Dumpster Diving Professor



Bio | Email | Follow: @jasonwhitely


Posted on November 3, 2011 at 10:49 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jan 15 at 5:17 PM

FORT WORTH — Don't ask Jeff Ferrell to define "fun."

"If I'm on two wheels, I'm having a good time," he said, riding his mountain bike down an older residential street in central Fort Worth.

He might find biking fun, but admits his real passion is Dumpster-diving.

"Looks like a comforter," Ferrell, 57, said holding up a used, blue comforter he pulled out of a trash bag in a large garbage container. "I know this may repulse you, but all the comforters and sheets on our bed are scrounged. When you take this home, wash it in hot water, use a little bleach, dry it... it's good as new."

He checks dozens of large garbage cans every day on his bicycle and lives off the urban environment.

Not just his bedding, but Ferrell's clothes, even art and curiosities in his house were pulled right out of the trash.

Ferrell calls it "scrounging," and he's as fearless as he is fascinating.

Checking behind a strip center on Camp Bowie Boulevard, he discovered a bag of leftover donuts.

Beneath a few pieces of tissue paper, an old coffee cup, and a swarm of honeybees, Ferrell lugs out what appears to be a potato sack full of donuts that didn't sell in a nearby shop.

"They're not flies," Ferrell said. "They're just bees."

That said, he doesn't hesitate taking a bite out of one of the donuts.

"Delicious," Ferrell declared, chewing a jelly-filled pastry. "This is just a bag of donuts. It's not mixed with cat litter."

Ferrell is far from homeless.

He's a sociology professor at TCU, has a Ph.D and has written nine books, including one about living off the urban environment called "Empire of the Scrounge."

He said the lifestyle is growing because the economy isn't.

"For me, it's very much about keeping things out of the landfill and putting them back in circulation," Ferrell said. "There's too much need these days — too many people barely making it to let these kinds of things go to waste."

Ferrell has rescued antique toys from the trash, military knives from World War II, a law book from the late 1800s, watches that work and even a diamond bracelet, among other things.

In addition, his backyard shed is stunning. It's a crowded nest of spare parts, trinkets and tools also pulled out of the trash.

He urges friends to shop here for free before a trip to Home Depot.

Ferrell has been digging through Fort Worth garbage for more than a decade, concentrating on large garbage containers at apartment complexes, strip centers and even restaurants. He can't keep everything he finds. There's too much.

So he takes truckloads of items to local charities.

"Each time they bring a delivery it's like 'Woo hoo, it's Christmas again!,'" said Janice Culpepper of Grace United Methodist Church of Fort Worth.

At age 90, Nadine Nichols runs Jenna's Hope of Grace, a small charity shop in Central Fort Worth.

Ferrell has donated nine truckloads of things this year that he dug out of the trash, including clothes, lamps, bulbs and baskets.

"And a lot of them still have price tags on them," Nichols added.

Exploring the alleys and garbage of Fort Worth, Ferrell proves we're a highly disposable society.

"I've even taken Dumpster-dive food to parties, and after they've said how much the like it, then I told them where it came from," Ferrell said.

Ferrell added that he's never gotten sick eating out of the trash. He's selective, and trusts his nose as a wise street scavenger.

Ferrell digs daily through what we discard to highlight how much we waste.

That's his definition of "fun."

E-mail jwhitely@wfaa.com