UPDATE: We challenged ourselves to go 30 days without paying for food. See how our urban scavenging experiment played out.
When I was in my early teens, being punk and loving trash went hand in hand. Dumpsters cut out the middle man, providing my friends and me with all the snacks and random trinkets we desired -- without us ever having to enter a store. At punk shows and potlucks, we came equipped with crates of Odwalla juice scavenged from a suburban dumpster, where whole cases were thrown away if one bottle was defective. The same went for wine, beer, and anything else that came in a pack. There were dumpsters for everything -- a chip dumpster, a bagel dumpster, a pizza dumpster, and even a toy dumpster. And we're not talking small quantities either. On a good night, we'd score enough bagels to feed a punk house for a month (and yes, the amount of carbohydrates I consumed was slightly appalling).
But dumpster diving isn't reserved for smelly teenaged punk kids. Anyone can search for treasures in the trash, whether they do so for anti-consumerist, ecological, profit-driven, or survival purposes. All it takes is a willingness to move past the stigma and get a little dirty.
"It's kind of like going to vintage stores but for food," said diver Greg Baker. "Instead of looking through a box of records, you're looking through a bag of lettuce or something."
40% of the food produced in the United States is thrown away. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, that means Americans are wasting $165 billion of food every year, largely because expiration dates are misinterpreted as the rigid final word on product safety and usefulness.
"I think we've all been conditioned to accept the fact that something's expired," diver Mark Mouat said. "What does that really entail?"
America's chronic waste problem becomes more pressing when you consider that almost 15% of the country is currently considered food insecure. While dumpster diving may not be a solution to the hunger and waste crises on its own, it's certainly an eye-opening indication of how inequitable our food system is.
Sorting through trash isn't as gross as you're probably thinking. Sure, divers come across the occasional dirty diaper and container of rotten ground beef, but, for the most part, foods are still packaged and relatively fresh.
Choosing which foods to snag from the trash is a great opportunity to exercise your common sense. If maggots are emerging from the bag of oranges you found under a pair of soiled underwear, don't eat the oranges. Most of the time, you wont run into anything that disgusting, but dumpsters are unpredictable and that's part of the thrill. And don't pay too much attention to the companies that claim dumpstered food is dangerous: It goes without saying, they want you to buy their food, not take it.
With that in mind, let's set the record straight: Dumpster diving is not stealing. In the 1984 case California vs. Greenwood, the Supreme Court declared that, "The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home," meaning that unless local regulation prohibits dumpster diving or a company has specific rules about privacy and trespassing, their trash is fair game. That said, if you dumpster in an area with a clear "No Trespassing" sign, you risk being screamed at by employees, chased out, ticketed, or (worst case scenario) arrested. A friend I used to dive with once got his head stomped on by employees after being caught dumpstering a bouquet of flowers.
To avoid those consequences, it's best to follow a few general guidelines.
"Don't blow up a spot. If you know a really good spot, don't tell everyone about it. Only talk about it with the people who told you about it. And don't go at three in the afternoon when the business is still running, because obviously you're going to get caught and the dumpster will get locked," diver Wilder Burnham said.
Also, try your best to leave the dumpster as you found it. If you have to move bags outside the dumpster to search, put them back afterwards. If the dumpster lid was closed when you arrived, close it when you leave. Common sense goes a long way in keeping dumpsters accessible.
You'll occasionally run into other divers while you're dumpstering, but there's no need to start a turf war -- just be considerate and refrain from taking more than you need.
Since I'm from Chicago and haven't dumpster dived since I moved to Minneapolis, I decided to recruit a group of experienced Minneapolis-based divers to take me on a dumpster tour of Twin Cities. We met up at Wilder Burnham's South Minneapolis punk house at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night in February and went over the basics.
"In the wintertime, these things last longer," diver Mouat said. "They're preserved." This means the recent cold snap is good news for dumpster diving, since summer heat increases divers' chances of running into rotting foods and dumpster juices (the unidentified liquids that drip from trash bags onto your shoes.) That's not to say they don't exist in the winter, though. In fact, Burnham's cloth shoe was soaked with dumpster juice by our third stop.
