One Man’s Trash is Another’s Weeknight Dinner: Lessons from a Dumpster Diver

Reader Contribution by Rehana Franklin
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Above: The bounty derived from one dumpster diving excursion.

Are you environmentally conscientious? Interested in social justice? Marginally bothered by the food industry, landfills, or consumer culture? Interested in free, quality eats? Looking for creative ways to cook up some fun?

If yes, then look no further than your local trash receptacles.

Is Dumpster Diving Legal?

According to Freegan, “Dumpster diving is legal in the United States except where prohibited by local regulation. According to a 1988 Supreme Court Ruling (California vs. Greenwood), when a person throws something out, that item is now the public domain.”

Unless a dumpster is located against a building or enclosed by a fence with “No Trespassing” signs, they are veritable treasure troves ripe for plundering. Even if your budget isn’t as tight as mine, some facts might bolster the case to supplement your needs with “trash”:

“In the USA, 30-40% of food supply is wasted, equaling more than 20 pounds of food per person per month.”

“Consumers in industrialized countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (222 million vs. 230 million tons).

“In the USA, organic waste is the second highest component of landfills, which are the largest source of methane emissions.” World Food Day

These draw-dropping statistics that read apocalyptically to some, are not a resignation to cynicism or apathy. An easy way to proactively take control of our consumption lies right behind most chain stores.

I am a regular diver, and have found innumerable delicacies ranging for barely ripe avocadoes, to yogurt, to bags of peanuts. Others have taken diving to whole different level. In February, Wiredmagazine ran an article featuring Matt Malone, a scavenger of college campuses and retailers including Circuit City and Best Buy. “If he were to dedicate himself to the activity as a full-time job, he says, finding various discarded treasures, refurbishing and selling them off, he’s confident he could pull in at least $250,000 a year…He lists a few recent ‘recoveries’: vacuums, power tools, furniture, carpeting, industrial machines, assorted electronics.” 

Not only is dumpster diving a great way to supplement your diet, your hobbies, your bank account, or recreate Christmas morning any day of the week, it’s also a cheap form of excitement and adventure.

How to Dumpster Dive

If you bike, you are limited to what you can carry. Depending on your needs and location, a back-pack to fill with produce, or the entire flatbed of a pick-up truck will do.

I prefer to dive during the evening, after most stores have closed. This insures that the dumpsters are freshly stocked with the days’ refuse, and avoids any unwanted attention. While dumpster diving is generally legal, local laws may vary, and some store owners don’t take kindly to scavengers. I’ve seen employees walk by and smile while I’ve waded waist deep in the trash, and I’ve also heard horror stories of managers cursing and yelling at less fortunate divers.

You’ll want to wear long pants, sturdy shoes, and sleeves and gloves if you’re on the squeamish side. Considering the FDA regulations leave wide margins for E. Coli, and we come into contact with fecal matter every time we use an escalator or handle cash, slightly bruised produce doesn’t seem too risky to me. Bring a flashlight or headlamp if you’re diving after dark. Crates might come in handy if you’re on four wheels, though usually there are plenty of cardboard boxes in the trash. The adrenalin is heightened by climbing, rummaging and lifting, making diving a fairly physical activity.

Once the hunt is over, it’s wise to wash your hands, and certainly sanitize any edibles. A sink full of hot water, with a healthy glug of apple cider vinegar does the trick at my house. Change the water as soon as it gets murky, and use common sense when dealing with meat or dairy products- administer a sniff test and check expiration dates. Some folks hold out until winter for meat foraging. Universities are great locations- when the dorms close for the summer, it can feel like an El Dorado of used or simply discarded clothes, furniture, school supplies and electronics. This last week, my housemates and I brought home four boxes of produce, including sprouts, melons, berries, greens, bananas and beets, and close to three boxes of cookies and crackers. A couple weeks ago we rejoiced over a cooler full of greek yogurt, every imaginable brand of chips, and two cupboards worth of canned goods.

Whatever the reasons behind dumpster diving, the activity is receiving broader attention, and rightfully so. Whether you’re broke and looking for cheap and more interesting eats, an environmentalist, a spendthrift, or a profiteer, the dumpsters have something to offer.

Photo by Randi B.Hagi 

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