I desire to put an end to food waste and hunger in the United States. Sure, it’s a lofty goal, a seriously lofty goal, but I believe that it is possible. In my youth, I see a time when every dumpster in the United States is completely void of all food. But in the mean time our dumpsters are full of perfectly good food and we may as well eat it! First and foremost, I encourage grocery stores to donate their excess food rather than throw it in the dumpster. But in the case of their social and environmental negligence, I encourage people to get out there, dive into dumpsters, eat the food, share the food, and raise awareness about food waste and hunger.
I want you to hit the dumpsters! Even if you don’t want to eat it or collect it for others I still encourage you to go see the waste for yourself.
Our grocery store dumpsters in the United States are filled to the brim with perfectly good food and I’ve been in over 1,000 dumpsters in 25 states across the country to see for myself. Before diving into this guide to dumpster diving let me show you why you’d have any desire to dive into a dumpster.
Two years ago I had never dove into a dumpster in my life and I had no clue that we are wasting so much food. In fact, we throw away nearly half of the food we produce, enough to feed more than 200 million Americans. The numbers are out there, but most people have to see it to believe it. So in over a dozen cities across the United States I have taken the dumpsters to the people! All of these photos represent just one or two days worth of dumpster diving and amount to $1,000’s worth of perfectly good food.
This is Madison, Wisconsin:
This is Detroit, Michigan:
This is Cleveland, Ohio:
This is Lancaster, Pennsylvania:
This is Burlington, Vermont:
This is San Diego, California:
This is Los Angeles, California:
As you can see a ton of perfectly good food is being thrown away by grocery stores. You could live 100% on food from dumpsters and I know people who are doing it. I once cycled from Wisconsin to New York City eating exclusively dumpster food and traveling without money. So now onto the guide! This will tell you basically everything you need to know to get in the dumpsters and be successful with your dives. This guide is dumpster diving for food and focuses almost completely on grocery stores. After reading this if you still have a question please ask in the comment section of this blog and I will add it to the guide.
Step One (the Only Step)
Dumpster diving is actually really simple. You go to wherever you’d like to get your goods for free and instead of walking into the front door you go around back and locate the dumpster. Then you open the dumpster and if you like what you see, you take it out of the dumpster and take it home with you. Simple as that.
Even though it’s that simple I’m still going to go into depth with this guide because I know that simple logic isn’t what is holding you back from the dumpster. It’s more likely fear. And fear comes from the unknown. I will do my best to make the unknown known for you in this guide but after that it’s up to you to take action. I can’t do that for you. If you are in San Diego I do host dumpster diving tours when I am around and I welcome you to join. All dives are on the Dumpster Diving San Diego Facebook group. I also may be diving in your city at some point, so subscribe to my blog and Facebook page if you want to make sure you don’t miss me.
Before you ever go dumpster diving there is some important etiquette to follow.
Always leave the place better than you found it. Leaving a mess could result in a locked dumpster which isn’t cool for other divers (or yourself). It’s not the responsibility of the grocery store to clean up after dumpster divers either. Take it a step past just being clean and if there is trash on the ground around the dumpster clean some of it up.
Be courteous and kind to anyone you cross paths with at the dumpster whether it be an employee, a security guard, a police officer, a fellow diver, or just a random passerby.
Share with others. Everyone equally deserves free food. However, don’t be timid to take all that you can use or give to others. Some people only take a little bit of the food just in case someone else will be coming to the dumpster but more often than not that will just leave behind good food to end up in the landfill. Most cities do not have a large dumpster diving scene and there is no shortage of food to be found in most cities, so unless you are really sure that someone else is coming just put as much to good use as you can and share the bounty with others.
Next, I will cover the things that are likely stopping you from dumpster diving. It’s most likely social stigmas, ego, or fear of the law. If not that, then it is likely a question of the safety of dumpster diving, either getting into the dumpster or eating food from the dumpster.
Overcoming Social Stigmas and Ego
As I said two years ago I had never been dumpster diving. I had no interest in the activity and don’t think I ever even gave it a thought. Never did I think it would become one of my favorite hobbies. Never did I think it would become one of my primary sources of food. Never did I think I’d be taking thousands of Americans into the dumpsters with me!
Once a dumpster virgin and two short years later I am likely one of the more experienced grocery store dumpster divers in the nation. So what got me to this point?
It started with a long bike ride across the United States. We’re talking 4,700 miles coast to coast (with lots of squiggles in between). I was out to inspire others to start living more sustainably. So to lead by example, I followed a rigorous set of rules to live an extremely low impact lifestyle. One rule was that I could only eat locally grown, organic, unpackaged food, basically food straight from the farmers. But I quickly learned that the United States is covered in food deserts, which are places where quality healthy food is just not available. As an alternative, I decided I could eat out of dumpsters. If you think about it eating from dumpsters is extremely low impact. It keeps stuff from the landfill, prevents the need to buy virgin food, and all the resources that were put into the dumpster food were already used. A very low impact way of eating!