Mouat said that at various points in his life, he's survived solely off of dumpstered food. He believes dumpstering is a viable way to combat the global food shortage and said that for some, it isn't optional.
"That's all I had for a long time. That was my sole way for survival. I didn't have any money or place to go to," he said. "There's times between paychecks when I have to go out and dumpster."
Baker started dumpster diving with his girlfriend in his home state of Alaska a few years ago.
"We sort of became bread fairies," he said. "There was this bread shop in Alaska that had their dumpster at a warehouse across the street and you could just go there anytime of day and the employees didn't really give a fuck. You could just jump in and there were like forty loaves of bread you could stick in your freezer."
By 10:30 p.m., we were headed for the dumpster of a Minneapolis thrift store. Before I even had a chance to park, three of the divers were already in the dumpster, calling out words like "shell!" "dish!," and "records!" at random. These kids were gutsy -- the dumpster was located off a busy street in Minneapolis and they weren't exactly being quiet.
"Here, hold this," Curt Sullivan said, handing me a small wooden box engraved with hearts. Apparently, the thrift store was downsizing its Valentine's Day collection because most of what came out of the dumpster was heart-focused. The group wasn't impressed. We got back in our separate cars and headed to St. Paul for a visit to one more non-food related dumpster.
This time, I dove in first. It was the cleanest dumpster I've ever encountered, filled almost to the brim with used books. Earlier, one of the divers said she'd spent hours reading by headlamp in the same spot and I could see why -- it was fairly comfortable and shielded from the cold. I couldn't resist taking a few books home and opted for a poetry anthology, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, and some old editions of the Guinness Book of World Records.
Our third stop was a dumpster behind a grocery store in St. Paul, where flowers, bags of trail mix, frozen pancakes, and shredded cheese were added to the pile accumulating in the back of Burnham's car. The group was enthused about the trail mix, but overall underwhelmed with the dumpster -- plus Burnham made a wrong move and got a foot full of garbage juice.
The fourth stop was by far the most successful. When we arrived outside the grocery store, Baker, Burnham, and Barnes walked up the loading dock staircase, climbed onto the railing, and dove into the massive compactor, disregarding the thick sheets of ice below their feet. Though it required sorting through copious amounts of rotten meat and produce, they found enough fresh food to fill two large boxes, including a package of cookies, a bag of bananas, green beans, blueberries, cherries, blackberries, hot dogs, buns, cucumbers, jello, carrots, tomatoes, pineapples, loaves of bread, onions, potatoes, corn, and a bag of flour.
"We can make a feast!," Barnes said.
Burnham reached for a frozen watermelon, cracked it open with bare hands, and bit into its pink flesh.
"It's rotten," he said, taking another bite. "It tastes like a pumpkin."
Two more stops. Outside the pizza dumpster, Burnham readied himself. He clasped the green metal with both hands, grinned, and was just starting to hoist himself up when Mouat placed a hand on his back to stop him.
"Don't go in yet. You'll ruin it," he said. "Help me move this bag."
Burnham listened. Mouat used to work there, so the others trusted his technique. They worked together to move the bag, which was heavy with uncooked dough, and struck gold. Bags of bread sticks, deep dish squares, and frozen slices of thin crust pizza leaned against the left side of the dumpster. After a two-minute nuke in the microwave, they'd be as good as new.
The last stop on our trip involved a big bag of fortune cookies, but the first rule of the the fortune cookie dumpster is that you don't talk about the fortune cookie dumpster, so we'll leave it at that.
At the end of the day, dumpster diving is a crapshoot. One day you'll return home with nothing but a rightfully discarded trucker hat with brown stains on the side, and another day, you'll find enough good food to fill a U-Haul. But regardless of what you find, feelings of liberation and autonomy always accompany a good dive.
One last piece of advice: If it sounds like a raccoon has found the dumpster before you, don't have a fit. Just keep the lid down and back away slowly. Those things are not to be messed with.