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Why people like me break into your dumpsters

November 25, 2016
Over $2-worth of wine boxes, plus orange juice containers and some beer cans.

Over $3 of wine boxes, orange juice containers and beer cans from a dumpster.

Two nights ago (November 23) I was poking around in a garbage dumpster and found two large garbage bags that were occupying something like an eighth of the dumpster’s volume; the bags were full of nothing but recyclable cardboard and returnable beverage containers.

Recyclable and returnable stuff such as this should never have been in this garbage dumpster in the first place and I shouldn’t have been either, for that matter.

But it was and I was and therein hangs my tale.

One way to break into a garbage dumpster


To begin not quite at the beginning: On November 13th, I saw that someone had gone to some effort to break into a locked garbage dumpster servicing a large apartment building off Alder Street and West Broadway Avenue.

To get around the hefty combination padlock and chain which was securing both leaves of the steel dumpster’s extra-thick, two-part plastic lid, the dumpster cracker removed the chain securing one lid leaf. This was done by simply sawing off the corner of the plastic lid that the chain was bolted to—maybe a minute’s work, if that.

Everyone’s heard of safe-cracking but dumpster-cracking is hardly the stuff of great crime literature. What sort of person would make an effort to break into a container of garbage and who would care if they did?

The party to care would be the building management responsible for putting the lock on the dumpster—probably to stop illegal dumping along with noisy and/or messy dumpster divers.

The party responsible for cutting the lock off was most likely a dumpster diver—one who wasn’t going to let a little thing like a padlock stop them from sifting the contents of the dumpster for whatever valuables might be therein.

So 10 days later I was able to look in this dumpster without the lock getting in my way and find those two bags full of over $3-worth of returnable beverage containers. All the same, I wouldn’t say that the dumpster-cracker did me any favours.

Another way to break into a garbage dumpster

patience and human nature combine to give me the combination.

patience and human nature combined to give me the combination to this lock.

Wind the clock back four months to the summer of 2016—that’s when, after 12 wide-open years, this dumpster was suddenly and unceremoniously chained and padlocked.

In the street economy I would identify as a binner of returnable beverage containers and as such I mainly focus on checking recycling blue bins. This is different from a dumpster diver, who focuses on searching through garbage dumpsters for anything of value—often collectively referred to as “merch”—including cash and anything else which can be sold for cash.

But people throw a lot of good things into dumpsters, including a lot of returnable beverage containers, so most binners are also dumpster divers to some degree. In addition to being a binner I’m at least a dumpster browser.

So I noticed that this dumpster was locked and I noticed also that it was locked with a combination padlock, rather that the usual master-keyed padlock.

The majority of locked dumpsters use master-keyed padlocks unique to each waste hauling company. Acquiring, collecting and trading the various master keys for dumpster padlocks has long been a big deal among dumpster divers and, to a lesser degree, binners.

Using keyless combination locks to secure dumpsters is a recent innovation for waste hauling companies in Vancouver.

The advantages of combination locks—so far as locking apartment building dumpsters—are:

  1. Each building can have a unique combination.
  2. There are no keys for tenants to lose and for dumpster divers to find.

The biggest disadvantages are:

  1. The combination cannot be changed while the shackle is open.
  2. Combination locks (unlike keyed locks) cannot be relocked simply by closing the shackle. The combination setting must be scrambled while the shackle is held closed for the shackle to stay closed.

Sooner or later a tenant will forget and just close the shackle on the combination padlock to re-lock it as if it were a keyed lock, which will actually leave it unlocked. And in my experience, an unlocked combination lock is always set to the combination that opens it.

And within a few weeks I found the lock on this dumpster hanging open. I photographed the combination setting and then used that setting (after closing the lock and scrambling the combination) to open the lock.

No one (including binners and dumpster divers) who has the keys or combinations to locked dumpsters want to leave them open so, having verified that I knew the combination, I carefully locked down the lid of the dumpster.

As I said, the person who literally cut away part of the lid, three months later, to get into the dumpster, wasn’t doing me or anyone but themselves a favour.

And now that the dumpster is back to being left unlocked (pending repairs, I assume) there is no mess and the dumpster is not overflowing with illegally dumped garbage either.

You can’t break a law that’s already broken

Binners will keep taking "garbage" like this out of dumpsters. Stop us if you can.

Binners will keep taking “garbage” like this out of dumpsters. Stop us if you can.

Just this morning (November 25) in a alley off Oak Street and 16th Avenue, I pulled a great big garbage bag out of a dumpster that was full to bursting of almost nothing but beer cans (some $8-worth) and a tasty unopened store-bought sandwich—only 6 measly days past its best-before-date!

Buildings and waste haulers may have their good reasons for zealously locking dumpsters to keep  dumpster divers and binners such as myself out. But as long as I have a clear self-interest in unlocking dumpsters I will continue to unlock them, confident in the knowledge that in doing so I am causing no noise, mess or property damage.

The worst I believe that can be said of tidy and respectful dumpster divers and binners is that we are freeing up space in dumpsters, helping to make sure that reusables get reused, recyclables get recycled and the deposit value paid on tens of thousands of returnable beverage containers does not either go to waste or simply go to feather the bottom line of a private waste hauling company. Click the images to enlarge them.

One of the 1000s of fresh food items that go in the garbage every day but don't stay there.

One of 1000s of fresh food items that go in the garbage every day but don’t stay there.

From → Binning, Fairview

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