Daniel and Amanda’s Weblog

February 14, 2008

Why we dumpster dive and recycle, Part 1

First of all, let’s clarify a few things about dumpster diving. For most people, myself included, when they first hear about people voluntarily dumpster diving (that means they can afford to buy new but choose to redeem things that have been tossed), certain words come to mind…disgusting, ridiculous, nasty, dangerous, illegal, stupid, gross, and icky. The last term was Amanda’s contribution. :) I thought maybe I should start this series by answering some common questions about this subject. So, without further ado, here’s my first ever FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions). Hope it will give you a better idea of what dumpster diving is like.

  1. What kind of dumpsters do you go to? Any store that doesn’t have a compactor is fair game, but mostly the smaller grocery stores, low price variety stores, etc. Josh and I have been scouting out some other possibilities lately…shoes, clothes, electronics, and more. The main point here is that corporate trash is very different from private and restaurant trash, which we do not pillage. Well, there’s the occasional retrieval from our apartment dumpster…specifically our coffee table.
  2. Is it legal? In some places, like Britain, laws make it clear that trash belongs to the owner of the property until the trash guy picks it up, and then it belongs to the trash guy. There, to take trash is to commit theft (even if they’re just going to throw it away). People still dumpster dive there, of course, but we haven’t had to make that decision yet because it appears to be legal here. See what my newspaper friend found out when researching that here. Josh has actually been stopped by the police before, and after a short discussion with said police was allowed to get back to business.
  3. Isn’t the food contaminated by rats (and rat poop) in the dumpsters? I don’t know who came up with the idea that dumpsters have rats, but they must have sent out a mass e-mail chain, cause everyone asks this. Yet we’ve never once seen a rat, or evidence of any type of rodent, in a dumpster. These dumpsters are large. A rat can’t simply crawl up the side of it, open the door, and dive in. But let’s say one did somehow manage to get in. The next day, natural selection will eliminate this critter by a process called “the trash guy,” and said rat loses all his privileges of further contributing to the gene pool. That’s my take, anyway, but no…there aren’t rats in these dumpsters.
  4. Aren’t dumpsters dirty? And wouldn’t the food in there be dirty too? Yes, and often yes. Which is why we wash our food. Do you eat potatoes, carrots, radishes. Don’t forget that all these come from the most dirty place possible…dirt. And yes, there’s often fertilizer in that dirt (that’s poop, for you city folk). How about corn, broccoli, peppers, apples, pears, strawberries? These and all other vegetables and fruits grow outside (usually) and in the process of their growth have everything from worms to bird crap to dirty, unwashed workers’ hands on them. But don’t fret, these foods are washed thoroughly, or at least we trust that they are. Amanda has a theory that our food is safer, because we know it’s dirty and make sure it’s washed well, whereas food that we buy is assumed to be OK and therefore not washed…and who knows what’s touched that food up unto the point of sale. Another thing to point out, though, is that most of the food we get is either packaged or canned, and hence not “dirtied” in the dumpster.
  5. If the food is still good, why is it thrown away? Good question, self. Here are a few possible reasons:
    • Missing labels. Ah, the joy of creating meals around these “mystery cans.”
    • Expired, or past the “sell by” date. We eat cereal, chips, and some canned foods that have been expired for months. Is there something that magically happens that makes the food good one day and bad the next? We use common sense, and we’ve never once gotten sick from eating dumpstered or expired food. (It’s the same with anything that expires…my dad, a pharmacist, admits that pills are still good for up to years after their expiration date. And in my profession, I can’t honestly say that a 2 week contact lens goes bad on the 15th day…though we, and the grocery stores, still have to recommend using the product for it’s approved time.)
    • Broken jar makes mess. Frequently, we’ll find a dozen jars of salsa or spaghetti sauce that got messy when one of the jars broke. There’s glass and sauce everywhere, but after washing up, you’ve got 11 perfect (even non-expired!) jars of food.
    • A bad spot. If one green pepper in a package of 3 has a bad spot on it, they toss it. Same with tomatoes and even whole sacks of potatoes and apples and oranges and onions. One bad apple may spoil the bunch…but if it just went bad, common sense again will tell you whether its neighbors are good.