So I started to open up grocery store dumpsters shortly into the bike ride and found that dumpster, after dumpster, after dumpster, was filled to the brim with perfectly good food. I was eating like a dumpster king but at first I didn’t really tell anyone about it. I was worried that people wouldn’t take me seriously if they knew I ate from dumpsters. I was scared of the labels people would put on me. I also was fighting my own ego. At that time, I wanted to give off the image of a dude with money, not like I was so bad off that I needed to eat out of the dumpster. I was not quite brave enough to expose this truth that I was seeing first hand. So I kept it my little secret for the most part.
But city after city I was finding grocery store dumpsters filled to the brim and before long I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I started to write about it and share what I was finding. I just had to let people know of the waste I was seeing. And man did it end up being a good thing that I overcame my ego and abolished those social norms. My food waste activism has now been seen by millions of people around the world and has inspired many people to live more environmentally friendly and to help others in need with our glut of food. I really put myself out there and took a risk with my own image, which is my livelihood. Of course, it’s more important that my work has helped others but at the same time it’s helped me out a ton as well. I find that people respect me for putting myself out there for a cause that I believe in. People who see me dumpster diving are actually excited to be a part of the movement to end food waste and hunger and it turns out that a lot of people actually think it’s pretty cool. Any negative feedback I thought I’d get is completely obscured by the loads of positive feedback. I’ve got six options for you on how to overcome your ego and social stigmas and go dumpster diving!
Flip the stigma by becoming a food waste warrior. Turn dumpster diving into a way to fight food waste and hunger. Right now nearly half of all food produced in the United States goes to waste while 1 in 7 Americans are food insecure. We produce enough food to feed nearly two American populations, yet 50 million Americans are going to bed hungry more often than anyone in a land of bounty should. Go out dumpster diving, take photos, and share your experience online and with people in your city. Start a blog to raise awareness or just use social media as your platform. Use what you find to raise awareness about food waste and put pressure on grocery stores to end the Food Waste Fiasco. Educate yourself with the resource section of this guide so that you can make a positive impact.
Take the spotlight off yourself by feeding others. Rather than talking about how you personally eat out of the dumpster, instead rescue food and distribute it to people in need. In this manner, you’ll be able to enjoy the bounty but you can speak mostly of how you do it to help others. Now you look like a hero instead of someone who just eats wasted food. And you truly will be a hero to many of the people you help! Check to see if there is a Food Not Bombs chapter in your city that you can get involved in and if theirs not you can start one yourself. Here’s a guide on how to start your own Food Not Bombs chapter. Or you can come up with a superhero name for yourself or a group you form.
Just do it and forget all those things running through your head. Forget what you’ve learned and deconstruct your mind. Your greatest limitations lie inside your own mind. It helps to have some reasons in your mind for why you are doing it besides eating free food. In this manner, you can replace the ego and social stigma issue with logic, rational, and practicality. Do it for more than just saving money. Do it to reduce your environment impact, to fight hunger, and to stand up against our wasteful throwaway society.
Go undercover. If you prefer to be a closet dumpster diver then just go after the stores close for the night under the light of the moon. 11:00 PM should be a pretty safe bet but you can also just look up what time the stores close and then go about an hour after that. There are more tips later in the guide on how to stay under the radar.
Skip the dumpster all together and rescue the food before it ever hits the dumpster. Volunteer with one of the many food rescue programs across the United States to help them keep food out of the dumpsters. Thousands of grocery stores across the United States are donating some of their excess food to non-profits and this is a win-win situation for everyone involved. Also, you can get involved with a food pantry or soup kitchen and find out if they are getting donations of food that would have otherwise been wasted. Help them expand this initiative. Otherwise, you can always start your own food rescue program. Boulder Food Rescue has a guide on how to do that on a bicycle.
Find a mentor in your city to take you out. It’s understandably much easier to go out with someone experienced for the first time rather than going on your own. It takes a lot of the nerves away when you get to follow someone who knows what they are doing. Use the resource section of this guide to search out a dumpster diver in your area. But I encourage you not to give up if you don’t find someone. If you can’t find someone experienced it may take the nerves off just to go with a couple friends.
While you’re out there with your headlamp and your reusable bags or boxes you might make the common assumption that everyone knows what you’re doing. You might think that everyone you pass is saying “oh he/ she must be dumpster diving.” In all likeliness, only you know that though. The only person in your head is you. Most assumptions are wrong. I’ve seen this from my own assumptions time and time again. Plus a lot of people are just thinking about themselves, not really paying attention to what you are doing anyway.
Legality of Dumpster Diving
You may have some fear of running into the law and that’s very reasonable. However, I’ve been in well over 1,000 dumpsters in half of the states across the United States and have never been in trouble. Sure, I’ve had my share of run-ins, especially because I’ll dive any time of the day. I’m often putting on a Food Waste Fiasco under a time crunch so I’m out diving at the busiest shopping times when managers and employers are much more likely to stumble upon me in the dumpster.
“Dumpster diving is legal in the United States, except where prohibited by local regulation. According to a 1988 Supreme Court Ruling (California vs. Greenwood), when a person throws something out, that item is now the public domain.” Dumpster diving is illegal in very few places around the United States, however if the dumpster is on private property than you could technically be trespassing. To my knowledge very few people have ever been fined for dumpster diving and arrests are probably as likely as getting struck by lightning. You are most likely going to be fine, especially if you follow my suggestions throughout this blog.
