Shopping for rubbish

Posted on February 29th, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

One thing that I’ve always been happy to do is go through other people’s rubbish. Simply, it seems to me – and has always seemed to me – that if you can get something for nothing because it is being thrown away, and that item is of use, it’s a win for you.

So right from the time I first got mobile as a kid on a bicycle, I’ve been happy going through bins and scouring the dump. In fact, I well remember early Sunday morning jaunts through the industrial suburbs near where I lived. The trips weren’t random; nope, I’d use the Yellow Pages to find the factories likely to be throwing away the items I was after, consult the street directory to locate the premises, draw up a map, and then head out to find my treasures. And very often come home with just what I wanted.

All pretty logical for a 13 year old.

One local factory made furniture and each week in their skip were five or so 1 metre-square pieces of plywood. They all had an odd keyhole-shaped cut-out in one corner but apart from that, they were completely pristine. So every Sunday I went and collected them, bringing them home on the pushbike. Another factory made insulation, and for no apparent reason discarded batt after batt of fibreglass. Another threw away copper tube, and another often had reasonable sized sheets of glass. Since my interest at that time was solar energy, it wasn’t a great step to construct my own plate-type solar water heaters, low temperature food warmers, and so on.

Thinking back, all I had to actually pay for was a few cans of matt black spray paint and some woodscrews…

And I’ve always loved secondhand shops – ‘junk shops’ as they were known to me. At about the same age I wanted what it seemed everyone else in the world had – and I hadn’t. It was a cassette player: in an austere household, my needs were simple! The local junk store had a used cassette player in the window – I think it was $7 and I offered $5. I’ll always remember the proprietor’s reply.

“Put it back in the window mate; someone else will buy it…” he’d said with yawning indifference.

I stumped up the extra cash, then found that the quality of the unit was lousy: there was a reason for that low, low price.

But I also found that if I hooked up a separate speaker, the sound quality was hugely improved. That new speaker came out of a TV that I’d hauled out of a (mostly) dry storm-water drain. Without tools I hadn’t been able to get the speaker out of the TV cabinet, and so I had brought that full-size TV home on the back of my bike. It was so heavy on the rear carrier that I remember having to lean forward on the handlebars to stop the front wheel coming off the ground. Imagine my chagrin when I pulled the thing apart and found a concrete block bolted to the base of the cabinet, presumably to give it better stability… I could have done without the exertion of bringing that particular component home!

So with that sort of scrounging childhood, it’s no surprise that I’ve never had the slightest contempt for anyone going through bins. (Oh yes, back then I used to collect drink cans too. Even though there was no deposit on them, the aluminium cans could be sold to scrap metal merchants by the kilogram.) In fact, these days when I see bins outside building sites – overflowing with copper tube and wiring and timber and insulation and gyprock and all the rest – I am more astounded at the absence of intelligent people helping themselves to other people’s junk than I am by anyone who might be filling a trailer with good stuff. (Of course it makes sense to ask first – but if they’re approached the right way, very few of those in authority will knock back the request.)

But the situation with dumps has long been different – it’s now many years since they were a place where you could help yourself. Invariably, dumps (or tips, as some refer to them) are privately owned, and because the owners want to salvage the goods for themselves, or because of public liability insurance risks when you get down and dirty, dumps in the last decade or so have become places where you carefully deposit your rubbish and then just as carefully leave.

Empty handed.

However, the situation is changing. What are popping up now are ‘dump shops’ – areas set aside adjacent to the dump where the many discarded items are displayed. Some dump shops even have trucks that continuously drive from the dump face to the shop and then back to the dump, collecting the junk and putting it in the shop. (‘Shop’ might not give you an accurate mental picture – some are just open areas of recently reclaimed ground!)

But what makes these shops so good are the prices. Basically, the stuff’s so near to being free that it doesn’t really matter – try perhaps 1/10th – 1/100th the price that you might find in a secondhand store…

And there’s still the same old fun of the chase; the same challenge of looking at what other people thought worthless and thinking up uses – one of the most lateral thought processes imaginable. There’s still the enjoyment of the bargain, the excitement of the unexpected, the need for judgement and discernment. In fact, for me it’s very much like a return to childhood bin scouring, except there’s been a measure of pre-sorting that means you don’t get to handle last week’s half-eaten rotting lunch, and when you’ve finished collecting a box of goodies, you have to hand over some cash.

Well, how much cash then?

It’s hard to describe, but if I tell that you that I have never payed more than AUD$7.50 for an easily-carried cardboard box packed with stuff, that might be a clue.

Take last week. My fiancé Georgina had a day off work (and she’s as fanatically enthusiastic about the dump shop as I am – just as well for relationship bliss!) and so off we went to the dump shop.

(If I tell that you it’s a 130-kilometre round trip, that might give you an idea of its attraction.)

The stock changes dramatically quickly – perhaps one third of all on display each week is new. And so when I stumbled on nirvana I wasn’t surprised. Excited – I sure was. But surprised, no. And what was nirvana? A collection of car parts from very late model Holdens – the apparently defective discards of a dealer.

There were oxygen sensors and electric window motors, engine ECUs and ABS solenoids, crankshaft and camshaft sensors and wiring harnesses, starter motors and air con compressors, switchgear and fuel pumps. And all from cars less than a few years old.

Excited? I was almost speechless. I violently semaphored the distant Georgina to come help me and then we went rapidly through the 9 or 10 square metres of items on display. Given that in many cases parts replaced under factory warranty aren’t in fact defective, I knew that lots of these components would still work. But even if they didn’t, being able to pull apart a cruise control actuator, the top half of a Bosch ABS unit, the switch from the PRNDL gear lever – all that was worthwhile just the for the learning alone.

We rapidly filled two cardboard boxes – each about 300 x 400 x 400mm – and then got them priced.

“Ah, this is hard,” said the deputy dump shop man. “Ahhhh… how’s fifteen bucks sound?”

That was OK with me so we loaded them into my Lexus LS400. (Mine is the only Lexus I have ever seen at the dump shop!)

At home I found that all the door locking motors worked; two of the three window motors worked; the starter motor was completely stuffed; the PRNDL switches (two of them) looked fine; when disassembled, the top half of the Bosch ABS unit was fascinating and also beautifully built; the Delphi cruise control actuator used a stepper motor and solenoid that’s quite crudely engineered; hell, it goes on and on. (This sentence covers perhaps one-third of all I bought.)

I’ve never before seen such a collection of car parts at the dump shop, but that’s part of its attraction – the lure of the unexpected. But even the more common stuff is still great for anyone into working with their hands. I’ve picked up three electric drills (perhaps each cost me a dollar – one had a faulty chuck but the others work fine); numerous brackets for shelving (hmm, at perhaps 10 cents each – and some are still marked with their new $9 price!); long heavy-duty extension cords (about $2); and paint and knobs and thermostats and fans and cable and hoses and switches and pilot lights and relays and threaded rods and rose joints and pop rivets and high tensile nuts & bolts and ….

Oftentimes you just have to shake your head – why on earth would anyone throw this stuff away? But it’s a fact of life that in our affluent societies they do, and that other people can take advantage of it…

There are many, many areas where I buy brand new, or alternatively, am prepared to pay high dollars for a recent secondhand examples – items up to a few years old. I’ve always done that with my main cars, I do that with computer gear and my most of my test instruments and cameras and lenses.

But there’s also a huge amount of stuff where technological progress is slow and where a 10 year old example is just as good as a new one out of the shop. And often is better. I mean, what’s a new electric drill going to provide that the reversible, variable speed design that I got from the dump shop the other day for $2 doesn’t?

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