Getting Started Dumpster Diving

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getting started dumpster divingSometime back in the early nineties I was between jobs, having been laid off and was trying to broker some printing jobs in Denver. During the course of my attempts to sell printing I drove by a large bookstore, and being the bibliophile I am, I had to stop in and do some browsing.

In the very large self-sufficiency section I came across The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving by John Hoffman. Just a few seconds of flipping pages convinced me I needed this book. I paid some ungodly retail price and took it home with me. It turned me on to a very interesting and useful hobby. In fact the very first dumpster I looked into I found a tool box half full of tools.

What is Dumpster Diving?

Dumpster diving is simply looking through dumpsters for useful items that people throw away. These items can include building materials, furniture, books, tools, clothes, food and even CASH! There is a chance of finding most anything in a dumpster.

But aren’t dumpsters smelly, germy, disgusting places?

Yes and no. If you look in the dumpster behind a local restaurant be prepared for some slimy and disgusting things. Avoid places like that and it will be a much nicer experience. Most dumpsters are filled with packaging. That is, cardboard and plastic, nothing real icky. Clean cardboard, though, has many, many uses. You may want to pick it up and begin a stash of clean, flattened cardboard boxes and other packing material you find. This can be helpful with packing food storage and other survival supplies.

So where do I look?

The number one place on my list is apartment complex dumpsters at the end of the month. People moving will throw away perfectly good items they don’t want to move. Many times they will place it beside the dumpster for people like us to pick

This is a real life haul of food from a dumpster. Image by sigurdas.
This is a real life haul of food from a dumpster. Image by sigurdas.

up and use. I have also noticed how they will box up all their pantry food and leave it in a box beside the dumpster with the other good stuff.

Even better, but only once a year, are the dorm dumpsters at your local college during spring move out days. There’s no telling what college kids, anxious to leave campus, might throw out.

I like strip malls. For some reason, people throw out good stuff behind some of them.

Construction sites are great for building materials, but make sure and ask permission to go through the “SCRAP”. Most foremen will gladly let you if you ask nicely.

If you are looking for food, the grocery store dumpster is the place to go.

Food ? From a dumpster!?

Lots of food in dumpsters, especially grocery store dumpsters is still in its original packaging. I can’t tell you how much food I have gotten from the grocery store dumpster, but I would wager I could feed my family and all of our chickens just by daily hitting my main three grocery dumpster stops.

I have a couple of rules of my own for grocery stuff. I take meat only in winter unless it is still frozen, and other food only in original packaging.

You never know what will be expiring when you look in a grocery dumpster. I have loaded up on spiral cut hams, still frozen solid, a trunk full of frozen gourmet pizza, and my personal favorite, the bakery department that fills an industrial size clear garbage bag with out dated high-end loaves of bread, bagels and pies.

But what if someone sees me?

Let me share my experience with what Hoffman calls the ninja effect. I was rummaging through a few dumpsters at our local college move out days a few years ago. I was picking out some good stuff when one of my best friends walked by running an errand to the college. He looked right through me from about two feet away. I called him by name as he went past and it took a few seconds for him to realize who I was. People don’t want to see other people “digging in the garbage” so they kind of tune them out. So don’t sweat it, people will see you but they really won’t.

You want to keep yourself neat and fairly clean so you look like an honest, hard working person who might be down on their luck, rather than an unkempt homeless person who may or may not be dangerous.

What tools will I need?

You really don’t need anything but a good pair of shoes, since there is lots of broken glass around dumpsters. Gloves are a good idea. A flashlight is very helpful if you dive at night or in the evening. Keep it small and cheap since you might lose it in a dumpster somewhere. I like to carry a cane since it helps pull things to you that you would otherwise not be able to reach. Plus it provides a measure of protection.

Will I get in trouble?

Some towns have ordinances against dumpster diving, but most don’t.

If you are confronted by the police my advice is to always tell the truth. They hate it when you lie to them. If asked what I am doing I say, “I’m just seeing if there is anything interesting in the dumpster”.

The same goes for security guards, apartment managers and grocery store managers. Be respectful and if they tell you to get lost, then get lost and try somewhere else.

Once you have done some dumpster diving you may look at it like I do. It’s Christmas every day, since you never know what someone will toss in a dumpster. Their trash is my treasure.

Read more from Randy Augsburger at The Prepared Christian.