If there is a sign that says no trespassing then you are definitely trespassing. If there are other dumpsters in your area that you can hit up, maybe avoid the one’s that say no trespassing, or at least be careful here.
Never break a lock. That is vandalism.
If the dumpster is in an area where they actually have merchandise then I’m always leery about diving into that dumpster.
Dumpster Diving is much safer than many people care to believe or could ever imagine. I’ve eaten out of hundreds of dumpsters across the United States and I’ve never been sick off of dumpster food once. I do have a stomach of semi-iron though, so I’m not a perfect example for others. I’ve also met dozens of dumpster divers across the United States and have not heard a single sickness story from any of them. What really changed my view on the safety of dumpster diving though, was finding Milton Saier a microbiologist at USD.
He has been eating out of dumpsters for over thirty years now and has fed over 200 people out of dumpsters. Neither he nor any of the 200 people he’s fed have been sick from dumpster food. If anyone knows about the safety of food in a dumpster it is a microbiologist that has studied it first-hand! That alone is a pretty solid testimony of the safety of the food in grocery store dumpsters but I’ll take it deeper here and explain what I’ve learned over the last few years that helped me see it from a new light.
Grocery store dumpsters have much fewer things in them than your imagination does. Grocery stores typically do not share a dumpster with anyone else. This is simply because they pay by the dumpster or by the weight of the dumpster. Because of this, in most grocery store dumpsters you will find only what they have in their store, which is mostly food, boxes, and plastic. For example, you won’t find medical waste because that is in medical facility dumpsters, not grocery store dumpsters. Most of what they throw away is also in tied up bags so a lot less mixing happens than you might think.
Here’s a grocery store dumpster that is fairly typical. Pretty much just food, boxes, and packaging.
Dumpsters are emptied on a very frequent basis. It’s not like residential dumpsters where they are only emptied once per week. These stores are throwing away so much, so frequently that their dumpsters need to be emptied very often. Some stores even have their dumpsters emptied on a daily basis. Once in a northern suburb of Chicago, I came across a supermarket dumpster that was literally filled to the top with good food. We’re talking $3,000+ worth of food in this dumpster alone and it was all fresh. The next morning I went back to the dumpster (having filled up my entire car the night prior) and it was empty. I returned again that evening around 5:00 to find two of their three dumpsters again filled to the top, mostly with perfectly good food. Even for the stores that empty less frequently it’s helpful to know that whatever they recently threw in will be on the top. Just don’t dig to the bottom and you can be pretty sure that the food that you find was put in there fairly frequently. I’m not telling you not to dig down though, because that can still be very fresh off the shelves. Most stores put food in every day because food keeps being food every single day. They do not have a staging area where they wait for it to go bad before they put it in the dumpster. They take it directly out of the aisles and put it straight into the dumpsters. With some practice on timing you can get the food within an hour of it coming out of the refrigerator. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found still frozen ice cream, milk fresh from the fridge, ice-cold juice, cold eggs and dairy products, and frozen meals still frozen. What’s more, if you dive in the winter in cold climates the food is even kept cold by for you while it waits to be picked up. You can find the pattern of when grocery stores throw away food and go right after that, getting at the same freshness as the people in the aisles. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that the food I get out of the dumpster is fresher than what they’ve bought at the store. Because grocery store dumpsters are emptied so frequently you also don’t usually have as many insects in there as you’d imagine.
Rats are rarely an issue because if the dumpster is set up properly they cannot get in. They can’t climb the sheer walls of the dumpster so it has to be up against a wall or have stuff leaning on it for them to get in. I can only think of one dumpster that I’ve seen signs of rats in and I just stayed away from that one. Sometimes you can find a pretty nasty dumpster but you can always pass it up for a cleaner dumpster. Some stores do have shared dumpsters, especially when they are in malls, so those can have a bit more variation in them too but for the most part dumpster are not shared by businesses.
Each day most grocery stores do something called culling. Next time you are in the produce aisle and see a worker there with a cart take a moment to see what he’s doing. He’s likely sprucing up the displays and stocking them up. The displays are often immaculate and that is because they are taking out all of the items that are not aesthetically pleasing. Look on the bottom of the cart and you might see a banana box full of an assortment of produce. Look into the dumpster a little while later and you’ll likely find that same box of food. Often the box will be sitting there right side up, easy to grab and completely untouched by any of the other contents in the garbage. Other times the food is all loaded into double bagged garbage bags, tied off, and then thrown into the dumpster. This food has not been tainted in the slightest by anything else in the dumpster.
Here’s a bag of fresh baked bread for example. The bag had nothing but bread in it and was tied off.
Even with the food being as safe as it is I still urge you to use food common sense. You should use this common sense whether you are eating food from a dumpster or food that you purchased from inside the store.
Use your senses to decide whether the food is good rather than by looking at a number on the package. First, look at it and decide if it looks good. A bulging package means the food has fermented. CO2, a gas, is a byproduct of fermentation and you want to avoid most foods that have fermented (unless it was supposed to be fermented like sauerkraut). Another way to fail the visual test is if the food is covered in mold. But common sense would say that if one orange in a bag of ten is moldy then you could still eat the other nine oranges. If it passes the visual test, next smell it. If it smells fine you’ve got one last test, taste. Taste a little bit of it. If it passes that test it is extremely likely the food is totally safe for you to eat.
