The Dumpster Divide
Trash can alchemist Michael Horowitz turns waste into something that matters
During the creep of dawn, while the residents of Eugene, Oregon, remain burrowed in their blankets, Michael Horowitz peers over the edge of a dumpster and examines its contents. During the week, someone has managed to jam a couch into the receptacle by breaking it into three pieces, creating an obstruction for the fifty-three-year-old physics teacher. Horowitz reaches between splintered shards of wood and retrieves six unblemished coffee mugs from a garbage bag, carefully lining them up on the lip of the dumpster like a set of ceramic teeth. Something in the far corner of the bin draws his attention. “I’m going in,” he says.
In one swift motion, Horowitz props his stomach on the dumpster’s edge and tips his body inward. A robed woman walking an overweight terrier appears puzzled by the sight of an inverted torso protruding from her trash but says nothing and continues on her way. Horowitz returns to the surface clutching a powder-blue pillow streaked with tapioca. Undeterred by the mess, he simply discards the soiled pillowcase and tucks the pillow under his arm. “There’s still something good down there. I think I’ll try the grabber,” he says, walking back to his aging Toyota pickup.
Horowitz unloads the salvaged items onto the bed of his truck and returns with the grabber, a two-pronged mechanical gripping stick. Reaching into the back of the bin, he snags an abandoned bath towel with surgical precision. “It’s kind of like fishing,” he notes, slinging the find over his shoulder. So far, the morning’s catch is piled into the back of his truck. The bounty includes a fleece jacket, a full-length mirror, five cans of sardines in hot sauce, a two-disc DVD set of World War II movies, T-shirts, a plastic bowling pin, and, yes, a fishing rod. Not bad for a brief search before the start of a school day.
“Even people with no money throw away quality stuff.”
Without fail, Horowitz scours more than two hundred dumpsters every week in hopes of giving reusable items a second chance. In the nine years since Horowitz began his crusade against waste, he has yet to miss a single weekend. Not for rain, not for holidays, not for a broken toe or the temporary loss of vision in his left eye. Once, when his truck broke down, Horowitz went so far as to spend seventy-five dollars on a rental car to complete the ritual. “A worthwhile investment, considering it was a better-than-average weekend,” he says. And these weekends add up. In a single year, the soft-spoken high school teacher finds, washes, and donates more than eleven thousand dollars in household items to local charitable organizations. Because of Horowitz, these throwaways end up in the arms of people in need, instead of the local landfill.
On Monday morning, cardboard boxes begin to pile up on the living room floor. By week’s end, there are enough of them to block the entry way to the one-bedroom ranch house. Inside lie neatly folded jackets, jeans, sweaters, socks, T-shirts, and towels. For one week of scavenging, the amount of reclaimed goods is staggering.
Horowitz requested a late start to teaching day in order to facilitate his mid-week dawn dumpster runs.
Aside from the constant sound of a washer and dryer humming in unison, the house is painfully quiet. Christmas poinsettias and other abandoned plants crowd the living room window, depriving the area of its natural light. Horowitz found most of the house’s furniture and many of its appliances in the trash. Broken items are relegated to a backyard shed, where they await the discovery of their missing parts.
Although many of his dumpster discoveries are functional, Horowitz also relies on the edible. The freezer is consistently packed with steaks, ground beef, and chicken breasts, all in their original packaging, found frozen in the garbage. Slightly bruised fruits and vegetables fill the refrigerator, as does a large Mason jar full of applesauce, made from reclaimed apples. Horowitz stands in the center of the small kitchen, showing off his well-stocked shelves with all the pride of a hunter and his quarry. “I haven’t bought a loaf of bread in five years, and I don’t eat white bread,” he says. As a homeowner with no family to support, Horowitz lives off thirty-five hundred dollars each year, a mere fraction of his salary. In fact, the physics teacher spends more money on snacks for his students than he does feeding himself.
For a man who devotes thirty hours each week to picking through garbage, Horowitz has a penchant for cleanliness. In preparation for a day of dumpster diving, he puts on no fewer than four shirts and two pairs of gloves. The soles of his black sneakers are smooth from walking hundreds of miles along the city’s streets. On his way out of the door, Horowitz brandishes a pair of plastic safety goggles, which remain affixed to his face until the end of the day. With his lanky frame and just a touch of gray in his dark, wavy hair, Horowitz looks younger than most men his age. “All this climbing in and out of dumpsters gives the abs a good workout,” he quips.
With an hour to spare before school and still plenty of room in the back of the pickup truck, Horowitz steps out of his vehicle and onto the streets of Eugene’s University neighborhood. Nearby, a dumpster overflows with bags of refuse, but before approaching, the teacher instinctively reaches down to scoop up a flattened beer can from the pavement. During a day of dumpster diving, Horowitz picks up litter within his line of sight and then deposits it in the proper receptacle. Continuing past his dentist’s office en route to the trash, Horowitz exchanges brief pleasantries with a woman entering the building. “That’s my dental hygienist,” he says. “She doesn’t know what to make of me.”