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I'm the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I've been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

34 thoughts on “Getting Started Dumpster Diving”

  1. Another way to get stuff after move outs is to get job cleaning rentals.The bonus is you get paid as well as finding neat stuff.

  2. There is a pretty compelling documentary about this subject called ‘Dive!’. We watched it on instant watch on Netflix. We were inspired to do a little diving ourselves.

  3. I just read that same book! I can confirm that what he writes about bookstores is true! Even better is that my local dive has a separate dumpster for recyclables, so I don’t have to dig through anything but books and cardboard!

  4. Another good tip..please make sure you leave the area very tidy when you are done. That has been the major concern of most police and owners. I’ve been known to clean it up even better than when I got there, and now actually have had some owners let me know if anything good might be lurking”near the top”

  5. Unfortunately if you try and dumpster dive here where I live, they have cameras posted, and they will have you arrested for dumpster diving…they consider it stealing. It’s a shame the land fills are polluted with items that people can use.

  6. If it was me, I would just do it and plead ignorance is I was hassled by police. If you go and ask someone first it will plant a seed that maybe there needs to be an ordinance in place.

    A first offense should only carry a warning or minimal fine if the officer doesn’t like you for some reason.

  7. Be very careful about grocery stores-the WalMart here pours bleach and/or ammonia over the food in their food only dumpsters-I’ve seen them.So definitely look for original, whole packaging. And after Christmas is a good time to pick up things in nicer neighborhoods. They got a; new tv and they throw the old one out. Also in our “good” neighborhood they will throw out fully decorated artificial trees.

  8. A few comments, as a long-time diver:

    There ARE some (usually very-upscale) localities where it really IS illegal. Check the local laws, first. In Fairfax County, VA, you can even go to jail for taking something out of the public landfill site. Most places “trash” is “abandoned property” and no longer “private property”. The question to ask the security guard who “busts’ you is : “If I was a cop, looking for evidence on a serial killer, without a bench warrant, could you give me a hard time? Please check with your manager, or the lawyers.” Either keep digging, or leave discretely.

    If you actually see someone hauling stuff out to the curb, stop and politely ask “Are you getting rid of this stuff (sir or ma’am) ?” Ask if they need help carrying it. They always do. If you find something you like, “Mind if I take this with me?” often gets: “Sure, and I have a bunch of other crap, too”. I helped carry the recliner chair in my living room, and got a load of old, seasoned cast iron cookware in the bargain.

    Don’t get tunnel vision. That’s not a discarded hair-dryer and a rusty old cast iron hibachi. You can get a bag of kitty litter, and it’s your new forge. Think ‘hillbilly make-do invention”

  9. I bought Hoffman’s book over 20 years ago after hearing him interviewed on the radio. It changed my life, and dramatically so. I don’t live what he calls a “maximum diving” lifestyle; I have never sought out food from a dumpster. But most every other piece of advice he gave in that book I’ve followed. I’ve been stopped by police, interrogated by security guards, and hassled by store managers, but that is the rare exception in 20+ years of trash picking. I have never been arrested. I haven’t even ever been asked to go away and not come back.

    Some tips: if a dumpster is locked, respect that and move on without touching it. Never, ever go near, much less inside one of those. Of course, avoid the trash compacting style of dumpster. A magnet on the end of a broomstick can be a handy tool; similarly, a hook on the end of a broomstick made out of coat hanger wire is enormously helpful. Hoffman depicts leaning into a dumpster using your hips as the pivot point; I had that go bad on me once and I went in head first, so I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I bring a short stepstool with a length of rope tied to one leg at one end, and weighted with something heavy at the other end (I use fender washers). Toss the weighted end into the dumpster, climb in, then use the rope to pull the stepstool in with you so you can climb back out (also remembering to toss the rope back out!) Wear old clothes and boots with heavy soles, and carry a flashlight.

    My best ever haul? 800 VHS videocassette tapes from behind Blockbuster on the day they went to an all-DVD store format. I made hundreds of dollars on that one and filled my minivan to the ceiling. If you are a scrapper, construction dumpsters can sometimes be a goldmine, especially after a store demolition.

    And why am I sharing this with all of you? There will always be enough trash to go around. It is endless. If the SHTF, it might be different someday (it might not, too) but I never cease to be amazed at the sheer volume of stuff that can be had in exchange for a little time and effort. Be aware, however, that if you have hoarding tendencies, dumpster diving might be a bad idea. We aggressively go through our finds, sort the good from the bad (usually we leave the bad behind) and do regular purges.

