon she was living an almost zero-waste life.
Meanwhile, she poured herself into WRAPP, wanting to get other students to think about their consumption patterns and reduce their impact.
The Donation Dash's origins stretch back before Carpentier arrived on campus, to the mid-2000s, when it was launched as a university-run program. But it proved a huge undertaking for university employees and volunteers, says HSU Sustainability Coordinator Morgan King, who came to campus in 2011. The following year, King says the university decided to turn the annual event into a partnership between WRAPP and local thrift stores, which would team up to man the campus' three donation centers.
Carpentier says the results have been amazing, and that the event can be seen as a microcosm of both all that's wrong with our economy of consumption and a possible solution. The key, she says, is making sure resources aren't being wasted. To that end, about a dozen WRAPP employees and twice as many volunteers and representatives from local thrift stores will spend four days staffing donation centers, making sure compostable and recyclable materials stay out of the trash and that good reusable items make it into local thrift shops, where sales raise money for local charities and offer low-cost options to the area's poor.
"It's a really good system," Carpentier says.
An avid and unabashed scavenger who moved to Humboldt in 1979 to attend the university, former Arcata Mayor Bob Ornelas remembers the glory days of Hippie Christmas well.
"I'd be out jogging through campus and I'd just peer into a dumpster and sometimes I'd walk home with arms full of stuff," he says. Ornelas chuckles, explaining that by the 1990s, students seemed to be throwing away better stuff than he'd ever had as a student.
"It was wealth turned to waste," he says, adding that there were groups of folks who would spend a week every May looting the campus dumpsters. "There was just a ridiculous amount of stuff — there would be, literally, new shoes, jewelry, a Timex watch still in the box, dress clothes, televisions, ghetto blasters, stereos, speakers and stuff. We'd just stand there shaking our heads."
Ornelas says he kept some of his finds, but diverted most of his haul to local thrift shops and charities, as well as to friends and, sometimes, even complete strangers. "A lot of it was so good that you could just walk up to somebody on the street and say, 'Here, take this.'"
But Ornelas is quick to say dumpsters and piles brimming with perfectly good, usable stuff weren't — and aren't — limited to campus. "Especially this time of year, it's just crazy," he says, adding that he regularly frequents free piles around town and has a couple of favorite dumpsters that he makes a point of checking out often, with an eye out for athletic shoes and dress clothes. "I have half a dozen dress shirts that I've pulled out of a dumpster. I'm not too proud to say, 'I dug this fine black dress shirt out of a dumpster.'"
Myomi and Tony Hammond say they aren't too proud to hunt for freebies either. When the couple was furnishing an apartment for their young family a few years back, they did so entirely with finds from dumpsters and free piles throughout town. Over the years, they've found computers, stereos and a wide variety of furniture — all perfectly good and ready for reuse. Once, over a couple of months around Hippie Christmas, they found about $400 in cash just by going through purses and the pockets of discarded pants found in free piles and bins throughout town.
But the Hammonds don't just hunt for themselves. "We've had our hard times and the community's been there for us," Myomi says, explaining that they now frequently donate their free-pile finds to local thrift stores. Like Ornelas, the Hammonds — who were working a Donation Dash post for the American Cancer Society — say they simply find joy in the hunt.
"I don't need anything in this world," Ornelas says. "I've got all the socks, underwear, shoes and everything I need. But I'm curious, and I always want to know what kind of stuff are people throwing away today."
Not everyone is enamored with the free-pile phenomenon, which seems to be steadily escalating throughout Arcata. In the words of SCRAP Humboldt Director Tibora Girczyc-Blum, "Free piles aren't free, man."
Mark Andre, the city's environmental services director, agrees. "It's blight. We want the city to look as good as possible, especially at graduation."
That's a costly endeavor. During the year, city employees spend a couple work-hours a week collecting illegally dumped trash from public and private properties. But during the four weeks surrounding graduation, Andre estimates the city spends $10,000 to $15,000 on increased patrols.
"We try to quickly pick stuff up," Andre says. If a free box lingers, it becomes a de facto drop off spot with neighbors adding to it. "The longer it goes on the more it becomes a normal practice."
Andre points to the grassy lot next to the skate park as an example, but there are plenty of corners and spots around town where boxes of shoes, books and knickknacks persist. One Janes Road home has gone a step further, constructing an open-air, roofed structure to house a community free pile.
Andre says free piles on private homes are the responsibility of the landowner, and if those piles become problematic, the city will contact them. For the most part, the city will collect boxes on empty parcels and sidewalks as fast as it can.
On Friday, May 15, the lot near the skate park is bustling with activity, with a few new boxes added to the mix and new takers scavenging through the goods, the theme of which leans toward abandoned hobbies: misshapen pottery, a few watercolor instruction books and a soiled pair of bunny ears resting atop a pair of fringed leather boots.
