The Culture of the Vulture: The Rules and Regs of Dumpster Diving

Sep 14, 2010
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

This year, numbers of food stamp recipients hit all-time highs. Meanwhile, recent reports say that 49 million Americans don't have access to nutritious foods. And yet, the New York Times reported in 2008 that Americans waste an estimated 27 percent of the food available for consumption.

Mother Nature Network says Americans toss out 100 million pounds of food every year. Where's it all going? Garbage cans, Dumpsters, and landfills.

But not all of it stays there.

Dumpster divers—or urban scavengers, if you're savvy enough to embrace the new-ish moniker—are raiding garbage containers everywhere, harvesting the cast-offs of a wasteful society.

Free food? Check the Dumpster. (Photo: iBjorn/Creative Commons)

Dumpster diving is not for everyone—namely, the faint of heart, the clean freaks, the lazy, or the physically timid.  It’s not easy, and it is not a high-status pursuit. It is, quite literally, scraping the bottom of the barrel.

But despite its seedy reputation, the world of Dumpster divers is more structured and communal than it may seem. Across the U.S., under the guise of screen names or openly on blogs and forums, thousands of avid Dumpster divers have created a code—rules, best practices, tips, and camaraderie—for foraging the food that would otherwise be left to rot. They may not be the menaces to society that they're made out to be.

Here, a glimpse into the world of Dumpster diving.

Keeping It Legal

Restaurant owners who find that their garbage bags are being scavenged for savory crumbs might tell you that Dumpster divers are the worst of the lot. In some cases—when garbage cans end up destroyed or vandalized locks must be replaced—storeowners have a strong case. But not all divers drop into Dumpsters to give the metaphorical finger to the corporations of the world. Some just want a cheap bite to eat, or believe in the power of conservation. This breed of divers is, you might say, polite.

Wikihow hosts a Dumpster diving how-to. The gist of it revolves around playing fair. “Know your local laws,” it advises. “Research the laws in your area or contact your local police department to inquire about the legality of diving practices.”

Wikihow also urges compassion for shopowners who (albeit unknowingly) provide divers with the treats they love. “Clean up after yourself,” it suggests. “If you've thrown garbage all around, pick it up and put it back into the Dumpster. While you're at it, throw away other nearby trash that's on the ground. Leave the area as clean or cleaner than you found it—don't give Dumpster diving a bad name.” A common courtesy, cleaning up is also instrumental to respecting shopowners who can be fined for untidy Dumpsters.

Mother Nature Network’s Lena Koenig, who says Dumpster diving is only as gross as the amount of waste in the U.S., is happy to offer tips to her readers on strategy, but still advocates  staying within the limits of the law: “If accessing a particular Dumpster requires breaking a lock, jumping a fence or otherwise ‘breaking and entering,’ head elsewhere.”

Restrained Indulgence

Flying under the consumer radar, Dumpster divers are the embodiment of the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra, keeping purchases to a minimum while making treasure of another man’s trash. The Secret Freegan, a diver who says she saves $300 a month on family groceries and donates excess to homeless shelters, explains: “The most surprising part of all of this is that Freegans are not necessarily poor. Most of them just hate to see food and things wasted.”

But when a Dumpster yields 40 jars of organic peanut butter or is chock-full of free POM juice, it’s easy to forget that gorging on free food is overindulging, too.

Divers keep fellow divers in check with reminders about waste. “Take only what you need and can realistically use,” is the advice on Wikihow.

Stella, a diver commenting on the environmentalist blog Crunchy Chicken, offers her take on moderate consumption: "Take what you need, give what you can," she says.

Staying Safe

While weeding through germy napkins, broken glass and rotten fruit may build a killer immune system and steely exterior in the long run, in the short term it’s a rather risky ordeal. To minimize the number of dreadful things that could plague the human immune system in the course of a scavenging night, divers have posted pages of safety tips for one another.

One diver at Allthingsfrugal, a site for divers, advises fellow Dumpster reapers to beware the risks of pointy objects and unsavory findings. Among the red flags: watch out for needles, steer clear of lids that slam shut in strong winds, and dodge “icky stuff—like dead animals.”

Tacked on to the end of the list is a conspicuous bit of morality:  “Make sure that there are no ordinances that makes this activity illegal in your area.”

@Freegan, a woman who chronicles her diving on Twitter, suggests to her followers another tip for safety: “I wear a back brace when getting food boxes to prevent injury. My upper body strength is definitely increasing from the heavy boxes.”

Get a Little, Give a Little

Given the finite supply of Dumpsters, divers are bound to cross paths. Though things can get territorial, the general sentiment online seems to be one of generosity and goodwill.

Allison Burtch, a Brooklyn-based SAT prep teacher who's gained a following for her Dumpster diving adventures, is a proponent of spreading the wealth. “Share with other divers," she says. "It’s meant to be a generous experience. “

Wikihow adds, “Take what you can use, but remember that there are a lot of Dumpster divers, and someone may have a dire need for something that you'll just leave sitting in your garage.”

Some divers also organize events or meet-ups to swap items and distribute the wealth. Squeakyramone, a diver who hosted a “Really, Really Free Market” where anyone was welcome to attend and comb the pooled resources, posted a flier to a diver forum last year. “With the current state of the economy, who doesn’t like free stuff?” it said. “All are welcome. In times like these, solidarity is key.”

Photo: iBjorn/Creative Commons via Flickr

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