There is also food that is much safer to eat out of the dumpster than others. I read that 95% of food-borne illnesses come from industrial animal products, so avoiding industrial meat, eggs and dairy in general can bypass a lot of safety issues. With that being said, there is plenty of meat, eggs and dairy in grocery store dumpsters that is absolutely still good. If it’s still cold, then you’re probably good. I’d avoid it if it is warm unless it’s something preserved and sealed, like preserved meat and cheese. I’d say that dumpster diving for meat and dairy is a bit more advanced and to start with packaged goods and produce as you get the hang of dumpster diving.
If you are worried about safety with fruits and vegetables then you can stick to produce that have a peel or rind. Bananas, citrus, and melons are a few examples of these. If the food is not punctured and you don’t eat the peel you can rest assured that you will not get sick. You can also stick to packaged food and since most food in the United States today is packaged you won’t have any trouble finding this. Let’s take a box of cereal for example. You’ve got the box on the outside and the sealed bag on the inside. If that keeps the germs out in the factory, in transportation, and in the grocery store, then it keeps the germs out in the dumpster too.
Just like food not from the dumpster you can also cook the food to kill any bacteria. If you bake, boil, or fry any of the foods, you can be certain the food will not contain any harmful pathogens. Cook up veggies just as you would with ones you bought at the store or got out of the garden. Re-bake the bread. Hard-boil the eggs. Make apple pie or banana bread. You can also can the food too. Make spaghetti sauce with your bounty of tomatoes or salsa with all the onions, tomatoes, and peppers you found.
More common sense is to remove the bad part of the food. If a loaf of bread is covered in mold you should stay away from that completely. But if there is a moldy spot or a soft spot on a piece of fruit you can cut that out and eat the rest. You can also cut mold spots off cheeses. Remove the bad berries from the carton or the bad grapes from the bag and eat the ones that are still good.
You can also clean the produce too. Apple cider vinegar and water will do the trick.
Here are two ways you can do that (recipes given to me by a friend).
Mix 3 parts water to 1 part vinegar (3:1) in a spray bottle. Spray on fruits and veggies to get rid of any residue that might be there. Rinse with water after spraying.
Fill a bowl with water and add around 1/8 cup of vinegar, depending on the size of your bowl. Place your fruits and veggies in the bowl. Soak for 10-15 minutes. Rinse with water.
And if you still don’t feel safe eating the food yourself even with all those safety precautions there are still other good uses for the food. You can feed it to your chickens and turn the wasted food into eggs or feed it to your goat to turn it into milk and high quality manure for your garden. You can also make a great dog or cat food out of many of the ingredients you find in the dumpster. Or you can just go to pet stores and find huge bags of pet food if you want to keep it really easy.
It’s not uncommon to find this much pet food at a Petsmart or Petco.
Something I’ve done is composted a lot of wasted food. In this manner, you can produce high-quality compost and use that to grow your own healthy and organic food.
There are so many misconceptions on “expiration dates” that you could write a book on its own but I’ll keep it short. If you want more detailed information I encourage you to read The Dating Game by Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel. To put it simply for the most part the dates on the packages mean very little. The FDA does not require expiration dates on any food except baby food. And most of the labels don’t even have an “expiration date.” They have a “best by”, “sell by”, or “suggested sell by” date. All of these dates are decided by the manufacturer and have very little to do with food safety. “Suggested sell by dates” are literally a suggestion. “Best by” does not say “bad after”. That is just the date that the manufacturer thinks it reaches peak freshness. “Sell by” is not “eat by”. When it all comes down to it these dates are more about taste and aesthetics. These dates are about protecting the brand and the image of the company selling the food. The USDA even says that some packaged food can still be good for over a year past the suggested sell by date.
Now that we’ve covered what is most likely to stop you from dumpster diving I’ll move onto the details to help you with the diving.
I’ve been dumpster diving from 7 in the morning until 2 or 3 at night and all times of the day have been successful and bountiful. If you want to stay undercover then I recommend you go after the store closes. Just check the store hours online and go about an hour after that. This will keep you from running into store employees. Early mornings, a few hours before store opening, is also really good for this. The most challenging times to go are during delivery hours, which is often in the morning or evening. Going during these times or during the day increases your chances of run-ins with the store employees by a lot.
Garbage trucks come in the mornings typically, so if you go out in the morning you may be racing the garbage trucks to the dumpsters. Grocery stores hire private companies to deal with their waste so each one will have their own schedule.
I’ve found all days of the week to be bountiful in cities across the United States. It seems many grocery stores throw away food every single day. Thus, every day of the week is good for dumpster diving. The best thing to do is make a journal of your outings and you’ll likely find a pattern of which days in your city are good and which are not. This will save you a lot of time in the long run.
Where to Go
This is quite simple. Go to whatever stores sell the food that you want to eat. If you want high quality organic produce then go to the health food stores that sell that. If you want packaged junk food, then go to the stores that sell that. I mostly dive at grocery stores because that is where I can get fresh, healthy ingredients like this score in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
For a really good idea of what you can find check out this video I made where I filled a friends fridge and pantry with over $1,000 worth of food in just 5 hours of dumpster diving.
