Getting By: How Vermonters Are Surviving the Recession
Early in life, Mikey Van Gulden  discovered he had a knack for reusing old and worn items. As the youngest of 10 siblings, he did so by necessity — most of his toys and clothes belonged to his elders before he ever got hold of them.
Today Van Gulden, 40, is a world-class dumpster diver — a term he uses proudly to describe himself. And he’s got a basement full of diving “trophies” to show for it: bar stools, wall lamps, a Christmas manger scene (minus a wise man or two), a Thule roof rack still in the original box, vintage cardboard cutouts of Star Wars’ Han Solo and Princess Leia, and more. About 80 percent of Van Gulden’s downtown Burlington apartment is furnished with odds and ends he salvaged from the trash heap.
His best finds: a wooden wine rack and a top-load beer refrigerator he hauled away from the old Rusty Scuffer restaurant on Church Street while the place was being renovated. For $80, a repairperson patched a hole in the refrigerator’s compressor line and refilled it with freon. Now it’s as good as new.
But Van Gulden’s real specialty is bicycles, which seem to accumulate in his basement by the dozens. He’s got rows of them — mountain bikes, BMX bikes, even a high-end Italian women’s road racer that was kicked to the curb for no apparent reason.
“When people get tired of a bicycle — especially kids’ bikes, because they outgrow them so quickly — they just throw them away,” Van Gulden says, shaking his head. “I’m appalled at the notion that people think it’s OK to throw out a bike. It’s highly wasteful.”
Most of the two-wheelers Van Gulden has rescued need just a few minor repairs, such as new tires, brakes, inner tubes, derailleur cables, or the occasional pedal or gear. Then he turns around and sells them or, more often, barters with friends.
Van Gulden, who works nights at Higher Ground , says he does his best dumpster diving in the early-morning hours after work, when most South Burlington businesses are closed. He makes a regular circuit through the box stores and big chains — the larger national stores tend to get rid of more usable stuff than do local businesses, he claims, and he’s figured out their garbage trucks’ schedules.
Technically, dumpster diving isn’t illegal, as Van Gulden learned on a recent outing to the Anchorage Inn . He was in the process of rescuing a dozen or so wall lamps headed for the landfill — though old, they were all perfectly functional — when a South Burlington police officer stopped him. She informed Van Gulden that he’d have to leave if someone from the hotel asked him to. He agreed, then continued rummaging.
“Rubbish is rubbish, trash is trash,” he says. “It’s not like I was going through credit-card receipts.”
Van Gulden doesn’t just seek out durable goods. Occasionally, he’ll find a bag of day-old bagels behind a bagel shop, or make a sweet find outside Lake Champlain Chocolates , where he’s discovered factory seconds that couldn’t be sold but were still edible.
When asked if he’s afraid of getting food poisoning, Van Gulden shakes his long black dreads. “No, I love chocolate,” he says. “I’m not going to eat any shwaggy chocolate.”
Van Gulden has a few suggestions for anyone interested in diving into this activity: Wear a sturdy pair of overalls, heavy-duty boots, reinforced gloves and a headlamp. Also, bring along a roll of duct tape for binding loose items or repairing torn bags, such as those of pet food, which often end up in dumpsters.
In fact, Van Gulden regularly stops at the Petco dumpster in South Burlington, where he often finds bags of usable dog food or dented tins of cat food. (By contrast, he says, he rarely finds usable goods outside Pet Food Warehouse .)
Typically, he observes, the dog food ended up in the trash because of a tear in the bag or for some minor aesthetic reason, such as a missing label. On one trip, Van Gulden came home with four 40-pound bags of premium dog food that was still edible, though he had no one to feed it to.
“I don’t actually own any pets,” he says. “It’s a strange twist.”
Van Gulden barters the pet food to friends, including one who owns a farm just outside Burlington and trades it for dozens of free-range eggs.
“All my friends who have cats and dogs have benefited from this,” Van Gulden says. “It’s kind of fun, like a scavenger hunt. There’s so much cool stuff out there, and you never know what you’re going to find.”