Dumpster Diving Guide
so you want to go dumpster diving? that means you've already won half of the battle, and honestly you don't need much help from us, all you really need is the confidence to get out there, and then the determination to stick at it if you don't at first succeed. but since we're always being emailed for help and tips we thought we'd try to consolidate our acquired knowledge and experience onto a single page. it's the nice thing to do, right?
and just to contradict all that, i'd like to recommend you ignore everything that follows. because really, it's much more fun finding it all out for yourself..
There's Two I's in "Dumpster Diving"
you've got the inclination, your next step is convincing someone else it's a good idea too. dumpster diving solo has it perks, you make less noise and you're less visible, but how are you going to carry all that food if you're on your own? also, hanging out in dark alleys alone is no fun. this is a chicken and the egg problem - if you'd been dumpster diving you would have the goods to entice your friends along. my best advice, show them some of our photos and promise them a good time and a fair share of the takings.
having lots of friends is fun, but taking a large group dumpster diving is not. people don't like gangs and you've got zero chance of being inconspicuous. also, a groups confidence increases dramatically with size, and over-confidence is never clever.
Location Location Etc
your intitial list of targets is limited only by your imagination, your means of transport and your needs. the best places to dive changes drastically depending on where you live, but generally your best bet is to start with large supermarkets and work your way down. from our experience the best catches are from medium sized food chainstores and bakeries, but don't rule out independent grocers or even distribution centres and factories if there's any nearby (although they have never paid out for us).
now might also be a good time to invest in a bicycle which can carry heavy loads. we're lucky, as we're surrounded by fantastic dumpsters, but if you live in the suburbs you won't be able to go diving on foot. if you're mobile you may even want to crack open the yellow pages and search for specialist shops (a pro technique for sure).
your list of potential dumpsters will be whittled down remarkably quickly when you realise most of them can't be accessed, although what you count as accessible is relative. jumping walls and fences isn't advisable (or even always possible), but it does provide you with excellent cover and privacy, and if it's your only option you may want to consider it. just beware of cameras, although normally they're only used retroactively (i.e. if there's a break-in they'll be checked).
whatever you're style, we recommend you do all your scouting during the day, when you can easily identify dumpsters (as opposed to the recycling bins or the dreaded compactors/incinerators) and see what security is or isn't present. in daylight you will look less suspicious when you're nosing around, and you can also discover all the potential targets in one go and save yourself a lot of wandering around in the dark (although i guess some of us like that kind of thing anyway).
as for the quality of dumpsters, well you can only find that out by jumping in.
(note: since we only dive for food this is what our guide focuses on, don't be afraid to try hardware and sedcondhand stores, etc)
Getting Kitted Up
your list of necessary equipment depends on how hardcore you want to be. on one extreme you will need nothing, at the other extreme you will need bolt cutters and a good pair of boots, neither of which we feel too comfortable condoning. our gear includes:
- torch/flashlight (headlight for the win)
- gloves (waterproof if possible)
- 2 carrier bags per person
- clothes you don't mind getting dirty
coming back from the field you'll also be grateful for a decent supply of sandwich/freezer bags, tin foil, cling film (plastic wrap) and any other random containers that you can transfer food into for good keeping. all that packaging has been good for seperating your food from the trash, but you really don't want it in your fridge.
ideally you want to go as late as possible, when it's as dark and quiet as it gets. but, as we can attest, this isn't always easy. maybe someone needs to get up early, or they just can't control their excitement at the thought of all that free food. so if you're not carving up the early hours of the morning (beware of bakeries), it's important to know when your shops close. the last thing you want is to get caught by a store manager, not because they'll shout at you, but because they'll start making extra efforts to stop you from liberating their 'garbage'. it's a sad day when you find your favourite dumspter locked or missing. from our experience you should give store workers at least an hour to clock off after closing time, keeping in mind that one of the last things they'll do is take out the trash. if you can tell whether they've cleared out or not (office/staff room lights still on, etc) even better.
our favourite dumpsters serve up the goods nearly every day of the week, with either saturday or monday night being the best because of the extra 'out-of-date' day provided by sunday (when most of the shops are closed). however, smaller stores don't always have garbage pickups and new stock deliveries every day, so you'll have to keep tabs on them to work out the best night of the week. be persistent and don't give up.
timing is more crucial in the summer, as your precious food will spoil quicker whilst baking in the hot dumpster. short of installing your own surveillance, so you can grab the food as soon it hits the dumpster, we have no clever solutions for this. our best advice is to hold your breathe and not be put off by the worsened sickly sweet smell (most likely not coming from what you're taking, but something much more evil lying at the bottom of the dumpster - you don't want to know, and nor do we).
