How to Jump in the Dump

Per request, this entry is all about the step-by-step process (and ethics) of diving.

I remember hearing a really good presentation about this at the California Student Sustainability Coalition Convergence, and I wish I had my notes.

But here it goes…

As the first permaculture principle is Observation and Thoughtful Interaction, such is the case with foraging in the trash. I always park my transportation apparatus (I drive my car to dive as to fit the food, but another local dumpster diver pulls up on bike and travels light. I would imagine that a bike trailer would be ideal.), and then sit and watch for a minute or two. I take this time to see if there are other cars around, if it looks like staff might still be inside, to prepare for the abundance I am about to receive, etc. If it is a new spot, I will also observe the access and escape methods.

Once this step is done, I put on my diving shoes and headlamp, and head for the dumpster. Some people wear gloves, but I have never been one for that sort of thing. I keep hand wipes, sanitizer, or soapy water in the car for the post-dive rinse.

In some cases, people will experienced locked dumpsters, walls, trash compactors, or other barriers. As I may have mentioned before, it is not illegal unless you are committing an unrelated crime (i.e. breaking the lock, dumping your own trash into the bin, or littering) or if the area is marked with No Trespassing signs. If you are asked to leave by staff and do not, that is also illegal. But enough about rules, let’s get to the juicy stuff, literally.

My favorite number of people to dive with is 3, including myself. One to be in the bin (diver), one to support the person in the bin (supporter – by grabbing contents from her/him, holding a light, or assisting in moving bags from one bin to another), and the third to sort, put good contents in bags/boxes, and take loads to the car (sorter). Of course, I like to get down and dirty in the dump, so I am the diver. It is easy to adapt “jobs” based on number of divers around.

When I get to the dumpster, I choose a bin and get in a position where I can reach the bags of trash. As I start to move towards the bottom, I like to actually get into the bin.  Contents vary per site, but we are lucky enough to have two bins with mostly bagged trash at our local dive. I like to start in one bin and move through the contents of that bin until I have reached the bottom, loading bags that have already been sifted through into the other bin, and then switching. We examine the contents of each bag, sometimes in or over the bin and sometimes we pull some bags out (depending on how many people are on the dive…you gotta put everyone to work). When we find good items, they are handed out of the trash to the sorter(s).

Once you get the hang of it, you can sometimes tell if the bag will have good contents without even opening it (by weight, smell, squishy-ness, etc.). Sometimes the diver will quickly hand items out for the others to look at in the light. The diver usually has a headlamp and the others have the light of the store and/or their own lights. On occasion, we will not go to the bottom of the bin because it is too juicy. But most of the time it’s juuust right.

Many times there are open liquids or semi-liquids thrown into the mix. It is your job to determine if you are comfortable to pull out goodies with this liquid on them (and wash them when you get home), or if you prefer to leave it be. For example, we sometimes find half drank coffee cups from employees that have spilled all over the loot. I do not care about a little coffee. However, when we find commercial meat wrappers with who knows what kind of blood on it, I decide not to go deeper into the pot.

Ultimately, what you choose to take home with you is under your discretion. Do not take something that you do not plan on eating. Do not take more food than you can eat, especially if there are others who frequent your spot. It is great to share with friends, but be realistic about what will get used.

That brings me to some universal diving ethics:

  1. Do not take more than you can use
  2. Leave the place cleaner than you found it
  3. Share with others

I’m sure there are more, but those are the main ones for me. As I also say to volunteers at the gleaning organization that I work for, “The two rules are: be safe & have fun”. That applies here too.

Lastly, I was asked what to do or say when approached by an authority figure. When anyone comes near, I definitely quiet myself and my group. At our current location, staff will ignore us because they support the rescuing of food or do not want to deal with us. At previous spots, we have been approached and gently (and not so gently) asked to leave. Most authority (i.e. managers security guard) is obligated by their superiors to say something to you, and if you do not raise hell, they will most likely let you walk off with whatever you’ve pulled out at that point. I usually say something like “Sorry, we were just rescuing this perfectly good food from going to waste” or “Did you know that 40% of food is thrown out in the U.S.? We’re just trying to lessen that number and put food on the plate”…without being a brat, of course.

People are not out to get divers. They are just doing their jobs. Treat them with respect and they will do the same. If you have continued issues, maybe find another joint to dive at?

To conclude this brief manual, I have pasted links for other websites with diving tips. As you will read in those, people do not always dive at grocery stores, nor do they always dive at night. We choose to do so for our own reasons, but explore the scene when and where works for you. I found some roller skates in a thrift store dump and other cool items at a Bed, Bath, & Beyond. I am trying to downsize so I stick to consumables.

Until later, happy diving!


Other resources:

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