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Dumpster Diving 101 - Sustainable living for beginners and city slickers

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June 25th, 2009

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09:18 am - Dumpster Diving 101
I thought I’d share my dumpster diving experiences and tips since I recently posted to this community with a question about dumpster diving.

Social Aspects

Though not illegal per se, dumpster diving is an activity that is often viewed as being on the fringes of acceptability. There may be issues of trespassing, depending on where the dumpster is located. In many of the office parks and in industrial areas the dumpsters are sometimes locked and under surveillance. Even when a dumpster is free range and accessible, the people who use that particular dumpster routinely may have a problem with a stranger going through their trash. The dumpster diver may inevitably cause onlookers to associate the activity with theft, the loss of privacy, or illegal dumping, as I discovered at a nondescript shopping plaza. The dumpster in question was unusually tall and I found that I had to nearly flip myself over once I scaled it in order to view its contents. Finding nothing but bags of shredded paper, I seesawed myself backwards and landed awkwardly on the ground. I was greeted by the suspicious glare of an employee from an adjacent accounting office; she was standing tentatively at the door, probably assessing whether or not she should call the cops.

While one may come up with a multitude of seemingly reasonable explanations, I think honesty is the best policy. “I lost something,” isn’t an excuse that’s going to work when you’ve situated your entire body firmly inside the dumpster so that only the top of your head is visible to the inquisitor whose suspicions you’re trying to alleviate.

On the other hand, one might not feel particularly chatty when scavenging. If such is the mood, then a seamless retreat and escape plan is necessary. I learned this while diving in a state park dumpster. A park ranger spotted me climbing the dumpster from a distance and started making his way towards me across the parking lot in his truck. Disquieted by the fact that I had not sufficiently probed the dumpster’s contents, I deliberated by teetering on the edge of the dumpster. Not being adept at this kind of gymnastics, I ended up falling off the side of the dumpster and sustaining one of the ugliest bruises that I’ve ever had. This example demonstrates an important maxim that should be applied whenever you are engaged in any atypical, dubious activity: take your time. Remain calm, collected, and focused. Apply the techniques you’ve perfected during your training sessions. Practice scaling dumpster-sized objects in your spare time so that you will be able to manage the real thing with flexibility and adroitness. Your ease and fluidity of movement may serve to convince onlookers that your activities are natural and reasonable. Practice creating and carrying bundles. Practice the art of walking - coolly and innocuously - away.


I have found that Saturday and Sunday early mornings are opportune times for dumpster diving, as most people are still asleep and will not bother you. It also seems like more garbage accumulates on weekends and holidays during people’s leisure time. Knowing the schedule of your neighborhood dump and recycle trucks is helpful and will allow you to hit the dumpsters at their ripest moment. Mapping out all possible targets beforehand and documenting which consistently yield the best items is also recommended. The more one delves into preparation, the more it seems that dumpster diving is as much a science as an art. I’m sure that persistent observations would yield information about the wasteful habits of various demographics of people as well as the best places to discover specialty items. Because my experiences are still too limited to be developed into a comprehensive trashology, I defer to some common sense tips.

Wear comfortable clothing and light, dependable sneakers (clunky sneakers tend to become dislodged when climbing, wading, or otherwise maneuvering through piles of trash). Latex gloves or thin garden gloves are also useful and can be carried in a pocket. Also, bring a hat. It will protect you from the elements; even the most enthusiastic divers generally do not want to end up with suspicious particulates in their hair.

Clothing can be used not only to protect yourself from some of the unsavory aspects of trash but also as a deterrent. You can prevent people from approaching you unnecessarily either by blending in to the extent that you go unnoticed, or by being so wildly conspicuous that the sight of you is met with uncomfortable uncertainty. The latter strategy is only recommended for those with a bold temperament; all too often when people see someone that they deem to be unusual or deviant, they report it from a safe and anonymous distance. Also, blending in is preferred if you care what others might think, especially if you’re concerned that you may encounter an acquaintance who’s unaware of your unconventional habits. On this final point, I can only add the disclaimer that if you are a dumpster diver, you will be noticed by someone. Ultimately, every practitioner must embrace the assertion inherent in the dive.


Unless you are diving into a dumpster out of desperate necessity, don’t litter. Leave the site in the same condition that you found it, and avoid unnecessary disruptions. Respect the dump as the communal space that it is.

Dumpster Diving Links

wikiHow: A good beginner’s guide. Suggests some great excuses (looking for boxes for moving), locations (universities around graduation time), disguises (a butcher’s smock), and tips when diving for food (Mondays are best).

The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving and Empire of Scrounge: Books on the topic.

A case study: About the authors of The Scavengers’ Manifesto

The Living Web: The site is kind of like a dumpster itself. You’ll find a goulash of links and testimonials that provide information about the diverse motivations behind dumpster diving.

Freecycle: An alternative to dumpster diving.

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:June 26th, 2009 10:41 am (UTC)
Hey! I really enjoyed reading that. Thanks for sharing it!
Date:July 24th, 2009 12:22 am (UTC)
you did a good job in coming out of the experience with some well-written guidance for others.

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