    • Dented cans. Stores throw it out if it’s got a dent (this includes milk jugs and orange juice cartons, btw). Yes, it’s true that if a can is dented badly enough to break the seal, it could be contaminated with botulism. Look out for swelling and dents around seals.
    • We have no idea. Sometimes we find things that are in perfect shape, not expired, haven’t been recalled…we have no idea why they’ve tossed them. :) Our best guess is either overstock or maybe the items were sent to the wrong store.
    • Damaged non-food items. With coffee pots and chainsaws and crock pots and glassware and…you get the idea…any slight blemish or crack or broken piece will render the item unsellable. So we’ve found a crock pot with a broken glass lid, coffee pot with a crack on the handle, glassware that’s got a couple broken glasses, and on and on. Non food items are especially fun for me, even if they require a little work to get them back in good shape. I’ve found that stores cut the cords before they throw out electrical appliances. Annoying, but not deterring. :)
  6. If you can afford to buy food, shouldn’t you leave what’s in the dumpsters for the homeless? Thank you, Josh, for suggesting this question for the FAQ. It bothers us greatly that there are folks who go hungry every night, and yet so much edible food is thrown away. However, the areas where we go are not really accessible to those who need it. We specifically don’t go to dumpsters in areas where we see homeless, because we don’t ever want to be in a turf war with someone who really needs it. Only once have I run into someone at the dumpster, and we ended up trading some things each of us had found that night. Also, much of what we find needs to be cooked and prepared, flour or potatoes or canned peas to name some examples, and therefore isn’t really of any use to the homeless person without a kitchen. It’s funny, last time we were hanging out with a few homeless guys, we went dumpster diving and then went home and had a feast…and they were laughing at us the whole time we were diving!
  7. What do you do with the excess? I think it’s always a good idea to leave some, just in case there is someone else coming later that night. For instance, Food Not Bombs (a movement of mostly young folks who dumpster dive, among other ways, to get food for the homeless and then distribute hot meals on Sunday afternoons…or after crises) usually dumpsters Friday and Saturday nights in Nashville, so we make an effort to leave plenty for them on those nights. We also donate large quantity items to local shelters. My favorite is Safe Haven family shelter, where I’ve taken everything from children’s underwear to cases of frosted shredded wheat. We also distribute it to each other. I’ll give my east Nashville friends surplus of some item, and they’ll do the same. We’re not quite as organized as cooperatives like the New York divers, but it’s still nice to share finds with friends.
  8. What is involved in a typical night of dumpster diving? Do you need any special equipment? We usually go after store hours to avoid any unnecessary confrontations with store employees who might be frightened by the human being in their trash. Since it’s after dark, we take a headlamp, and we wear old clothes and dumpster gloves.
  9. Is the actual dumpster diving dangerous? As long as you check the depth of the trash before you swan dive in, and as long as you miss the sides of the dumpster with your head when doing flips, it’s perfectly safe. All joking aside, though, it’s safe. The only thing to really worry about is getting cut or poked while in there, hence the dumpster gloves. I know people often worry about HIV infected needles, and whereas it’s certainly something to watch out for I’ve never once seen a needle in these corporate store dumpsters…they’re not the type of places where youngsters stand around, do drugs, and throw away their needles. I also have started placing an empty box in there to stand in as opposed to just stepping into unknown territory. It could possibly avoid a potential glass cut, and my shoes don’t get food on them.
  10. What are some of the more unique items you’ve found in dumpsters? My favorite so far is the electric chainsaw, but I’ve also enjoyed the battery powered pepper grinder more recently. Batteries, 44 two liter bottles of CitroZip, Josh found 113 cans of peanuts one night, luggage, approximately 2,000 envelopes of all colors (greeting card size), just to name a few! Amanda and I also post our fun and unusual items on our blog, so keep checking back. Also, Ariah put together the Dumpster Diaries where you can find videos and pictures of dumpster diving finds from several people.

