The Art And Etiquette of Dumpster Diving
Never dumpster-dived before? We’re here to help! The first time curiosity gets the best of you and the bin lid gets lifted to reveal something completely useful we can pretty much guarantee you’ll be hooked. Here are some tips to keep you safe and ensure you have a long and happy dumpster diving career:
Don’t be a jerk. Be quiet. Don’t make a mess. Don’t cause damage. If you’re asked to leave, do so and don’t cause a scene.
Don’t be shy. If someone DOES ask you to leave or asks what you’re doing, don’t be afraid to tell them! You’d be surprised what this can lead to. While dumpster-diving for Food Not Bombs I once explained to an employee who was sent out to chase us off what we were doing. From then on, rather than putting still-good produce in the trash, it was set in a box for us to pick up on specific nights beside the dumpster. A health food store even started calling us when they were going to throw something out when they found out we were getting food from their dumpster. Sometimes dumpster-diving doesn’t even mean going near the trash!
Know your rights. It’s not as common as you would think, but it’s not unheard of for an employee or business owner to get scared when they see someone in their trash and think you’re trying to rob the place or cause trouble. If you have to deal with a store owner, police, or security guards know your rights. Be polite, but don’t be pushed around.
Be safe. Packaged produce, fruit with skin that can be washed or peeled, etc. are the best bets. Don’t risk eating something that’s gone bad or may have gone bad. It’s not worth it. On a positive note, however, a lot of almost-bad produce can be frozen and kept good almost indefinitely. Bananas that are slightly over-ripe are great frozen and used in smoothies or banana bread later. If you happen to get, say, over a dozen pineapples that will go bad in a week or so they can be frozen (or even canned if you’ve got the skills!). While it’s great to save stuff that might go to waste, it’s also not worth eating something that’s rotten just to not throw it away. I’ve been eating out of dumpsters for a decade and never once gotten sick — you just have to use common sense and a little hygiene!
Locked dumpsters. Sometimes a dumpster will be locked. Often this will happen after an encounter with a store owner who is worried that you’re up to something nefarious or if someone using the dumpster is being a jerk and making a mess. A locked dumpster doesn’t have to mean the end of your favorite spot though if it’s locked with a chain. Cut the chain with a hacksaw or bolt cutters in the most hidden area you can find, and replace the link you cut with a screw-together chain link. Then, whenever you want access to the dumpster you can just unscrew the link and remove the chain without ever having to mess with the lock and the dumpster owners will be content knowing their dumpster is safely locked up every night
Compactors. Don’t try to go in them. Ever.
Timing. Dumpster-diving is generally most convenient at night when stores are closed. Some stores are 24-hour, however, and so there’s no “best” time to go. Often, early in the morning or even in the middle of the afternoon attracts less attention than the middle of the night because employees won’t assume you’re up to something. Also, once you become familiar with the trash schedule and when things get thrown out you can make dumpster-diving much more efficient. If a bagel place tosses their leftovers at the end of the night, or after lunch you know when to go get them. If the trash gets picked up on Sunday morning you know that day probably won’t have much in the dumpster. Figuring out when to go out is often as important as where.