Grocery stores and supermarkets are great for everything you’d buy at grocery stores. Some good locations include Trader Joes, Aldi’s, Whole Foods, Food Lion, Big Lots, Smart & Final, and Wal-Mart. These stores have often proven to be bountiful but don’t limit yourself to the stores I listed here. I’ve found local stores as well as nationwide chains to be extremely wasteful. Just check every store in your area.
My experience is that grocery store dumpsters all across the United States are filled with perfectly good food. Big cities, little cities, they’re all wasting. I have found that areas with a larger population of homeless as well as low-income neighborhoods tend to have more locked dumpsters though. Upper-income neighborhoods tend to be the most bountiful as well as suburbs or small towns rather than the center of huge cities.
Convenience stores and gas stations are great for hot food and junk food like pizza, burgers, donuts, and sandwiches. The hot plates are often emptied multiple times per day.
This is me in Wisconsin at a gas station where I found a typical bounty of food as well as a stack full of newspapers with me on the front page.
Pharmacies like CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens are great for packaged food like crackers, cookies, cereal, frozen foods and beverages of all sorts, including bottled water, as well nonfood items like toilet paper, cosmetics, and household goods. All of this is unused and perfectly good.
This is a typical find of packaged food some past the suggested sell by date and some not.
And this is a candy score from a CVS dumpster in San Diego. Notice the cases of bottled water in the background too. This is a common find in pharmacy dumpsters.
Any place that bakes bread daily is a good bet. Most bakeries and bagel shops are worth a look. Some specific places include Panera, Subway and Einstein Bagels. This score is one day’s worth of bread that I found in a Panera in Frederick, Maryland.
Some factories are excellent as well. I’ve heard of chocolate factories that have a constant stream of chocolate, tortilla factories with dumpsters full of tortillas, and bread factories that throw away thousands of perfectly good end pieces.
You can go anywhere that serves food. Restaurants can be excellent, but since they serve mostly prepared food the food might be really messy once it ends up in the dumpster. I stick to grocery stores since the food is typically much more fresh and unprepared. Restaurants that serve premade packaged food are often the best bet when it comes to restaurants. Oh, and if you like pizza, then hit up any pizza joint.
What to Bring
You don’t NEED anything to go dumpster diving but there are a few items that can be extremely helpful. I always bring a headlamp when I go out at night. Lately, I’ve started to carry a bottle of soapy water to wash my hands as well as a towel to scrub and dry my hands. It’s ideal to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty so that you don’t have to be as careful and you can just dig in if needed.
It’s best to go to the dumpster prepared so that you can be in and out much quicker. Bringing boxes or bags will help that but I typically just grab boxes right out of the dumpster or from the recycling dumpster nearby. Banana boxes are bountiful in the dumpster and work great.
A recent trick that I learned is to place a towel on the dumpster when I lean in so I don’t get my clothes dirty. This is key when I head out for a dive and I’m in nice clothes.
The key is to make yourself comfortable, so bring with you whatever you need to be comfortable. Some people wear gloves and some people bring a stepping stool to help get themselves in the dumpster or give them more reach if they aren’t getting in.
How to Find the Dumpster
Instead of parking in the parking lot just drive around to the back of the store and look for the dumpster. With grocery stores it’s often that easy. However, the dumpsters can be hard to find at times.
Usually, the dumpster is going to be near a loading zone, so look for that. Grocery stores have loading zones for the semi’s that deliver their food and in parking lots that have many buildings, keep your eye out for those loading zones and it will help you to find the correct dumpsters. Here you can see an Aldi’s dumpster next to a loading zone on the right.
Typically grocery stores do not share their dumpsters with anyone else since they pay for their trash to be hauled away. Because of this, you want to find the grocery store dumpster, not just any old dumpster.
Keep your eyes open for brick or gated areas. The dumpster is often inside of these. Don’t let these barriers deter you, as they are usually there more for aesthetic purposes than to keep people out. Dumpsters are eyesores to the shoppers so these enclosed areas keep them out of sight and out of mind for the consumer.
Here’s a gated CVS dumpster in Maryland, where I just opened the latch and walked right in.
Grocery stores do have a good reason to keep people out though and that is to keep people from throwing their stuff in there or to keep people from making a mess. So the enclosures are less for keeping out divers and more for keeping out dumpers and keeping the place looking good. Here’s a gated-in dumpster. Notice that it says “No Dumping Allowed” but mentions nothing about trespassing. Also, this gate is locked but at least half of the gates I’ve come across are not locked.
You also want to make sure to get in the trash dumpsters, not the recycling dumpsters although the recycling bin may be worth a look too since it’s really common to not sort trash from recycling.
Navigating the Dumpster
You don’t actually dive into the dumpster.
It’s more of a climb, a lean, a hop, a drop, or a leap depending on who you are and the dumpster. Sometimes dumpsters are so full you can just stand there and pick whatever you want off the top.
Other times the bounty is at the bottom and you have to get in.
Or you can just lean in and grab the stuff
Some dumpsters are really low and easy for just about anyone to access.
Other dumpsters are high and would be really challenging for some to climb up.
Trash compactors are something that few divers will ever penetrate. I’ve found a few that I could get in at malls. These are shared by multiple businesses and are not connected directly to the building. However, most are filled from the inside of the building through an opening in the wall and have no access from the outside. I’d say you’re out of luck once the food ends up inside one of these compactors.
