In the dumps: Students wade through trash for a cause

Graduate student Matthew Tisdale started last weekend the way he starts many weekends: hoping the industrial-strength garbage compactor he was standing in did not turn on.

Perhaps because he had done it 25 times before last Friday night, the 2003 Columbian College of Arts and Sciences graduate was not as worried about being crushed by the waste processor as he was perturbed that someone had thrown cardboard into the trash.

“Let’s see what else we can find here,” he said, wading through slime-covered plastic and rotting fruit.

Tisdale was collecting evidence for the D.C. chapter of the environmental group the Sierra Club through a process known as “dumpster diving.” The job entails climbing into large trash receptacles – usually dumpsters or trash compactors – and photographing any recyclable waste sitting in designated garbage containers, or vice-versa.

The Sierra Club’s goal is to force businesses in Washington to comply with a 1988 District law that requires them to recycle; the law mandates that businesses file plans with specifics about their recycling programs. To check up on those businesses, the Sierra Club relies heavily on small corps of dumpster divers.

Last week’s excursion was also an opportunity to train Emily Axford, a sophomore who read about the activity in a Jan. 17 Hatchet article and said “dumpster diving sounded awesome.” She arrived Friday night ready for the elements, wearing two pairs of long underwear and socks, gloves “with grip on them for good climbing” and a freshly washed pair of khakis so that she could “see the fruits of victory on (her) pants.”

Though the D.C. Department of Public Works has its own enforcement team, Tisdale said the city’s efforts fall short.

Thomas Henderson, administrator of the D.C. Solid Waste Management Administration, said that with three employees assigned by the city to monitor recycling compliance, enforcement of the law is “not as effective as we’d like it to be.”

He added that his office is open to receiving help from “amateurs.”

After heading north on 21st Street in search of a major hotel chain, the garbage-digging duo found the loading zone where the Washington Marriott puts its waste.

“This one says ‘Mixed Paper Only.’ That’s clearly just mixed trash,” Tisdale said, staring at an array of falsely labeled dumpsters and commercial garbage cans.

With a smile on his face, he threw down his bag, grabbed his camera, and began to photograph the trash. As he was setting up his third shot, a Marriott security guard walked into the loading zone.

“Can I ask why you’re taking pictures of garbage?” the guard asked. Tisdale explained, after which point the guard politely suggested that he would have Tisdale and Axford held for trespassing if they did not leave.

“Alright, we can deal with that,” Tisdale said. “Obviously we’ve got the photographs we needed and we’ll soon send your management company a letter.”

It’s unclear whether Tisdale is breaking any laws when he dives. He said security guards often question him, but he has never been arrested.

Jim Dougherty, legal chair for the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club, said he is unsure whether dumpster diving is legal, but said his organization isn’t concerned.

“If someone wants to press charges against us, that’s a fight we’re prepared to take,” he said. “Let them try to put us in jail.”

Alonzo Brown, director of security at the Washington Marriott, told The Hatchet that what Tisdale did was illegal because the hotel’s waste was on its own land.

Tisdale said his photos will accompany a letter written by Dougherty that will be sent to the hotel regarding their alleged recycling infractions. Businesses caught violating the recycling law face fines ranging from $150 to $1,500, depending on how many times they have been cited.

The dumpster divers also visited the Park Hyatt on Jan. 28, and Tisdale plans to visit other Marriott and Hyatt locations in an attempt to prove that both chains are negligent.

Axford said she will likely volunteer again.

She said, “I like justifying adventures with political causes.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.