Dumpster Diving FAQ

by Ran Prieur, 2004

Creative Commons License
(A "dumpster," by the way, is the American word for the big metal garbage bin that is called a "skip" in the UK and Australia. Also it's been a few years since I wrote this, and now I do almost no dumpster diving because I'm based in Spokane where all the stores have trash compactors. Even in Seattle it seems like the best ones have dried up, but probably there are new good ones that I don't know about.)

Why do they call it "diving"? Do you go in head first?

Usually I don't have to climb in at all. I can just reach in, or climb up on the side of the dumpster and reach, or balance on my hips on the edge and lean down in, using my legs as a counterweight, which might be where "diving" comes from. And sometimes I do climb in, but not if it's too nasty.

What kind of stuff to you get out of dumpsters?

I mostly dive for high quality natural food, which is a rare specialization. There are far more people who dive for nonperishable items.

Isn't all the food rotten?

Certainly not! You would be amazed at the quality of food that gets thrown away, and the reasons. As I draft this I'm making soup with a can of coconut milk that was thrown away for having a dent. This morning I had cereal that was thrown away for a tear in the box, even though the inner plastic bag was intact. Often produce gets thrown out for purely cosmetic reasons, like a funny-shaped bell pepper or an apple with a rough patch of skin. My favorite dumpster is at a store that sells produce in packages instead of by the pound. If a single orange is moldy, they'll throw out the whole five pound bag. They'll throw out basil for a few brown-edged leaves, and I'll make a huge batch of pesto. Once I found several cases of organic chicken broth that were tossed for no apparent reason. Also most stores are very conservative with their expiration dates, so I can get meat, eggs, cheese, and packaged meals that are still fine.

You eat meat from the dumpster?

If you get it quickly, decay is not an issue. A few times I pulled out slimy salmon carcasses from which they had cut off the filets. The part that was left still had a lot of meat plus all the good healthy fat!

Do you ever get sick?

I have yet to get food poisoning from dumpster food, except once I got mild nausea and some sulfurous burps from (I think) some smoked salmon. The key is knowing about how different foods go bad. Poultry has salmonella, so it has to be thoroughly cooked and you have to avoid getting any uncooked juices in your mouth. Never eat a dead crab -- but once I took a chance on one that was still packed in ice, and I was fine. When I get sushi from the dumpster, I cook it even if it's intended to be eaten raw. Eggs are good way past their expiration date. Fruit mold is toxic but bread mold is safe. Puffy canned food will kill you, but a puffy carton of apple juice is better than fresh! It helps that I live in a chilly city, and that I have a strong immune system, and that my diet is generally very healthy. I suspect that the top cause of food-borne illness is refined sugar weakening people's immune systems.

What are some foods you've rescued from a dumpster?

Apples, oranges, bananas, pears, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, avocados, pineapples, eggplants, yams, bell peppers, zucchinis, asparagus, ginger, onions, potatoes, lettuce, spinach, arrugula, basil, eggs, sausage, beef, lamb, chicken, salmon, breaded halibut, hazelnuts, pecans, lentils, wild rice, salsa, guacamole, chips, pesto, olives, bread, croissants, chocolate, butter, coffee.

What's the best thing you've ever found?

Probably a whole case of extra-virgin olive oil. Or (because it's so rare and tasty) three packages of Niman Ranch bacon. Another time I found about 40 packages of smoked salmon. It's always great to find a bag of premium organic bread. The coolest thing I've heard about was a block of chocolate so big that when they got it home they had to break it up with an axe!

If you find a lot of something good, do you take it all?

Not if I'm sure that other people hit the same dumpster. I took only four bottles of the olive oil and gave two away. My rule is, take up to half, unless I think no one will come along later who wants it.

Any other dumpster diving ethics?

Don't leave a mess, and if others have left a mess, clean it. Messes give us a bad name and give the stores a reason to lock us out. Also, if I dig down and find something good that I don't want, I'll pull it to the top for the next person. In some cases I'll pull stuff out and set it to the side, so it will still be there after the dumpster is emptied.

Besides food, what good dumpsters are there?

Anything that is manufactured, there are seconds and rejects that get thrown away. Somewhere there is a violin dumpster, a felt hat dumpster, an ice cream dumpster. Businesses that use the latest computer equipment usually just throw it away every time they replace it. You just have to find out where. Here's an article about a pro dumpster diver who's making thousands off America's biggest retailers. Also there are beer dumpsters! If a bottle gets broken, they throw out the whole case. I don't do this level of dumpster diving, because you generally need a car to navigate the spread-out industrial areas and to haul all the stuff you find.

Are dumpsters often locked?

Less often than you'd think. And it's not necessarily to keep people from taking stuff out. More often it's to keep people from putting stuff in.

Do you have to go late at night?

Not always! I go to my favorite food dumpsters in the mid-morning. Daytime is ideal for many dumpsters because you can see better and you look less suspicious. But clearly, if it's a manufacturer dumpster in plain view of the workplace, you have to wait until everyone goes home.

What's a dumpster diver's worst enemy?

Trash compactors, big sealed-off things that you can't get into. They can be disassembled, but be careful, because if there is compacted stuff inside, it tends to explode. You might become a suicide trash liberator. Another enemy is the irresponsible dumpster diver who makes a mess. People who scavenge cans are the worst.

Is dumpster diving illegal?

This is a difficult question. The laws are complex and vary from place to place. If local police are out to get you, you can go to jail for it, but that's rare. In any case, do not act guilty. Act like what you're doing is perfectly normal and legal.

Do you look in residential trash?

Never in house garbage cans -- it's rude, risky, and there's probably nothing there. But apartment dumpsters can be excellent. People throw out good blankets and pillows, small furniture, cookware, appliances, electronics, sporting equipment, books, CD's. Once I snagged a perfectly good upright vacuum cleaner that someone threw away because the disposable inner bag had a hole. Even better are dumpsters for college dorms or other student housing at the end of the term when everyone's moving out. Rich kids will throw away items worth hundreds of dollars.

(last updated january 2015)