Compost bins and compost dumpsters are a great bet. There is nothing but food in there and it is typically very easy to pick out the good stuff. Sometimes they’ll be small bins like this
And other times they’ll be black dumpsters. Many of these have a small opening in the top a few feet wide that you can reach into or climb into.
One of the biggest things that prevents success is locked dumpsters. Many divers will blame the store for locking good food up. But I think more often than not they are locking the dumpsters for other reasons than to keep people from eating the food. Often they lock the dumpsters to keep people from dumping their own trash inside of it. Since grocery stores pay for their trash service that’s actually costly to them. Another reason is that people have made a mess at the dumpster. So whatever you do, do not leave a mess because that could result in a locked dumpster. But with perseverance and diligence, you will likely find dumpsters that are not locked or find a way inside the locked dumpster. First, if you see a lock take a moment to make sure it’s actually locked. Often the lock will be there and at first glance you’ll assume it’s locked but quite often I’ve found them to not actually be locked.
Next, see if you can still squeeze into the dumpster. This would be considered advanced dumpster diving though, so I’ll be the first to say it’s not for everyone. A lot of the top door dumpsters can actually be slipped under the lock.
Navigating by Bike or Car
If I am just going out for a couple bags of groceries, I prefer to ride my bike of course.
If you’re really rad you can hook up a trailer to your bike and rescue hundreds of dollars worth of food by bike. Dumpster diving is one time that I actually don’t mind driving in a gas-powered car though. The act of dumpster diving for food rather than buying it far offsets the gasoline used to drive to the dumpsters. And if you want a trunk full of food like this then you’re going to need a car.
When riding a bike I ride it right up to the dumpster. In a car, I will either back right up to the dumpster or park in a parking space to blend in. This depends on the situation. At night when nobodies around I’ll drive right up. If I’m trying to be stealthier during the day I’ll park in a parking spot and walk over. Then I’ll pack up a bunch of food, drive the car over and pick it up real quick. This really is a matter of feeling it out though and you’ll have to do what works for you.
Tips to stay under the radar
Don’t spend any more time there than you need to. I often spend a half hour or an hour in a dumpster with a news station but this definitely increases my run-ins. Be quick and efficient if you want to stay under the radar.
Don’t do anything else illegal or anything that attracts attention.
Park your car in an actual parking spot or at the very least somewhere that you are not blocking traffic.
If the dumpster is in a gated area close gate behind you after getting in. Once you’re in nobody will see you unless they happen to be coming out to the dumpster.
Go at night rather than during the day.
If you find a good dumpster and are worried about an employee coming out and spoiling your score fill up a few bags or boxes and then stash them around the corner. This way, if someone comes out and they’re not happy with you, you won’t have lost the stuff that you have set aside already.
Don’t worry about the cameras. I really don’t think there are people sitting inside the grocery store watching the cameras. These are more likely there in case they need to look back at the tapes.
How to Handle Company
You’re not going to run into too many people at the dumpster but from time to time you will. If you run into another diver treat him or her as a friend and embrace them. Some divers get very territorial, and understandably as some really need the food. So just be courteous and kind to everyone and don’t get competitive.
What you’re probably wondering about is what to do if you get caught. This could be by an employee, security guard or the police. I’ve mentioned it before but it’s worth saying it again. I’ve been in over a thousand (maybe thousands) of dumpsters across the United States at all times of the day and have never been in trouble. Since I am usually not going undercover I’ve had more run-ins than probably any other diver I know, maybe even over 100. But most of the time there is absolutely no need to worry.
Let’s start with employees. Most of them are not going to care. There’s a very good chance they are making a crap wage and have very little loyalty to the company. As long as you don’t annoy them, they are likely to be ok with you. So just be very courteous and kind to them. Never argue, never go on the offense, and never say anything to offend them. They may even be happy that you are taking the food because many of them HATE throwing all the food away. I’ve had this happen to me plenty of times where they applauded me for being in their dumpster.
Security guards are a little bit of a different story. It’s in their job description to protect the store and the parking lot. They are likely to kick you out, but most of the time they are just going to do that. I met a security guard at a CVS dumpster in San Diego on one of my tours and he actually spent a half hour talking to us as I was in the dumpster. He was pretty bored and happy to have people to talk to. Another security guard actually told me the donut shop next door to the Von’s I was at often has a big bag full of donuts.
As with employees always be courteous and kind to them and listen to them. If they tell you to leave, then you should leave. If they catch you in the dumpster 15 minutes later they might get really mad.
Police are typically there if they were called by someone. I’ve had about three run-ins with the police. In Atlantic, Iowa a manager of a grocery store called the police. They were two young dudes and we got to talking about cycling. I told them that I was shooting a doc on food waste. After talking for a while they asked the manager what he wanted them to do. He said it was ok for us to film but that we had to put the food back. I didn’t want to though, so I looked at the officer as I tucked the bananas into my bag and said, “can I just keep the bananas?” He said ok and with his leniency I stuffed most of the bounty in my bike trailer.
He then said, “Just make it look like you’re putting everything back.” Two hours later one of the officers had added me to Facebook and we’ve been and the police station Facebook page even shared one of my stories. The key with police is to not threaten them, to be courteous and kind, and to treat them like human beings.
