My Fast-Food Cups Runneth Over
I just practically scored a free Coke out of a recycling bin. Yep, just plucked seven caps off the top of the heap. With the codes entered online, I'll be one cap away from a 20-oz.
You might think this is nasty, but it's just something I do. I scour Craigslist for free items that I might be able to use or sell. I check for deals online. And to a limit, I'll dig through trash. Some might say this is unhygienic, strange or just downright dirty. I tend to believe it's practical to take refuse and turn its latent value into treasure.
Just ask my friends. In college, four of us fashioned a dumpster-diving scheme that netted us some big bucks and high-flying benefits. A fast-food restaurant was giving away free airline tickets with drink purchases. The thing was, you had to accumulate the drink cups, cut out proofs of purchase and send them to the restaurant, which credited your account at the airline with the free trips.
Instead of purchasing the 64 drinks required for the round-trips, we decided to take a quicker route, cutting out that pesky middle man. We'd just get our plunder right out of the dumpster.
Now, it must be said that only college kids can come up with stuff like this. I make actual money now and have a real job that I wouldn't want to risk to spend all night knee-deep in discarded chili, wading through bags of grease and cups saturated with ketchup and other, unidentifiable substances.
But we had a few things going for us that made the perfect recipe for dumpster-diving success: a propensity to stay up late, a desire for mischievous adventure and a desperate need for cash.
I won't say we started small, for our first undertaking was a lofty feat. Armed with headlamps, latex gloves and garbage bags, we raided 13 dumpsters across at least five different cities. The idea for the initial mission was to get enough cups that we could all have two round-trip tickets throughout the continental U.S. When dawn broke, we were sitting on a stack of more than 500, enough for each of us to fly free to Seattle and back - twice.
With our hard-earned but rousing success, we began thinking of how we might further capitalize on our newfound and profoundly disgusting hobby. A light bulb went off in my brain. Ebay.
We checked the online auction site, and cups were going for more than a dollar a piece, sometimes for even more than it would cost to actually get a large Coke from the restaurant. Dollar signs began to dance in our heads. It was almost too much joy to take in, especially after the grueling sortie we had just endured. In our eyes, those yellow squares of cardboard printed on the cups were bricks of gold.
But all good things come with a price. Dumpster diving is not for the faint of heart - or stomach. Fast-food dumpsters are the repository for anything and everything that is unholy about American cuisine, if you can even dignify it with such a name. If hell had a specially tailored torture method for each of the senses, the smell test would employ the very odor emitted by those metal boxes of horror.
Inside the dumpster, a light undertone of ketchup permeates everything. Rotting burgers, flat sodas of various flavors, moldy chili, limp french fries and tossed salads create a vortex of olfactory assault that makes my innards churn even now. Every restaurant has a heavy black bag of the night's cooking grease. Eventually we made a game out of finding it, like a putrid Easter egg hunt.
We had to do something to stay entertained. You see, that first night only the beginning of month-long effort to gain as many cups as possible. We made a solemn pact not to share our discovery with outsiders. That way, no one could interrupt our supply. We'd split all the cups we got with the group, even if they were gained on an individual mission.
We devised a system to optimize the our cup-harvesting capabilities while diminishing the disgusting aspects of the job. We traded smaller latex gloves for the dish-washing variety that covered the whole forearm. We used headlamps to free up our arms. When dumpsters were full enough, we learned we could stand outside instead of plunging in. When we did have to enter, we'd throw cups out to other team members who'd quickly stash them in garbage bags. We'd process them later at home. Sometimes we split into teams of two and set out in opposite directions to cover a broader swath of north Georgia.
Soon, others began to catch on. We uncovered a cup-smuggling ring in Columbus, where a guy was bribing workers to hand over a nightly stash. In Commerce, we ran into a guy in the dumpster. We booted him out and jumped in, just to flee before the dump truck emptied the dumpster's contents into its trailer.
The Athens market was saturated with scavengers and soon dried up. The promotion finally ended. We had gathered more than 2,000 cups. We gave the tickets we won as gifts or sold them on Ebay. Even after expenses and a botched Ebay deal, each of the four of us still walked away with $364 and two round-trips.
You can't beat free business class on the way back from your honeymoon in Arizona. As I looked beyond the curtain that separated me from the plebeians in coach, I raised my free glass of wine to fast-food and opportunistic friends.