Horowitz fine-tuned his environmental ethic while studying nutrition at Colorado State University in the early 1980s. “I had one of those roommates who was into natural foods and sustainability,” Horowitz says. “He ended up having more of an influence than I realized.” After graduation, Horowitz chose to pursue a teaching career, a decision that would lead him to Eugene. There, Horowitz thought he’d discovered “Ecotopia.” The progressive college town was nothing like the concrete-coated neighborhood in the Bronx where he grew up, and the mix of open space and intellectualism was exactly what he was looking for. However, as the years pressed on, Horowitz discovered that although Eugene was full of ideals, action was in short supply. “Here they talk the talk, but it’s all too superficial,” he says. “Even people with no money throw away quality stuff.”
“When people ask me if I’m having a good day, I say ‘Yeah, I’m not finding anything.’”
The dumpster revelation came to Horowitz while attending a physics teachers’ conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I had just read an article called ‘My Twenty Foot Swath,’ which said that if you keep your little path clean, the people coming behind you can enjoy it. I was appreciating this city [Minneapolis] and started picking up trash.” The simple premise of the article appealed to Horowitz’s sensibilities, and when he returned to Eugene, he stuck with the philosophy. One day, while walking downtown to meet friends for coffee, Horowitz began to collect litter along the sidewalk. Before long his hands were full, and he took the trash to a nearby trash bin. To his surprise, inside was a pair of discarded T-shirts. “I said, ‘If it’s in this dumpster, it must be all over town,’” Horowitz recalls.
Soon enough, the respected physics teacher was snaking through back alleys and apartment complexes every Saturday and Sunday as part of an intricate and ever-evolving collection route. To avoid missing reliable recoveries, Horowitz soon incorporated midweek collections into the routine. “It’s become kind of an obsession,” says Whitey Lueck, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Oregon who has known Horowitz for more than twenty years. “People want to know how he can do what he does and still have a life. Well, it is his life.”
Horowitz donates his weekly collection of towels, pillows, and blankets to Eugene’s First Place Family Center.
The cardboard boxes that fill Horowitz’s living room have also accumulated in the corners of his classroom at Winston Churchill High School. A stack of seven boxes, each one filled with binders and backpacks, stands taller than any of his students. Across the room, an ethically emblematic quote on the chalkboard reads, “No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible.” The students, however, appear more interested in the chocolate milk and apple juice from one of the room’s three mini-refrigerators. Despite suspicions, the snacks Horowitz provides to his students come from the supermarket, not a garbage can. “It costs me a thousand dollars a year, but they have something good to drink instead of Mountain Dew and the stuff in the machine,” he says with satisfaction.
Around the holidays, Horowitz decorates his classroom and sends the rest of the supplies to the Assistance League of Eugene. He is delighted that the organization relieves him of the hundreds of feet of Christmas lights that he saves, but even more so, he’s happy to help someone. When the lunch bell rings, a surprising number of students remain in the classroom, either to feast on the available snacks or to peruse the “free table” for a book or CD their teacher picked up over the weekend. While the kids get comfortable, Horowitz walks the halls of Churchill High, pulling recyclable bottles out of the garbage cans. “The only problem is [that] kids think I’m a custodian,” he says. Though some students laugh at the sight of their teacher digging through the trash, Horowitz believes others quietly acknowledge his commitment to waste reduction. “I believe the best thing a teacher can be is a role model.”
For Horowitz, the week of dumpster diving all leads up to Saturday morning. The routine begins when Horowitz transfers box after box of goods from his living room floor to the back of his truck. This week, four boxes of men’s shoes and clothing are destined for the Eugene Mission; the rest is divided among nearby family shelters. Horowitz is a regular at the Assistance League where he donates a considerable amount of clothing every week. “Mike is methodical and serious,” says shop Chairman Shannon Allen. “He folds everything neatly, labels the boxes, and even brings in the plastic hangers.” The ten to fifteen loads of laundry Horowitz washes each week are unloaded in a matter of fifteen minutes. Next Saturday he’ll do it all over again. Those who benefit from his actions will never meet the man, and the revolving cast of charity workers seldom recognizes this humble donor. But Lueck has witnessed the steady progress of Horowitz’s charitable actions through the years. “The effect one person makes is just a drop in the bucket,” he says. “But with Mike, it’s a big drop.”
Although Horowitz’s salvaged items have brought relief to many lives, the modest physics teacher has bolder ambitions for the future. “I’m just sitting on all this money right now. Sooner or later I’ll find the right way to use it.” For Horowitz, the “right way” won’t be a new convertible or a vacation in the islands. Two years ago, Horowitz began helping a former student pay his way through college as a more direct way of reaching out to those in need. Although Horowitz is occasionally tempted to break the nine-year streak of dumpster diving, the knowledge that he’s bringing a bit of comfort into the lives of others is enough to keep him returning to the trash bins week after week. “When people ask me if I’m having a good day, I say, ‘Yeah, I’m not finding anything.’” And as long as the dumpsters continue to bear fruit, Horowitz will be out there peeking under their lids.