One method is to explain yourself. Remember that all people are just humans and we all have a heart. I often tell them about how half of all the food in the United States is thrown away while 1 in 7 Americans are hungry. This often lets their guard down and gets them interested. Sometimes I’ll tell them I’m creating a documentary about food waste in the United States. Another thing you could say is that you are researching food waste for a school project. Tell them you are collecting the food to feed people in need and you won’t say where you got it from. Whatever you say it is best to be telling the truth. So come up with an awesome reason to be in the dumpster and you’ll have something truthful to talk about with whoever you run into at the dumpster.
Most run-ins don’t result in me loosing my score. Sometimes it does though. When they ask me to leave I’ll politely ask if I can keep what I’ve boxed up so far. A lot of the time they’ll say yes and sometimes they’ll say no. Sometimes they tell me not to come back.
I’m white, which definitely makes all of this easier for me. If I was black I think I would have a much harder time. That’s a tough one for me to give guidance on. I also look pretty sharp and have a nice smile, which helps a lot. I think if I looked homeless and was very dirty that I’d have a harder time. The fact that any of this is the case is ridiculous but in my experience it seems to hold true sometimes. I would encourage you to look presentable when you are at the dumpster. That certainly can’t hurt.
The quantity of food is obvious from these photos I’ve shown you but some people think you can’t get healthy food from the dumpster. They think it’s all GMO’s and junk food. Since that does make up a huge percentage of all food sold in the USA of course you are going to find a lot of that in the dumpster too. But you really can get just about anything you want to eat whether it is organic or conventional, health food or junk food. I very frequently hear of people saying that they eat healthier out of the dumpster than they could afford to buy at the grocery store. I’ll let some photos do the rest of the speaking
Here are two Sam’s Club compost dumpsters loaded with produce. This was not organic produce but is far healthier than most food in the United States.
Here’s a Sprout’s score of healthy produce.
Here’s a refrigerator that’s stocked solely with food from dumpsters.
Here’s a score with my friend Bryan a few years ago.
Here’s a giant dumpster feast that I made with some of my friends
I once found 50 dozen eggs, still cold, in one dumpster. Here’s a nice selection of food I found in San Diego.
This is a score from a health food store somewhere on the East Coast on my first bike ride across the United States.
Here are my friends and I, all with a great loaf of sourdough bread.
Sometimes people ask me what my personal dumpster diet is. Outside of the dumpster I stick to mostly whole organic, unpackaged, and local food. I eat an abundance of nutritiously dense foods including plenty of fruits and veggies. I work real hard to make choices that have the smallest environmental impact and I put that over my personal health or desires. That’s not really an issue as I pretty much always want to eat super healthy anyway but the bottom line is when I’m at the store I concentrate more on the environmental and social impact of food than on how much my tongue is going to love it. When I’m eating out of the dumpster I can throw most of that out the window if I want to though. When it comes to organic, well all the pesticides have been sprayed already. When it comes to the packaging, well that’s all trashed the planet already. When it comes to local, well it’s already been shipped to the dumpster. And when it comes to the animal cruelty and misusage of land, well that’s all taken place. So my eating any of these things out of the dumpster causes no environmental or social harm. Making unhealthy choices in the dumpster is only unhealthy for me, not the earth or the creatures we share the earth with. (Important note: Many people would say that about the food they purchase at the store. They don’t realize that their purchasing decisions create demand for specific products and the food system continues supplying them according to that demand. However, by eating from dumpsters you don’t affect the market at all).
I still do pretty much avoid junk food, processed food, GMO’s, and factory farmed meat, dairy and eggs because I value my health greatly. However, I don’t feel guilty about the occasional dumpster donut, slice of pizza, or cookie with butter in it.
Some Random Tips
Play the numbers game. The more dumpsters you visit the more likely you are to score. Don’t give up after just a few. After a few weeks, you’ll find patterns and know where to go and when. Keeping a journal will really help you to become an efficient diver.
Set a box down inside the dumpster and stand on that if you want to stay clean.
Why is the Food in the Dumpster?
By now you’ve probably asked “why is this food in the dumpster?” Here are the main reasons that food ends up in the dumpster
The date on the package whether, it be expiration, sell by, best by, or whatever other arbitrary date they’ve come up with. Sometimes the food is past this date. It’s not actually illegal to sell it after this date so they don’t have to throw it away but they often do. A lot of the time, though the food has not reached the date on the package yet. I find food that is a day out, a week out, a month out, and even YEARS out. Some places actually throw it away intentionally before it even reaches the date. And some systems are so inefficient (CVS for example) that intentionally throw food away long before the date on the package. Here’s how that works. They scan the products on the shelves with a scanner on a scheduled basis. Depending on the products they scan weekly, monthly, or every two months. Let’s say they scan a shelf on 06/24 and they scan that shelf weekly. This means they won’t scan again until 07/01. So anything that is dated up until 07/01 will be thrown away. Not all places are this inefficient by any means but this is indeed happening.
