HOPE forbids rummaging in its Dumpster
MIDDLEBURY — One person’s trash is another one’s treasure, the old saying goes.
Well, a disagreement is simmering over the discarded “gold” that some folks have been trying to extract from the Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) Dumpster off 282 Boardman St. in Middlebury.
For more than seven years, Salisbury residents Brenda Dutton and Maria Murray said they’ve been doing some philanthropic Dumpster-diving at HOPE, harvesting what they say are some hidden jewels that just need some extra TLC. Socks, toys, backpacks, winter coats and boots are among their regular finds, they said during a recent interview.
They provided photos of some of their discoveries, which they’ve plucked from the waste pile, cleaned up, and given to local schools and low-income families, or sold at yard sales to generate money for charity.
“Why are they throwing out these things?” said Dutton, a former staffer with Addison County Community Action Group (ACAG), the poverty fighting nonprofit that changed its name to HOPE more than a decade ago.
“There’s no reason for all this stuff to be thrown away.”
But HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross disagreed. She said only a small fraction of the donated items that come into the organization’s headquarters are actually thrown out, and it’s because the material is either damaged, smelly, stained, or all of the above. HOPE officials want the Dumpster-diving to stop, and they’re promising to seek no-trespass orders against folks who persist.
Why? Because HOPE could be held liable for anyone injured while in the Dumpster, and because those who have rummaged through it have, at times, left a trail of debris, according to Montross.
“We’ve been cracking down on them,” she said. “We have video cameras in the store and outside. We have signs that very clearly state, ‘no Dumpster-diving,” ‘no dumping’ and ‘no trespassing.’”
Montross recalled an incident a few years ago in which a HOPE worker saw two small children jump out of the Dumpster. They then ran down the road to an adult’s car that sped away.
“We don’t begrudge people things, but they shouldn’t be in the Dumpster; it’s not safe,” Montross said. “Nobody wants people in their Dumpster.”
The HOPE headquarters is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. During those hours, people are invited to dump off good quality clothing, toys and other utilitarian items they believe could be saleable to generate proceeds for poverty fighting programs. HOPE runs a successful resale shop.
Last year, HOPE made $124,000 from the sale of donated clothing, shoes, toys and other items. The organization used that revenue for such purposes as stocking its food shelf and helping families avert electricity shutoffs.
Dutton worked at ACCAG when it maintained a used clothing repository on Court Street. Dutton believes the ACCAG operation saved a lot of items that aren’t making the cut these days at HOPE.
“When I worked for HOPE when they first moved to Boardman Street, (the late) Marion (Mumford, a stalwart volunteer) had a washer and dryer hooked up and we washed good clothing before we put it out. She did not throw them away just because they smelled,” she said.
Dutton said she’d like to see more of the HOPE donations rescued for reuse as clothing and gifts. She also believes that while some of the material being tossed might not be appropriate for a resale shop, it could be placed in the Addison County Solid Waste District’s “reuse shed,” where folks can leave and take things they might need.
But HOPE officials dispute Dutton’s evaluation of their trash, and provided an overview of their resale shop and textile salvage operations.
The agency takes in a lot of donated shoes, purses, belts, caps, stuffed animals, baled textiles and other material from Addison County residents. The nonprofit also receives excess textiles from Neat Repeats, June Bug, Round Robin and Middlebury College.
The triage process at HOPE includes a variety of bins into which donated items are placed, including summer clothes, winter clothes, holiday gifts, metal and electronics. A comparatively small bin is maintained for trash, according to Montross.
“We try to throw away as little as possible,” she said. “But that said, when you see the volume that’s coming into that warehouse, we do fill up a (trash) Dumpster every week.”
HOPE has washers to clean donated clothing. But it has to be of “high enough quality to merit” the time and expense of being put through the washer, Montross said.
Sorting is done in a manner intended to minimize waste and maximize revenue for the organization to pump into assistance for area low-income families, Montross said. The best quality merchandise makes its way to the resale shops. The least desirable items go to the rag industry. Most of it is sent to developing nations worldwide, per a contract HOPE signed with a Canadian company that pays a per-pound fee for the material.
“Every scrap that can be used, will be used,” Montross said. “There might be a customer in China who wants and entire shipping container of compressed white T-shirts. Somebody in Russia might want denim.”
In 2018, HOPE shipped out almost 114 tons of textiles. It also sent off 10,531 pounds of shoes, 2,637 pounds of belts and handbags, 1,543 pounds of soft toys, and 564 pounds of caps.
Montross conceded, however, that HOPE does throw out some donated items, due to condition or desirability issues.
“We get a lot of things we can’t use,” Montross said. “We can’t keep things around for two years hoping that the right person might come around and want it. It’s got to produce (revenue), otherwise people can’t bring in more donations and we’re not making any money. And that’s a waste.”
Another basic guideline: “It can’t be malodorous,” Montross said. “It can’t have wet, gross stains. If it’s really dirty, we don’t want to put in in the (clothing) bales.”
Montross said she recently invited Addison County Solid Waste Management District officials to inspect the HOPE Dumpster. They did, and took snapshots of its contents. Teri Kuczynski, ACSWMD manager, said the Dumpster’s contents on that day were indeed all garbage. She added district officials are asked to pay attention to loads left at the transfer station. Customers whose garbage containers include reusable items are contacted and cautioned. HOPE hasn’t been flagged for such an infraction, according to Kuczynski.
She added she doesn’t believe HOPE has been trying to throw out stuff that could find a place in the transfer station’s reuse shed.
“We have standards in our reuse center that it be in good usable condition, and it’s modeled after HOPE’s (resale shop standards) to begin with,” Kuczynski said. “We have a great partnership with HOPE, as we work to recycle large volumes of books and textiles. They bring their books to us for recycling, and we bring our textiles to them.”
‘MAKING GOOD DECISIONS’
“We trust HOPE to make good decisions about the condition of reuse materials,” she added.
Kuczynski credited folks like Dutton and Murray for their enthusiasm about putting discarded items to good use. But she noted it can be difficult to put that enthusiasm into practice — especially when dealing with large volumes of refuse.
“We all have limits, as to storage capacity and whether individuals are interested in those materials,” she said. “We have to make judgment calls on a daily basis as to whether some particular item is in reusable condition. At times some folks, to their credit, think something could be reused or refurbished or repaired, but those are the materials that don’t move, generally speaking.”
Kuczynski concluded by saying the ACSWMD doesn’t condone Dumpster-diving.
“It’s a very dangerous activity,” she said. “It creates liability for the generator, and it’s also trespassing.”
Montross said she’s offered to set items aside for Dutton and Murray, but the HOPE Dumpster will remain off-limits.
“I’ve told her that I admire what she does, but what she wants from us is not feasible,” Montross said. “I’ve tried to assist her by having my staff — as busy as they are — put aside things they thought were good. She didn’t want me to drop them off and she didn’t want to pick them up. The things that she wants most are things we don’t throw away. I’m not going to insult her by giving her a tote full of stinky stuff.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.