Laura and Cameron, who decline to give their last names, are walking their dog Roxie when they stop to poke through a couple of boxes.
"This is definitely a prime dump spot," says Cameron. "We find stuff here all the time." Their best score? A hookah, followed closely by some small pieces of furniture and paperback books that they carted back to their apartment.
Not far away, on Sunset Avenue, a shirtless man works to unload a large arcade game off his truck to be left for anyone with the gumption and muscles to cart it away. It had worked when he got it from a former tenant's house, he says, but a season sitting out in the rain made it malfunction. "It's supposed to light up and give you a prize when you put money in," he says. "But now it just blinks and says 'Prize Error.'"
It's the morning of May 14, and Trish Oakes smiles broadly as she buzzes around the Donation Dash station set up across the road from the College Creek Apartments on the south end of campus. Oakes, the executive director of DreamQuest, is manning the location with her husband, Bill, who dutifully tagged along to help out.
"These donations translate directly into youth services," Trish says, adding that the pair hauled more than 6,000 pounds of stuff back to Willow Creek last year, where it was sold at the DreamQuest thrift shop to help fund the organization's many programs, which range from a youth center and computer lab to vocational training, college scholarships and dance classes.
The thrift shop gets donations throughout the year, but the stuff from HSU is special because it has that "college-cool" factor, Trish says, as she folds a pair of Cookie Monster pajama bottoms. Later in the day, King swings by with a bundle of stuff that had been confiscated from dorm residents throughout the year, things like beer pong tables and pot-leaf flags. The Oakes take all of it, as well as a 15-pound kettle ball, a stray cup-o-noodle, mini-fridges, televisions and furniture.
To participate, Trish says DreamQuest pledges to man the donation center for a total of 50 hours over four days and secure a liability insurance policy for the event. For all the revenue it ultimately brings to the nonprofit, Trish says it's well worth it.
Back up in the courtyard at Sunset, Angels of Hope employees are rooting through bins, taking whatever looks like it can be resold at their Arcata shop. But the mid-May windfall isn't limited to campus.
Angels of Hope store manager Shannon Hardin says the organization gets so many donations that it limits store drop-offs to students only for the few days leading up to graduation. "We end up having to put things in storage," says Hardin. "It's great."
But, like the city, Angels of Hope has to deal with after-hours dumping on a year-round basis. "It can become worse this time of year, and that's never helpful," says Hardin. "If it rains or people get into it, it's no longer a donation — it's become trash that we have to take to the dump."
Still, Hardin says, the student bounty is a good thing for the store — and the youth programs it operates. At SCRAP Humboldt, Girczyc-Blum says the end-of-school windfall is great, noting that SCRAP takes stuff that other thrift shops don't — things like raw materials and art supplies. "I love Hippie Christmas," she says.
Back at the College Creek Apartments Donation Dash station, Bill Oakes folds clothes while talking about all the stuff kids throw away after just 10 months of use. "It's pretty amazing when you think about it," he says. "No wonder the world's falling apart."
With the sun shining overhead on Thursday, May 14, Nicholas Colbrunn climbs a flight of stairs on campus with an armful of large, plastic garbage bags. Wearing a shiny gold crown he'd scored from one of the donation bins around campus, he walks around the bins, checking how full they are, ready to replace the liner bags and carry items to one of the central donation centers.
Colbrunn, a student, is volunteering for the Donation Dash. When he catches up with King, the sustainability director, who has giant plastic sack slung over his shoulder like a young Santa Claus doling out last year's fashionable attire, Colbrunn shows him a wallet — ID, credit cards and all — he found thrown into a donation bin, probably in the haste of moving. "Poor girl," Colbrunn says.
Moments later, King reflects on the program he's watched grow over the last few years, noting that it's been "extremely successful."
A short distance away, clad in a green "sustainability enforcer" T-shirt, junior wildlife biology major Molly Shea explains that WRAPP is far from a one-trick pony, and runs a series of events and activities throughout the year. There's the office products exchange, which allows students and faculty to donate unused school supplies and also drop into an on-campus location and take whatever they need, from staples to the occasional printer. Then there's the clothing swap, which allows students to paw through piles of secondhand clothes and take whatever they like, as long as they donate something in return. And, re-use and "upcycling" always rule the day, Shea explains, noting that T-shirts leftover from the clothing swap are used to make tote bags in a student workshop and those worthless floppy disks dropped off at the office products exchange are used to make pencil holders and planters.
Amid the constant clanking, clattering and crashing of items being dumped into dumpsters and large plastic bins, and with her commencement ceremony less than 24 hours away, Carpentier smiles and says education is probably the most important element of the Donation Dash. After all, she says, these freshmen learning how to separate out recycleables and compostables from their waste streams might be the ones to take up the charge, the ones to find new and better paths toward a sustainable future.