    Great article, I enjoyed seeing that I wasn’t the only one who read that book and got a lot out of it.

  10. I was so excited on my first dumpster dive. I made sure that I only took what I could use. And read enough articles to know to leave the dumpster area clean. I had a canvas bag and a stick. A magic stick; it pulled up a brand new box of fabric softners, flower scented. a cinnamon scented candles;actually 8 of them, a little chip on the glass but I make homemade candles so it was worth the materials. some pieces of jewelery,which was great because my daughter makes handmade jewelery. Some travel size sun cream and a light bulb. That was the day I knew this was my new hobby. I have decorated my house with such pretty frames and vases, have a wonderful garden from free plants and flowers. And even some clothes. Food here and there. Wow I have saved money and seen how wastefull America is, its truly sad. But on the other hand I am recycling,saving the earth.

  11. It’s great dumpster diving until security guards or somebody kicks you out of the complexes. Makes me so mad too! Not everyone is a criminal and are only recycling to make some money to survive.

  12. I love to dumpster dive, there is this one store where I live I used to get all kinds of good food, and other stuff out of it. Now they put wires around the garbage can where you can’t get access, well you can if you cut the wires. but the people never made a mess and there was several of us people that would hit it up all thru out the day! Just tonight we was getting some metal out of the garbage and the cop came and asked what we was doing. we simple replied getting the metal he said ok and left. then we had some people come up to us saying they were the contractor and we needed to stop, we began to think it was true until i went up to there car and the women was telling me if i would please give it her cause they really needed the money and she had tooth pick brown teeth. I new it must have been for drug. so i just loaded it up and the cops came back around and they hurried up and left. I was like i am sorry we just did all this work to get it out and then just to give it to you, i don’t think so!

  13. I actually had one of the meat market managers at a national chain tell me that he couldn’t sell me the meat at a markdown (it was out of date the day before). When I told him it was for our dogs (we have a small dog rescue) he said “I HAVE to throw this out. It should have been done already, but I don’t have time right now – it will be 10 or 15 minutes before I can possibly get a minute to make a trip to the dumpster.” And he winks at me. 10 minutes later I drive to the back of the store and there is the meat market manager with this box of “expired” meat and cheese. After a couple of times, he asked for our rescue’s business card. He’d give us a call a couple of times a week (generally at about 6:30 in the morning) and let me know that he had “stuff for the pups”. I’d go to the dumpster and there’d be a box or 2 of cold, still wrapped beef, pork, cheese, etc waiting beside it. One time he called and told me he had 20 pounds of beef heart that was going out of date the next day. He couldn’t give it to me for free, but he was going to be marking it down in about 30 minutes – could I come then or did I need him to wait a little longer? Drove over and got 20 pounds of meat for less than $10.00. Helps to cultivate a relationship with the people in charge of disposing of out-of-date or nearly out-of-date items. And an FYI – the due out date is NOT the “spoiled-by” date. Though a lot of it did go into the dogs’ bowls, there were times the meat from that grocery store literally fed my husband and I.

  14. I live in Chicago where we have tons of viaducts since it is the railway capital of the U.S. I could count endless trucks, especially around the train depots, that do not pay attention to the height restrictions. They go on and the next thing you know, they have “can opened” their trailer. They have to wait for an inspector to come out and estimate the loss of their load. Anything consumable by law has to be discarded. In one day, I saw two different trucks, one with a load of Kelloggs cereals that weren’t even touched and the other truck was all dried pasta. They cops come very quickly when they get a call because people are going nuts to get this stuff. I would like to know where do they discard this stuff?

  15. I saw a petco employee pulling dog treats out of packages and dumping them in the dumpster. It makes no sense because there are plenty of non-profit dog org. here in town that could use those.

    1. They get a bigger tax right off for dumping than donating. I personally think it should be the other way around, but you know our Gov..Its upside down and backwards anyway..

  16. Canning with Cathy

    Great to see some Real Divers here …. Actually it is not illegal everywhere … The county of Los Angeles refuses to prosecute scavenging offenses … Poorer days please many of us do not NEED to do this but have a rather different reasons for doing so. Respect is really what it comes comes down to and Hoffman has a great book.

