Urban foraging – neighborhood gleaning

We started off with dumpster diving, primarily from grocery shop dumpsters, but there is a lot more resources that can be had in urban neighborhoods. This post is all about spotting opportunities where you live, that you might normally just pass by unnoticed. There is no end to the treasures you can uncover if you start paying attention. This is only the beginning!

Construction and reconstruction dumpsters

If someone is doing a significant remodel to their home, it is not uncommon to rent a container for the debris from said remodel. If it is mainly an aesthetical remodel, you can find a great deal of good stuff in a dumpster like this. Anything from construction material to whole pieces of furniture. Shelves, chairs, suitcases, bathtubs, firewood… who knows! One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Especially if it’s free

Things to look out for with dumpsters like these is where it is located. If you need to enter private property you might get in trouble, so stay safe. But who knows, maybe the neighbor is fine with you taking some of their stuff if you are respectful and don’t make a mess? That means they get more room for their junk after all.

A lot of us dream of sustainable, beautiful houses made from wood or cob or other natural resources. But reusing what has already been made can be just as sustainable, often more! Reusing planks from a dumpster to make yourself a new shelf or table is a lot friendlier to the earth than any responsibly sourced wood you can buy!

Fruit trees and more

It always surprises me just how many gardens I see brimming with fruits and berries each autumn, only to have it rot on the ground after birds and animals have eaten their fill. Where we will, people will put out ads where they give away or charge a very low per ounce price if you come and pick their fruit for them.

Elderly neighbors and people who don’t know anyone could have a use of their fruit trees might not realize this is even an option. Have a look out the next time your walking in your neighborhood. Are there any obviously unpicked trees or bushes? Perhaps you can ask politely if they intend to use the fruit themselves. If not, maybe you can offer to pick it for them in return for some of the produce or perhaps a jar of preserves, other things they need help with that you can offer? Use your imagination and your own strengths. You might just build community by accident while you’re at it!

Parks and public spaces

Parks can be a bit more tricky. In one sense, they are public places, yes. But they are tended by gardeners who often have a plan with what they are doing. If you discover fruit trees in your local areas, the easiest is to try to find out who they belong to. A park might have a website and contact information. Maybe they even have a page about edible crops and their plan for them? I dream of the day when public parks are planted with edible plants for everyone. But as with everything – if you don’t know, ask.

College towns and transient populations

If you live in an area with an especially transient population, such as college towns, your potential pickings are even better. College students often have to leave a lot of their stuff when they head home, leading to tons of functional items at the end of each spring term. The Frugalwoods have a whole section about living in this kind of town, and all the potential treasures it can procure. While this kind of resource buy-toss-buy cycle is awful for the environment, at least we can try to reroute some of what we find for our own use.

A note on type of treasure

It should go without saying, but hunt in your neighborhood with your common sense intact. Most of us only need a limited amount of furniture and other things, so don’t pick something up just because it is there.

Metal items are generally safe and easy to wash back to pristine working order. Wood is equally easy if it looks whole and unharmed. Signs of mildew or damage can usually be sanded off and varnish re-applied, but this is more work and you might end up with a lot of “but it has potential” finds that you never actually get around to fixing.

Electronics are often a hit and miss. Even a small amount of dew at night can get into places it shouldn’t. And people usually have a reason to toss them away. Still, you might get lucky.

Plastic should not be brittle or with obvious damage or discoloration. While fabric is often the type of item that takes the most harm from being outdoors. Overnight rain or dew can settle in and riddle a chair or suitcase with mold and mildew, which can be detrimental to your health. Knowing how long since you walked a particular neighborhood last and a general idea about weather since then can be a great help.

Our friends once found a 11 L (3 gallon) pot with lid and all, stuck in the snow by the side of the road midwinter. With no obvious owner in sight, they picked it up and gave it to us (they already had one). It is invaluable when canning and preserving over summer and autumn, and the lid fits out frying pan too!

Your instincts are your best friend

Always inspect something by sight first. If something in you recoils at the sight of an item, try to listen to why it is recoiling. Is it just because it is standing outside and was used by someone else, or is it because there are suspicious-looking stains that leads you to conclude said item has a disreputable past.

Don’t just look at the item itself, look at the house and neighborhood it came from. Is the house otherwise clean and orderly, or are bent and broken items strewn in the front yard? This can tell you a lot about what kind of treatment the item might have received before it was discarded.

Only when you have done a good, thorough visual inspection of the item and its surroundings is it time to get closer. Does it stand up to a closer inspection? Is there a strong, permeating odor that makes you back away? Does anyone exit a house asking why you are looking at their table? Maybe they hadn’t discarded it all, just sat it next to their trash bins for whatever reason, so make sure to be respectful.

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