And so the war against Hippie Christmas rages on. On campus, anyway, it seems clear that do-gooders have seized the upper hand, pushing bargain hunters from the dumpsters to the thrift stores, which is probably where they belong.
— Linda Stansberry
Before moving to my new digs, I'd never indulged in the curbside crap dump, never even considered it. But a free box was waiting on the sidewalk when I moved in, chock full of outgrown kids' toys. Passersby picked through it as I unpacked my car and, on garbage night, my neighbor tossed it unsentimentally into the dumpster. A few weeks later a new box had taken its place and I snuck in my own contributions. An old coffee mug. A plastic vase. A handful of barrettes. All stuff I could easily take down to the thrift store, but why waste the gas?
I take no claim to moral high ground by saying that, until I began researching this story, I hadn't put out my own box. Secondhand free boxing was much like taking the occasional drag off a friend's cigarette: the top of a slippery slope for me. And lo, as spring cleaning aligned with graduation weekend, so it came to pass. Here's what I gave to the neighborhood, in the order of which it was taken over the weekend.
First to go: that cool striped shirt I pulled out of a free box myself last fall. May it travel from box to box in perpetuity. Second: a cheap functional blender with some minor cosmetic damage. Third: some ill-fitting blouses. Fourth: a big bag of off-brand condoms from Planned Parenthood. You're welcome, teenagers. Fifth: a half-used bottle of shampoo my hair didn't like. Sixth: a cheap plastic dish drainer.
Still there: four pairs of shoes and two vintage slips. I'm not sure if there's an ick factor around these items or if no one in my size has passed by yet. I suppose if they're still there on Monday morning I'll run them down to the Rescue Mission. Would I do it again? Yes. I regret nothing. As long as someone stands by to clean up the remnants, free boxes are a win-win for the lazy and the thrifty. And if you're neither of those things, we're probably not hanging out anyway.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
It's rare in these economic times to find someone who's too uptown for secondhand goods. And secondhand is just a stop on the way to vintage and ultimately antique, right? In fact, browsing boutiques and yard sales is a legitimate pastime, the afterglow of which is bragging about a great deal. But what about a curbside find? What about a free pile on the corner? How about something propped up in the shadow of a dumpster? In the dumpster? Once you've crossed the line to items left on the street, there are levels of recreational scavengers (those who are not actually dependent on throw-aways for survival), levels that are largely determined by what seems like a windfall and what gives you the willies.
The Opportunist. Nice coffee table. You'll haul away wood and metal furniture you spot on the corner as you drive by/circle the block, maybe a lamp, a vase or a set of glasses if it looks tidy. Instruments are fine, but nothing with a spit valve. Eew. Otherwise, if it's non-porous, in good shape and on the curb, you'll lift with your legs and get it in your vehicle. (But take note: If there's a moving truck by that curb, it makes you a thief. Just a thief.)
The Frugal Finder. What's in this box? Sure, you're willing to root around for dishes, appliances, kitchen items and books (never know when a first edition will show up). Your post-war grandparents would roll in their graves if you didn't snatch up that toolbox and those picture frames, and you thrift clothing all the time. So long as those shirts and jackets are well kept, wash and wear. Poking through a stranger's things doesn't creep you out, either — not when you're saving cash and have hand sanitizer at the ready.
The Eco Warrior. Look at you reusing and recycling! A little tinkering and you could get that free-pile radio to work or maybe solder it to your kinetic sculpture. Cast iron pan? You can totally grind it down and re-season it. Others might shy away from plastic containers, but if you don't turn it into a planter or an organizer it will end up as landfill. You'll wander within smelling distance of a dumpster for a kitschy ceramic kitten, but it's going to have to be dipped in gold for you to dive in there.
The Punk Rock Picker. Any hipster can shell out a couple of bucks for a shirt at Goodwill, but that ripped pair of jeans hanging a leg out of the dumpster has soul. After all, Debbie Harry pulled clothes from trashcans all the time back in the day. Grab those shoes. Have a seat on that couch and test it out — maybe feel around for loose change — whatever horrors its cushions have seen only add to your cred. And while you're there, see if any of these cassingles and VHS tapes are speaking to you. Yeah, you've got a VCR at home — now that shit is punk rock.
The Raccoon. On the sidewalk or in the trash, your hard limits are off in the hazy distance. It's true that towels and bedding can all be washed but, as with undergarments, there is the psychological cootie factor that only hardcore scavengers such as yourself can overcome. Even the specter of the abandoned mattress' backstory doesn't frighten you — and let's remember that no matter how unstained it may appear, something happened that drove its previous owner to strap it to the top of a car under cover of darkness and leave it tipped against a wall somewhere far away. You may be fearless, but the homeless person at the next dumpster is judging you.