Dumpster Diving 102

According to Freegan.info, nearly 30% of food produced in the US gets thrown away! What an atrocity!

The guidelines here are not meant to be taken as dumpster law, except for of course the section on Dumpster Etiquette, which should be observed to the letter. The important thing is to get out there with your friends, your lovers, you mom, whatever, and start salvaging the excesses of our wasteful economic system. Right then!

If you are new to food recovery (or designer shoe recovery, or DVD recovery, or whatever...) you may not realize that right now, in your town, there is free food enough to feed all of the hungry, all of the homeless, and all of your friends in your area. In dumpsters and trash compactors it sits, and there it will pass away, unless you get to it first. However, you'll need an idea of where you're going and what to look for if you're to make a success of your food recovery missions. Experimentation is key to finding the way to new dumpster utopias, but if you don't utilize a few tried and true methods, you might find yourself empty handed and empty hearted instead of giving thanks to the Dumpster Gods.

Where to Go & What to Look For

There are two staple categories in a dumpster diver's reperatoire: grocery stores and distributers. Grocery stores dispose of expired, near expired, and damaged goods, usually in still-packaged form. They are a great place to hit up for staple foods. Don't forget health and whole foods stores, too--Natural foods expire more quickly and get thrown away more. Be skeptical of meats and dairy--what, you're not vegan yet?--as they don't age as gracefully as vegetarian foods! In recent years, grocery stores have been falling prey to the sealed compactor--a dumpster diver's worst enemy. If you see no dumpster outside, just a big metal box attached to the building with no way in, you've encountered the centerpiece of capitalist waste. Spray paint accordingly.

The distributor is the most reliable source of food. Distributors are often located in industrial parks and outlying areas. An internet search may help you locate distributors in your area. They're the ones shipping produce, snack foods, drinks, etc. to the local stores. They don't just throw things out when they expire--they throw them out days before, just in case they expire before they reach their destination! You may have to ask around to find out their locations, as they may not be listed or have signs.

Restaurants can offer dumpster bounty as well, so they are worth investigating. Chains are more likely to discard food due to company policies. Dunkin Donuts and Quiznos throw out significant amounts of carbs. Check out small department stores, such as dollar stores.

If you've found a dumpster, bring a flashlight and a car or bike and load up.


When you find a store or restaurant that disposes of its food in neat plastic bags, on time every night, you've hit your jackpot. Be good to your dumpster. Don't leave food or packages lying around, and pick up any that you see. Don't tell people about your dumpster if you think they're too irresponsible or immature to show proper dumpster etiquette.

However, the ease of dumpstering will depend very much on your location, and how much store owners and cops have cracked down on dumpster divers in the past. You may encounter locked gates, padlocked dumpsters, purposefully destroyed products, food augmented with bleach, or aggressive police. In my experience, these things are the exceptions, not the rule.

Confrontations with police are especially rare, but can happen. Usually, police --and store owners or managers--are satisfied by your agreement to go away and not come back. I have never heard of anyone I know personally getting arrested and jailed for dumpster diving in any city in the US, although could happen. However, you can also get arrested for loitering, jaywalking, not wearing your seatbelt and spanging.

Some Dunkin Donuts chains have put bleach or other poisons onto their donuts and bagels. A less harmful alternative is to mix trash or coffee grounds with edible food. Again, this depends very much on the particular franchise. A change of employees or management can make all the difference. Making friends with franchise employees could result in bags of food placed out back for your pickup!

Dumpsters can be locked in a couple ways. A slim bike lock is sometimes used for flip-top dumpsters, and may not even be preventing you from raising or bending the flexible plastic tops. Padlocks may be used for gates around dumpsters, or for the dumpster itself. I have not had experience with those situations, but there are suggestions available on line about breaking into locked dumpsters. Keep in mind that by breaking into a dumpster, you're probably encouraging raised dumpster security measures in your city, so consider whether it is worth it first.

Dumpster Etiquette

The first and most simple rule: Don't make a mess!
Pick up any messes you find left by other dumpster divers who lack your moral fortitude.
Don't deliberately cause confrontations. Many people and families may rely on one dumpster, and causing unnecessary conflict with store owners or police helps no one.
Take what you can use. If you are aware of others who scavenge there too, leave some for them, unless you know it's pickup day.
If you come across an open compactor (stuff sits in an intermediate area before that you can reach into before being routinely squished) pull out all the good stuff you see, and store the excess neatly nearly for latecomers.
After a particularly bountiful night, take a moment to give thanks to the Dumpster Gods, or leave a token of appreciation at your last pick-up site.

Why dumpster etiquette?

We've been brought up in a culture that uses a standard of worth--the dollar--by which all things can supposedly be judged. Unconsciously, we have learned that that which is free is worthless. In moving toward a more immediate, hunter-gatherer perspective, we relearn the way we think about material items. We learn to place value on what we earn through our work and craftiness combined with the generosity of Spirit, and we give thanks not with money, but with a currency of respect.


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