Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers
Edited by Laura Pritchett
University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.
Reviewed by Dawn Maturen

Demonstrating that what a society throws away says a lot about its priorities, Going Green: True Tales From Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers takes a closer look at individual efforts to reclaim and repurpose our planet—one dumpster, dishpan, old house or littered beach at a time.

For award-winning novelist Laura Pritchett gleaning is second nature. Her earliest memories center around rescuing treasures from nearby garbage cans with her brothers. Many childhood hours were filled carefully arranging found items, placing them just so, and giving them new meaning as part of a grand collection. A proud Dumpster Diver, Pritchett recognized at an early age that some treasures are found in what others discard, tossed casually in common containers. Drawing on the ability to scavenge for hidden wealth, she edited over 20 essays into one rich, thought-provoking collection. Going Green comes from her well-trained, loving eye for the rejects and cast-offs our society's consumption produces.

Pritchett introduces her readers to a host of kindred spirits, some published writers and some penning their first works, who take environmental issues beyond simply sorting paper, plastic, and glass into their proper receptacles. Each person's story tugs at the gut in its own way, not because the thought of dining on roadkill or wearing clothing found in the bike lane or a gutter revolts me, not because I found the advice, given by one seasoned diver to "watch out for diapers" when sifting through trash bags, particularly disgusting. Rather, the discomfort comes from the complex issues raised by each writer's humble contribution.

Arranging found plastic scraps and bottle tops found on the beach into works of art led one writer to ponder the immenseness of the floating debris field, the Pacific Subtropical Gyre. (Twice the size of Texas, this spinning, churning mass of battered plastic refuse is the largest of several floating garbage islands currently traveling our oceans.) Scavenging lightly spotted produce, stacked next to a grocery store dumpster, made one bin diver question why half the food produced in the United States ends up in landfills while people go hungry. Saving old homes and repurposing building materials brings up bigger dilemmas about urban sprawl and the incessant desire to build new neighborhoods, abandoning older homes and inner-cities to decay. 

Despite some heavy subject matter, Pritchett keeps the tone light enough. Funny, carefree essays, like the story shared by one young traveler, offer a glimpse into a world unencumbered by convention and consumerism; she was able to stretch her budget and see more of the world by surviving off food others left behind in hostel refrigerators and exchanging her clothes in "take me" bins when the seasons changed.

Going Green explores the ways our society views consumerism, our preference for "new" over "used," and for throwing away rather than fixing-up—but not in the preachy "do as I say, not as I do" way found in some green circles. Facts are sprinkled in, but only when absolutely essential. Entertaining more than wonky, these charming essays tell the complete tale, and, written by hands that take the time to scrub grape stains off popsicle sticks, they aren't only for those who care about the planet.  Anyone who consumes should read this book and seize the opportunity to walk in another's hand-me-down shoes, dive into someone else's dumpster, and connect a few dots in the process. Reading Going Greean would be a great start toward realizing the larger environmental implications tied to common activities.

Dawn Maturen, founder of The Michigan Barter Marketplace community, devotes her time to connecting the people and resources of her favorite state. When not busy sharing the world of barter, writing about all things Michigan, green, and local, Maturen enjoys experiencing life with her husband, hot on the heels of three busy little boys.

© Dawn Maturen, 2010