Mismanagement of inventory plays a huge role in wasted food. Sometimes they get in a new shipment of food and they don’t have room for all the food so they throw away the older stuff even though it is still perfectly good. Even if they did have room for it all they might still want to put the newer stuff out because it is in peak condition. I once found a dumpster in Iowa with over 100 perfectly good watermelons in it. This is because the management had over-forecasted how many watermelons they’d sell that week. They often make orders months in advance so of course they’re not going to predict with accuracy. Stocking issues typically come down to mismanagement.
Aesthetics result in billions of pounds of “ugly food” being wasted. Fruits and vegetables that have a small bruise, bananas that aren’t in a bunch, a bag of fruit with one bad one in it, or anything that is looking out of place will often be thrown away.
Here’s a bag of Cuties that had one bad one.
It’s not just fruit either. A box could be slightly crushed. A can could have a dent in it. A label could get water splashed on it. All of these minor imperfections result in food in the dumpster. If a case of spaghetti sauce is dropped and just one in the case breaks they will likely throw away the whole case. If a carton of eggs drops they will throw away the whole thing rather than just the cracked ones. If a case of 15 cartons of eggs (that’s 180 eggs) is dropped they may even throw away the whole case. If one bottle in a 24 pack of bottled water springs a leak, they often throw away the whole case because they don’t sell 23 packs and water might have gotten on the other labels.
Food waste at the grocery store level is actually the tip of the iceberg though. Billions of pounds worth of produce never make it to the grocery store solely based on the shape, color, or size of the food. Bananas with the wrong curvature, peaches with the wrong color pattern, and sweet potatoes that are too large are just a few examples of how food is wasted at the farm level. Don’t blame the farm though; it’s actually the grocery store setting strict aesthetic codes of what they’ll accept.
Technical issues Sometimes a fridge breaks down (even momentarily) so they throw away everything in the fridge. I once found 104 frozen pizzas, still frozen, in a CVS dumpster in Chicago. Someone else had just filled their trunk before I got there too. As you can see they were still good pizzas.
Some of the food is actually spoiled and can’t be eaten by people or at least would be tough to sell as is.
Waste is built into their business model. Grocery stores do not intend to operate at 100% efficiency. A store hopes to waste about 3% of all the food in the store. This is considered successful. 4-5% is pretty good I think, and 6-7% is acceptable. In a globalized and industrialized food system, you are just guaranteed to have waste. You can’t ship food all over the world and expect a completely efficient system. Also, the food is not that important to them, rather it’s the money that is important to them. Pretty much all capitalistic businesses in the United States have waste built into them whether it’s clothes, car parts, or food. This is all part of dealing with massive quantities of anything.
Solutions to The Food Waste Fiasco
As I said in the beginning, I desire to put an end to food waste and hunger in the United States.
My primary goal is not to get more people in the dumpster. I’m trying to keep food out of the dumpster in the first place. I would be successful if dumpster diving no longer existed in my time. I’d feel a little bad for being that successful but I believe it would actually be better for everyone, the environment, and the country as a whole. I encourage all of you reading this to be a part of the solution to the Food Waste Fiasco.
Tristram Stuart of Feedback is one of the pioneers of food waste and his work has resulted in billions of pounds of food being put to good use rather than wasted.
This diagram he created sums it up really well.
I’d like to give some examples and put my two cents into each of the parts of the pyramid though
Reduce. This is obviously where the most work is to be done and is of the highest priority. There are so many ways that waste excess can be reduced in the first place. Inventory can be handled better. Stores can use food on the shelves that is not perfectly aesthetically pleasing in the deli or a restaurant if they have one. If they have a juice bar they can use the bruised apples or the crooked carrots there for example. Food nearing the date on the package can be marked down for quick sale. Food can be sold to resale stores that carry food that is past its date. More importantly than anything grocery stores can abolish strict cosmetic standards and sell food based on its nutritional value, not its looks.
Feed people in need. All excess food that is still edible for people should be donated to non-profits. Grocery stores (as well as restaurants, caterers, etc.) are protected by the Good Samaritan Food Act and encouraged to donate their excess food. Not only that but not a single lawsuit has ever been made against a business that donated food to a non-profit according to a 2013 University of Arkansas study. There are thousands of food rescue programs that will go to the store and pick the food up. Examples include City Harvest, Feeding America and The Food Recovery Network.
Feed animals. If the food is not edible by humans than the food should be fed to livestock. This can turn the spoiled food into delicious and nutritious food. From an environmental standpoint, raising pigs on wasted food is far better than feeding the pigs virgin crops and letting the wasted food go to the landfill.
Compost and 100% renewable energy. Tristram told me that bio-digestion only captures about 1% of all the resources that it took to create the food in the first place. All the water, land, fossil fuels, etc. were wasted to produce food that went uneaten. This should be avoided at all costs but is far better than putting it in the landfill still. Almost all Wal-Mart’s in the United States compost and if they (the big bad meanies) are doing it than any grocery store can do it. I can’t go without mentioning though that they are composting way too much perfectly good food.
Disposal. By following these four steps there really is no reason for a scrap of food from grocery stores to end up in the landfill. Disposal costs a lot of money and the price is increasing so there are huge financial benefits to avoiding this as well.
On a personal level, I suggest you support systems that create a lot less waste. You can grow your own food because when you are connected to your food you are much less likely to waste it. Also, you can buy from local farmers who care about their food and treat it less like a commodity. You can also tell grocery stores to #DonateNotDump!