Dumpster Behaviour and Ethics
when approaching a dumpster there's a careful balance between hiding in the shadows and acting like you own the place. walking with confidence and authority will make you invisible to almost everybody (the important exclusion being the shop owner), and sneaking around and skulking in the dark will arouse more suspicion than you deserve (if spotted). you don't want to look like a burglar or a car theif, if you do you'll be treated like one. however, you shouldn't be be too concerned about other people, most of them wont care, but do be wary of local residents who might not approve. we've heard of people threatening to call the police (but never of police actually getting involved), but worse of all they may report your activity to the store.
a little subtlety goes a long way, and whilst you're rummaging through a dumpster you want to be as quiet as possible. this is obvious and patronising advice, but it's important. too often we've accidentally let a dumpster lid crash open, and it's not a pretty sound. dumpster contents can also be noisey, whilst shifting the garbage around be careful of glass bottles and such falling deeper into the dumpster. clang. i also like to cover my headlight if i hear a car passing, but often it's just too impractical.
do have a good dig, the food wont always be on top of the actual garbage, and don't be afraid to take whole bin bags out if necessary. but if you make a mess, clean it up. this is for your own benefit as well of the poor employees who will have to clean up your mess, don't give anyone a reason to want to stop your dumpster antics. because they will. we often have to rip open plastic bin bags, but avoid it if possible because it's an obvious sign you've been there. if you're going for quantity (for food not bombs, etc) it might be worth taking the whole bin bag, with a small amount of experience it becomes easy to tell which ones contain the food by feeling through the plastic. this is an especially good trick with bakeries, who seem to throw out bags solely containing fresh bread. but remember to share. and make sure you're not taking food that someone else is relying on, i.e. don't empty a container the first time you find it. if you find a dumpster consistently full, and at all times of night, then you'd be forgiven for thinking that what you leave behind is being wasted, and we all know that waste is fair game.
The Dumpster Cornocopia (what to expect)
we often wonder if some supermarkets simply throw out whatever is left on the shelf when they get their new stock delivered. sometimes there's no other explanation as to why such good broccoli or bananans would be thrown out. maybe some people can't tell the difference between unripe and overly ripe food, or maybe they just don't like vegetables. i don't know. below we've attempted to describe and rationalise what you might find in your dumpster.
once upon a time a genius in marketing decided it would encourage people to buy more vegetables if they were packaged together. rather than buying the single pepper they need, the consumer buys the colourful triple pack. and when one of those peppers goes bad whilst still sitting on the shelf, that's where we come in. often a whole bag will be thrown out because of one bad apple, fresh fruit and all.
it's similar story with eggs, often you'll find a whole egg carton in the dumpster just because one egg is broken. unfortunately, thanks to the monstrous machinations of industrial farming, you may also have to worry about bad eggs (we've covered eggs more thoroughly elsewhere).
smaller grocery stores don't have this packaging 'problem' and will usually only throw something in the trash when it starts to go bad, so you'll tend to find fruit and vegetables with bruises or small amounts of mold. sometimes these can be 'fixed' with clever use of a knife. these stores also tend to have dedicated bins for organic waste, which can be good because you don't have to deal with garbage, but can also be bad because otherwise decent food is in close contact with masses of spoilt food.
dairy products can often be found due to over zealous sell-by dates. these were introduced in 1979, and dr slim dinsdale (personally i wouldn't trust a man with that name, and apparently he's an expert witness in food related court cases) admits that they have more to do with "preventing customer complaints" than our own safety. i think all divers know that already. best of all is that organic food products (and for all the right reasons) tend to have shorter shelf lives, making them easy picking. as for "best before" dates, they're meaningless and should just be banned. if you can't tell whether your food is still good for you then you don't deserve the privilege of being able to buy it to begin with.
