The Definitive Guide to Dumpster Diving
Disclaimer : You are responsible for your own safety. As an author, I am sharing my experience and knowledge but hold no responsibility for your well-being. Please be smart and stay safe.
Why Go Dumpster Diving?
Human beings waste an exorbitant amount of its resources through a variety of inefficiencies. In Canada, our food waste was valued at 31 Billion in 2014. That’s nearly $1000 for every man, woman, and child in the entire country and roughly 10% of my annual budget. 2.2 Billion people in this world, nearly one in three live on less than $2 per day.
Canada’s food waste per person is 150% of the annual expenses of someone living in a developing nation.
Dumpster diving is one way of limiting the amount of refuse that ends up in a landfill. In our home, the food that is no longer good ends up in the compost which we pay for out of our own pockets.
Living is expensive nowadays. You can’t legally build a shelter in the middle of the forest and forage for food. A basic level of living has an increasing number of costs associated with it, while our collective purchasing power is decreasing and unemployment is rising.
Dumpster diving has very few costs associated with it. You might have to pay for transportation costs if you find a lot to transport. Bags (and garbage bags to line them), gloves (ideally waterproof), a pocket knife (to cleanly open bags) and headlamps have a certain cost associated with them too. Bike trailers too, if you are so inclined. Other than that, dumpster diving on public property is free. So if you want to feed your family off of a supermarket’s leftovers because you can’t afford to feed them another way, you should.
Dumpster diving is like playing the lottery for free. Sometimes you hit the jackpot, and it doesn’t cost a thing. It’s a way to have a bit more adventure in your life while simultaneously helping your city produce less food waste and feeding your family. Helping out and saving money never felt so exciting.
Reactions to Dumpster Diving
“I’m too good to dig in the trash.”
Time and again I have discovered that I am constantly creating barriers around myself to maintain a semblance of consistency. It is innate to fear the unknown, and so we will create reasons to avoid it. It is this consciousness that differentiates us from other animals.
Ask yourself the difficult questions when you are offered an opportunity to live outside of your comfort zone so that you may live new experiences.
It certainly can be. You might touch squished fruit, mold, mystery elements… but you can also wear gloves and learn what clothing is appropriate.
“You found all that in the trash?!?”
Yeah, we did. Yes, we did find this much food. Yes, we found 200 rolls of sealed toilet paper with a few coffee stains. Yes, we found wine with upside down labels. Beer too. Thousands of dollars of cheese? Yes. Soy milk? Rice milk? Almond milk? Cow milk? Butter? Boxes upon boxes of chocolate?
While some things are rarer to find than others, you would be surprised by how much is out there, going to waste. It’s a bit like a mystery shopping spree where you’re just grabbing random things off the shelves, putting them in your cart, and walking out the store.
“Isn’t that food expired?”
Expiration dates and shelf lives are a bit like weather forecasts, except that they’re created to be the least wrong, not the most right. Around the ‘expiry date’ a percentage of the stock will go bad. From what I’ve heard, maybe around 10%. A few days later, maybe 20% of the food is bad. And within a few weeks, nearly all of it is no longer consumable. But if you can find food within a few days of the expiration date, the odds are tremendously in your favor. This is where you can use your own common sense to judge whether something is safe to consume or not.
Where to Dumpster Dive
Every store generates trash but not every store sells products with ‘sell by’ or ‘use by’ dates. If you want an old media player, don’t expect to find one in the trash of a big box store… but then again, stranger things have happened.
Smaller grocery stores will have bins that might be publicly accessible, so start there.
Pharmacies can also be a treasure trove for good dumpstering. I have no idea why they throw out boxes of bandages, but they do sometimes.
On a larger scale, food distributors deal with large quantities of certain types of food and can be worth researching.
Free Food from the Shelf
Sometimes the smartest way to dumpster dive is to not dumpster dive at all. Speak to a store clerk and ask them how they handle their waste. Tell them your story. Let them know your situation and they might be willing to set aside some food for you to pick up on a regular basis. Most workers hate the idea of wasting so much food. Give them an opportunity to feel better about their role in the life cycle and to get yourself fed at the same time.
Ethics of Dumpster Diving
Once you have arrived to your dumpstering destination, be respectful of the surrounding area. Avoid making unnecessary amounts of noise. If the garbage is in bags, do your best to open the bags in such a way that you can close them afterwards (this is where a pocket knife can come in handy). Tearing them apart should be your last resort. After you’re finished, inspect the area to see that it is even neater than when you arrived.
Only take as much food as you require and be sure to share whatever you can. If you see the garbage truck coming and end up taking more than you can reasonably use, do your best to share it with others. There are even dumpster diving food sharing groups online.
Please do not sell dumpstered food.
Dangers of Dumpster Diving
Larger grocery stores often have garbage compactors. Do not try to take trash from a garbage compactor; it is incredibly dangerous.
Be aware that there can be sharp materials inside a dumpster, so be alert while digging and wear appropriate clothing and gloves.
Climbing fences to access a dumpster can be trespassing.
Breaking the locks on dumpsters is considered destruction of property.
If you find a quantity of a certain type of food and it seems too good to be true, it could be. Check online to see if the product was recalled for some reason.
Certain foods can be more dangerous than others to eat and you should be aware of all of the potential dangers. For example, be extra careful with any meat you may find. Here is a short video on how to tell if meat is spoiled. In general though, you should be using your senses to know if food is spoiled. Generally, bad meat won’t smell right. When in doubt, throw it out.
If you find food where there may be a small amount of risk but you are still feeling adventurous, cook them thoroughly. Found sausages? Were they out in the sun all day or were they still cold to the touch when you found them? If the former, do not take them. If you found them and they seem to still be fresh (and you aren’t overly paranoid about meat spoilage), you can boil them first, then fry them up.
With yogurt, the container will be expanding and the yogurt will tingle on your tongue (you only need to try a drop) if it is no longer good.
Basically, you will re-learn how to use your senses to tell whether or not the thing you are about to eat is good for you or dangerous. This is a generally useful life skill. Trust yourself before simply trusting a date on packaging.
Cleaning Dumpstered Food
For fruits and veggies, use a mixture of 1/3 white vinegar and 2/3 water to wash them well. Rinse them under water afterwards.
Be smart about dumpster diving. It’s important to be conscious and respectful of the environment and respectful of yourself. Don’t get yourself arrested because you decided to trespass where you shouldn’t have. Don’t get yourself sick because you ate something you questioned; food poisoning isn’t worth it.
The pros of dumpster diving far outweigh the cons, and if it can be as simple as asking your local fruit store if you could have some of the food they plan on throwing out anyways, what’s really stopping you?
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An interview in French I did about Dumpster Diving in 2012.
My first Medium article written about living on less than $11,000 in 2013.
Reddit’s Dumpster Diving community.