Hope you enjoyed my first FAQ ever! I realize the title was misleading since there wasn’t anything in this post about why we do it. Don’t worry, that’s coming up next….so stay tuned!



  1. I’ve dhove for years. Apartment complexes can be a goldmine, especially those that are upscale with shortterm leases. I found everything from jugs of change to antiques, Another good place is restaurant supply stores and food brokers.

    I dive for fun. We aren’t homeless, far from it. I’m self-employed. You can make a lot of money diving.

    Comment by Bear — February 15, 2008 @ 3:29 am | Reply

  2. Ha, jugs of change!? And we thought we scored when we found a pair of jeans with 86 cents in the pocket! :)

    It really is crazy how much good stuff people throw away without even a second thought.

    Comment by theburts — February 15, 2008 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

  3. this was a great post

    Comment by Ariah Fine — February 15, 2008 @ 7:48 pm | Reply

  4. People’s neighborhood “trash” has good stuff somtimes. I have a cabinet, 3 chairs, half of a wheelbarrow (that fit the other half of ours), an ironing board and a huge office desk all from the same house — they told me they put it out for me now, knowing it will be used….and we became friends in the process. They also gave me a very nice table and chairs that I was able to pass along to Chinese students.

    Comment by Carol "Mama" Burt — February 20, 2008 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

  5. See where I get it from, people? :)

    Comment by theburts — February 20, 2008 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

  6. Hi! I’m really enjoying reading your posts. My power went out during the Oprah show (grr!) so I was unable to watch, but I myself have enjoyed getting almost every piece of furniture I own from the curb for free, from our Freecycle list here in Austin, or from Craigslist for cheap or nothing. I’m not quite ready to dumpster dive for food, but I’ve gotten clothes, household items, and random treasures from dumpsters and curbsides for many, many years.

    Keep doing what you do!

    Comment by porkmuffin — February 29, 2008 @ 10:20 am | Reply

  7. […] More info: Daniel’s dumpster diving FAQ […]

    Pingback by Meet the Burts: Unlikely Dumpster Divers : Sustainablog — March 6, 2008 @ 10:49 pm | Reply

  8. How refreshing!

    Since I don’t watch Oprah, I found you by other means. Nice to know I don’t have to feel like a wacko for wanting to stem the tide of consumer waste that is rapidly drowning us. Examples of this waste are everywhere: Someone moved out of a apartment complex I lived in a while back and evidently couldn’t be bothered to donate whole and complete and in-decent-shape items of furniture. I hauled off several of the items to the Habitat for Humanity thrift shop— all of a kilometer and a half away. (Heck, all you have to do is CALL and ask for pickup by many of the charitable thrift orgs; how hard can that be?)

    I’ll be reading more of your adventures soon. Keep up this exemplary, vital work.

    Comment by Ben Gorman — March 9, 2008 @ 9:23 pm | Reply

  9. […] Why we dumpster dive and recycle, Part 1: The Questions […]

    Pingback by One Couple’s Philosophy on Dumpster Diving and Recycling | Frugal For Life — March 11, 2008 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

  10. I admire and respect your desire to be good stewards of resources. I have to admit that there is something I find viscerally repulsive about rummaging through dumpsters and retrieving discarded food. On the other side of the coin, however, I can say that I used to work at a supermarket bakery, and would often take (with the permission of the manager) the expired baked goods like breads and muffins, etc. and donate them to a local soup kitchen. Food that has already been partially consumed or raw food that has been tossed in with other trash or contaminants, however, is a public health risk for disease and should be avoided.

    While waste is not good, eating contaminated or spoiled food that can make you sick is worse. I salute you for your efforts, and the lifestyle statement you are making through them- just please be careful.


    Comment by John — March 17, 2008 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

  11. Hi,

    My name is Lisa Robinson. I am a reporter at WBAL-TV and am working on a story about waste and reuse. I am looking to interview people who dumpster dive. Please call me 410-338-6508

    Comment by lisa robinson — July 28, 2008 @ 12:05 pm | Reply

  12. Oh, I am looking for people in the Baltimore/ Washington areas. Lisa

    Comment by lisa robinson — July 28, 2008 @ 12:05 pm | Reply

  13. I’m a reporter for the Arizona Republic searching for people like Daniel and Amanda in Phoenix. Any ideas? 602-820-6743

    Comment by Philip Haldiman — December 30, 2008 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

  14. […] Why We Dumpster Dive and Recycle, Part 1 […]

    Pingback by Dumpster Diving for God? | Alive Now Blog — September 20, 2011 @ 7:01 am | Reply

  15. Thanks for the recommendations you have contributed here. Another thing I would like to mention is that laptop or computer memory requirements generally go up along with other advances in the engineering. For instance, as soon as new generations of cpus are made in the market, there is certainly usually a related increase in the size and style calls for of both the personal computer memory in addition to hard drive room. This is because the application operated by means of these processor chips will inevitably increase in power to benefit from the new engineering.

    Comment by Dian Santarpia — January 18, 2016 @ 2:57 am | Reply

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