  17. There are Rules to Dumpster diving too… Leave it cleaner than you found it. NEVER EVER Break a lock to get into a dumpster (IT is Breaking and Entering)…If there is a No Trespassing sign on the dumpster, the gate/fence or on the walls of the store..STAY OUT. If an employee comes out and tells you to leave.. LEAVE…Don’t fight them, or argue. Say Sorry, I will move on. DO NOT RETURN AN ITEM YOU FOUND IN THE DUMPSTER To the store..EVER… It is Stealing. Most won’t give you any trouble..But some will. Be safe, there are sometimes wild animals in the dumpsters, My episode the other night I found a skunk..and a few raccoons in some. And be careful of Homeless. If I see one near a dumpster, I usually move on, They do lay claim to dumpsters..They are usually nice if you tell them what you are looking for, and its not what they need, they are usually nice and will help you look! I usually give them a few bucks, or some food.. Happy DD’ing!

    1. Great tips, Cynthia. Personally, if I needed to dumpster dive, I’d go ahead and do it and ask for forgiveness later, if I was caught. It’s better for items that could be useful and possibly lifesaving (food) to be taken to the landfill rather than allowing someone to use it? Ridiculous.

  18. OH…Forgot.. NEVER EVER Dive in a Compactor…It can be a death sentence!!! They are the ones that are usually hooked up to the store itself.. They have employees that work the wee hours of the morning, and dump stuff in, If your in it, and they dump, they usually push the lever or button to compact it.. Your Dead.. So Stay Clear!!!!

  19. When I was a kid, we fell on hard times. We would go dumpster diving for food. I remember finding cases and cases of bananas, so be ate bananas for awhile. Several times, it was browning, but still good, broccoli. We ate a plate full of raw broccoli and a plate full of cooked broccoli, three times a day. That’s what we had. We usually prayed for a variety. Fruit salad was good. We tried out all kinds of exotic fruit, since it was in the dumpster. Occasionally we found cheese, cut off the mold and ate the cheese. We never ate meat, it’s too hard to tell if it’s good.

  20. Hello my name is Lola, I recently learned about dumpster diving… I love to go however I don’t drive & would love to continue with this adventure…
    Is there any club’s or group’s that I can join.Thanks

  21. My friend is a freegan & introduced me to dumpster diving. The first time I went with her I was so excited to get enough fresh, perfectly good produce to feed my family for a week! Fast forward about 6 weeks – & I’ve gone diving 4 more times & have been questioned by the police during 3 of those times! I must have horrible luck or something, I REALLY don’t like these run-ins with the police. Now I’m considering giving up my new hobby…but I don’t want to! Any advice? I’ve been going at night after the stores are closed figuring it would be a less likely time to run into store employees. However, this seems to be back firing on me because the police keep showing up – help!

  22. i am brand new at dumpster diving and looking for books. what would suggest that would be good places to dive for books. i know libraries would be but when? thrift stores, when? bookstores, when? used bookstores, when?

  23. City of Chesapeake, VA

    Sec. 62-63. – Unauthorized interference with containers.

    No person, other than employees of the city charged with such duty, shall overhaul, molest or interfere with the contents of any container, bundle or bag set out for removal by the city or carry away any rubbish, recyclables or articles set out for collection, unless authorized by the director of public works. No person shall remove, damage or disable any radio frequency identification tag affixed to city supplied containers. Recycling and garbage containers are the property of the city and are to remain at the address to which they are assigned, unless purchased by the resident as an extra and not a replacement.

    (Code 1970, § 21-14; Ord. of 8-9-71; Ord. No. 11-O-082, 7-26-11)

    Sec. 62-63.1. – Unlawful removal of recyclable material.

    It shall be unlawful for any unauthorized person to remove recyclable material placed in or around a container or at a collection site for recycling by a recycling program authorized by the city. Each unlawful removal of recyclable material shall constitute a separate Class 1 misdemeanor.

    (Ord. No. 11-O-082, 7-26-11)

    1. It’s astonishing how government entities believe they own anything and everything and are willing to charge, as a crime, the person who, in this case, takes something usable or edible from a dumpster!

      1. This may be because the city picks up trash for no charge to citizens, and recoups their costs by selling what they collect to scrapyards and recycling companies.

  24. This was such a great read!

    I’m not diving yet but definitely searching the free section on Craigslist and FB MarketPlace!

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