FEW things unite a neighborhood like an open dumpster.
Park a large, lidless container in front of your house for construction debris or a seasonal de-cluttering and within days you may feel like your block's unofficial trash man, if not its junk collector. Accepting other people's unwanted stuff sure makes you popular.
During the roughly two months a tan, boxcar-sized metal dumpster squatted curbside for the remodel of my Pasadena home, word of the bin's accessibility for public use saturated the area like an ad for free iPods. Suddenly, it was open season for garage clean-outs, liquor-bottle disposal, mystery trash and dog waste, not to mention a place to jettison dearly departed Aunt Tillie's old furniture.
Filthy or not, my dumpster became a sort of waste-disposal Mecca, with neighbors and assorted opportunists visiting it regularly to pay tribute.
As a neat freak, it's not as though I can't sympathize with the need to rid oneself of excess. Plus an open dumpster has the thrill of pirated cable, a serendipitous chance the universe wants you to seize. Unless, of course, you're the guy who actually paid for the cable line your neighbors rewired for their enjoyment. Or, if you value sleep, and that concussive boom in the wee hours means yet another unauthorized junk tosser has dumped-and-ditched again.
Like owning a home in Southern California, renting a dumpster isn't cheap. The monster 40-cubic-yarder I rented cost about $350 for 10 days. Once packed to its corrugated rafters, it has to be emptied -- also not inexpensive. So when the neighbor's moth-eaten curtains gobble up your highly prized dumpster space, well, it's a call to surveillance.
Not long after my bin was hauled to my house by a flatbed truck, I noticed an ancient-looking, wood-paneled television listing on top of the mound of debris that was supposed to be only the gutted remains of my old patio. The castoff TV, which must have taken a hardy heave to clear the container's 8-foot wall, piqued my curiosity. So, in the name of suburban sociology, I took my first dumpster dive.
Next to the ancient TV was a thick roll of floral carpeting only your grandma would steam-clean. Keeping it company was a large jug three-quarters filled with a whitish, watery goo of uncertain composition and undeniable stench. Whoever had planted the container placed it carefully across from other flotsam also not from my remodel: three 12-pack beer containers, some bag-sealed dog doo, the legs of what appeared to be an old chrome chair, half a couch, a potpourri of twisted fabrics and grocery bags of junk buried too deep for a look-see without a spacesuit.
I hadn't known this before, but bin companies catering to home remodelers say that neighbors who stealthily unload their stuff into their customer's rented dumpsters are carrying on a cat-and-mouse tradition as old as the subdivision. To keep your dumpster yours, experts advise covering the top with a tarp. Doing that means accessing your bin through ground-level doors that can be locked at night, when opportunists prowl.
People who ignore this counsel -- like me -- have found decaying mattresses, construction drywall from somebody else's job, old-fashioned gas stoves, palm fronds, mementos of the recently deceased and the occasional dead critter in their rentals.
A dumpster is often an easy mark for laborers needing quick disposal of hazardous waste -- paint, solvents, asbestos -- that's supposed to get special handling under environmental laws.
Elizabeth Randall, the seen-it-all general manager at Chatsworth-based Rent-a-Bin, dubs trash cheats "bin pirates." It's the single biggest customer complaint she hears.
"If you're paying $85 for a bin and somebody fills it up halfway with their stuff," she said, "you've been pirated, ripped off."
Randall's company, as others, will charge more if your bin is found to be over its weight limit at the landfill scale. For one with a 6-ton limit, renters can get stuck with a fee of $35 per extra ton.
My across-the-street neighbors own a city-issued mini-dumpster for their large house that serves as my block's private landfill. Everybody unloads in it. Though I have permission to use it for my periodic cleaning blitzes, I feel like a criminal -- eyes darting, neck craning -- when I do and exhilarated when I'm done. There's just something about de-cluttering at someone else's expense that can twang the guilt and liberate simultaneously.
Dumpster freeloaders, even the renters themselves, can be a resourceful bunch. Steve Pivovaroff, general manager at South El Monte-based General Waste Disposal, said people sometimes line the insides of dumpsters with plywood to extend the height of the walls so they can pile in more debris. The larger the bin, the more inviting it is for abuse.
And abuse there is.
"A lot of times, I'll pull up on a job, and there are neighbors there waiting to dump stuff," Pivovaroff explained. "I'll say that's not yours, and they say no, they are buddies" with the renter when no OK was given. Some "clients will say take the bin away as soon as it's finished because I don't want my neighbors to use it! Some will be asking for a locking lid."
Pivovaroff believes there's probably a subtle form of remodeling NIMBY-ism playing out. Neighbors annoyed that your new patio or master bedroom construction has slapped them with months' worth of dust, early-morning racket, street-hogging trucks and legions of workers may feel they have some implicit dumpster rights. Or at least an excuse.
Determined to catch a bin pirate in mid-toss, I kept alert when my communal dumpster filled to the point I feared it might tip over. Rustling outside grabbed my attention one Wednesday, so I raced out of my home office to chastise the offender that I'm not Pasadena's Fred Sanford.
Some bust: It was merely a worker from across the street using my port-a-potty.
Chip Jacobs is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.