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Down at the dump, townies mine for treasure

Even the affluent find no shame in scrounging for secondhand goods of a throwaway society

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / May 17, 2008

WELLESLEY - Valerie Gates strolled through the town dump extolling the virtues of reducing, reusing, and recycling while collecting secondhand drinking glasses in a broken plastic laundry basket.

"Half my house is furnished from the dump," she admitted, not the least bit sheepishly.

Then, she loaded the free loot into her silver BMW.

Welcome to the Wellesley Recycling and Disposal facility, where, on any given Saturday, families drive up in Volvos, Mercedes-Benzes, and minivans stuffed with garbage and old tuna cans. They come to the town dump to drop off their trash and soon start picking through their neighbors' castoffs.

At a time when middle-class Americans are cutting back on their discretionary spending, when eco-minded consumers are agonizing about whether their children really need more cheap plastic toys, when craigslist.com has made used shopping practically fashionable, dump-site swap shops are thriving. Massachusetts residents, showcasing the spirit of Yankee thrift, support take-it-or-leave-it areas at landfills and transfer stations in at least 71 communities, including some of the priciest ZIP codes in the commonwealth.

It is an enduring curiosity that people who can afford to live in a place like Wellesley, Winchester, or Weston are willing to drive their own trash to a town transfer station. It's even more curious that they will stay and pick through their neighbors' junk.

But the junkyard treasures are plentiful in these affluent towns - where many people can't be bothered to have yard sales and others are quick to toss items that are gently used, if used at all.

In Carlisle this month, Tim Donohue picked up a working iPod. In Hingham, Donna Scampoli found cherry-and-leather barstools, still in the box. Notable finds at Wellesley's Take-It-Or-Leave-It swap shop include a rare book worth $12,000. And one man claims he scored a baseball signed by Ted Williams.

The swaps have become so popular that in some towns, officials have taken measures to keep away out-of-town scavengers and imposed new rules to discourage aggressive tactics.

Hingham employs a full-time monitor who demands to see ID from people without town stickers on their cars. Violators get written warnings. Repeat offenders get no-trespass orders mailed to their homes.

Sometimes, the workers call in police to help. Once, they caught 40 out-of-towners in a single day.

"A lot of these people will come by and pick up stuff, try to sell it on eBay. I'm trying to keep that from happening," said Randy Sylvester, assistant superintendent of Hingham's Department of Public Works.

His concern is more about what these interlopers leave than what they take: Next year, Hingham will be paying $97 a ton to move waste from the transfer station. "If they get through, they can be dumping trash, and that costs the town of Hingham money," Sylvester said.

Nantucket has a different philosophy: If you're willing to haul stuff off the island, you're welcome to it. The swap shop at the dump off Madaket Road is nicknamed "The Madaket Mall." In a shingled shack lightly redolent of mothballs, designer clothes are thrown in disarray on a table and classical music tinkles in the background. Sometimes, squabbles break out over particularly prized items.

Bonne Kehoe of New Canaan, Conn., redecorates Nantucket cottages with her finds from the "mall." Her daughter, Marley, finds vintage fashions there.

"There's no shame," said Liz Huberman, a 23-year-old office manager who counts a Prada bag and a flat-screen PC monitor among her best Madaket Mall discoveries. "It costs a fortune to live out here. Every penny counts."

Nantucket's swap is undergoing something of a culture war, says Toni Nablusi, the attendant. While the mall was always used by the locals, she said, immigrants who work on the island are now flocking to it. Sometimes people dash out to the parking lot to grab items arriving for the swap before the goods even make it into the shack.

"People aren't respectful. They're like seagulls," said Gerbert Keller, a painting contractor.

Nantucket had to post rules to keep things orderly - including a ban on tag-teaming, or positioning a lookout at the entrance to alert an inside man to promising incoming cars.

At the gold standard of swap shops in Wellesley, a crew of more than 100 volunteers rescued the town swap from budget cuts and now runs it as a nonprofit, sorting and categorizing items into stacks, from skis to suitcases.

On a recent Saturday, Efrain Bautista picked up a Weber grill. Alex Gavis, who once found a first edition book - "The Islands of Boston Harbor" by Edward Rowe Snow, worth $300 - walked away with a Bianchi racing bike. Moneer Azzam, president of SolarOne Solutions in Framingham, made off with three matching wooden chairs and a tall fan for his office. "I came to drop stuff off," Azzam said. "That's the problem with these swaps."

It is no surprise that swap shops should be thriving. So, too, are websites like craigslist, eBay, and freecycle, where people swap, buy, and sell goods. Juliet B. Schor, the author of "The Overspent American," thinks the secondary markets are rich with used commodities because people spent the past 10 years in acquisition mode.

Competitive prices for clothing, household goods, and even electronics have been encouraging people to keep on buying, to trade up for the latest models, said Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College. Even cellphones go out of fashion long before they're out of function.

But now, she said, with consumers growing more concerned about their impact on the environment, shopping for used items can be a "badge of honor."

The swaps provide some measure of guilt relief, especially to parents who traffic in big, molded plastic toys that can be hard to dispose of but are easily sanitized and reused.

For eco-minded parents, stumbling onto toys that are valuable, free, and otherwise headed to a landfill? Priceless.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com

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