if there's a reasonable quantity of milk cartons it's quite easy to check if they're still good for consumption - just open one up. but be careful not to spill it all over the place, bad milk is nasty. a lot of milk cartons tend to be thrown out because they're leaking, so try not to put them in the same bag as something you can't clean milk off later, and preferably put it at the bottom of the bag (one that doesn't have holes in). in the summer you may want to avoid milk entirely. milk we find in the summer is always bad. the same goes for cheese, unless you like your cheese sweaty. but don't forget that mold can be cut off chese, something that isn't true for bread.
bread, the staple food that it is, can always be found. infact, it makes you wonder why people pay for it at all (being staple, people shouldn't have to). what people wont pay for is bread that isn't fresh. a lot of bakeries will bake fresh bread all day, only to throw it out come closing time. with non-embedded bakeries (ones not attached to larger supermarkets) you're also less likely to come up against anti-dumpster diving security measures. free bread for all.
if you want advice on meat you're in the wrong place, maybe you should try here
if there's a large quantity of one product there's normally a good reason why it's been trashed, especially if it's all within the infamous sell-by date. there may have been a recall or an accident, etc. it may be tempting, but if it's not obvious why a large batch is lying pretty in a dumpster, you probably shouldn't take it. or at least not for consumption, there are other fun things you can do with a crate of bad eggs, for instance.
and it's not always peaches and cream, sometimes the dumpster bites back. spiteful shop keepers will sometimes pour liberal amounts of cleaning products into their bins, covering what would otherwise be edible food in bleach or detergent. only mildly more reasonable (and much more dangerous) is rat poison. due to the rather admirable feeding habits of rats, normal poisons don't work. as scavengers they will only eat a small amount of the food they find, then wait to see if it makes them sick before continuing to eat. this means rat poison has to be either really strong or have a considerable delayed effect. it's also odourless and tasteless and apparently looks like flour. having said all that, it's not something we worry about and there have been zero cases of poisoned divers. that's not a reason to be the first.
other hazards include broken glass (the practical reason why you should have good gloves) and coffee grains, which i absolutely loathe. they wont hurt you, but they get everywhere and they're disgusting. so when you find something akin to wet sticky soil over everything, and it stinks, you now know what it is.
Excess, Surplus and Plenitude
you could say that taking more food than necessary is greedy, and succumbing to greed is the way of the capitalists. but on the other hand, leaving good food to rot is also a crime. so deciding how much to take is tricky. as a group we are somewhat spoilt, the dumpsters we frequent are often so full we needn't worry about depriving others, most often we're limited by what we can carry. but when starting out don't take more than you need (what is "need" when it comes to cake and chocolate?), at least until you get a feel for who else is feeding from the same trash. if you visit a dumpster at all hours and there's always plenty of food you could probably afford to be less cautious. if it's approaching morning i'd be inclined to suggest taking the lot.
now is the time to learn how to deal with massive quantities of various foods. most vegetables can be made into simple soups or sauces that can be frozen and stored until darker hungrier times. bread (at least the bread we get) freezes and thaws with no problem. stale bread can be turned into croutons (those strange things), which can be used in your delicious soups, or to make stuffing, nut loaf, etc. fruit can also be frozen if you're going to make smoothies with it. making relish and jam is another good way to preserve your nutritious food. milk can be made into simple cheese (indian paneer is quick, easy and great in curries).
if you've invited all your friends over and had your big feast and your fridge and freezer are still both full, maybe you should start thinking about distribution. for every person who will wrinkle their nose at the idea of eating food from a dumpster (fear not, conditioning can be broken) there are plenty who will be grateful for it. these people are not hard to find.
if you want to get organised then your best bet is to go in search of your local food not bombs group, who will take care of your excess food with flair and brilliance, filling the coldest stomachs with warm and wonder. or at least they will if they're still active, it seems that defunct FNB groups are all too common. if this is the case in your area then the only thing for it is action, you'll have to resurrect the group yourself. if you're lucky a trail will lead you to a mailing list of some sort, and hopefully people who will be interested in restarting the group. these contacts are important, because they'll know what previously did and didn't work in your area, they'll know where you can cook and where you can serve, maybe they'll even have that all important giant pot. failing all of that, you'll just have to be determined and resourceful, and there are plenty of other places out there with better information and help for budding FNB groups.
but first things first, just get out there. what are you waiting for?
..beneath the dumpster lid, the beets!