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Dumpster diving

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Title: Dumpster diving  
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Subject: Waste picker, Curb mining, Recycling, Urban lumberjacking, Maria Reidelbach
Collection: Diy Culture, Hobbies, Informal Occupations, Poverty, Waste Collection
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Dumpster diving

A person dumpster diving

Dumpster diving is a popular form of modern salvaging of waste discarded in large commercial, residential, industrial and construction containers. Dumpster diving is an American English term, in UK and many parts of Europe this activity is commonly referred to as skipping or skip diving in British English.[1][2] Dumpster diving is the practice of sifting through commercial or residential waste to find items that have been discarded by their owners, but that may prove useful to the picker. It is not confined to dumpsters specifically, and may cover standard household waste containers, landfills or small dumps.

Different terms are used to refer to different forms of this activity. For picking materials from the curbside trash collection, curb shopping, trash picking or street scavenging are sometimes used.[3] When seeking primarily metal to be recycled, one is scrapping. When picking the leftover food from traditional or industrial farming left in the fields one is gleaning. It is viewed as an effective modern foraging technique.[4] Other related forms exist and are referred to by other terms.

People may often dumpster dive for useful items such as clothing, furniture, food, and similar items in good working condition.[4] Some people do this out of necessity due to poverty,[5] while others do so professionally and systematically for large profits.[6]


  • Etymology 1
  • Performers 2
  • Overview 3
  • Legal status 4
    • By country 4.1
  • Items 5
    • Other sources 5.1
  • Notable instances 6
  • In popular culture 7
    • Books 7.1
    • Television programs 7.2
    • Films 7.3
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


The term "dumpster diving" emerged in the 1980s, combining "diving" with "dumpster", a large commercial trash bin.[7] The term "Dumpster" itself comes from the Dempster Dumpster, a brand of bins manufactured by Dempster Brothers beginning in 1937. "Dumpster" became genericized by the 1970s.[8][9] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "dumpster diving" is chiefly found in American English and first appeared in print in 1983, with the verb "dumpster-dive" appearing a few years later.[7] In British English, the practice may be known as "skipping", from skip, another term for this type of container.[10][11][12]

Alternative names for the practice include bin-diving,[13] containering,[14] D-mart,[15] dumpstering,[16] tatting, and skipping.[17] In Australia, garbage picking is called "skip dipping."


A man rummaging through a skip at the back of an office building in Central London

The term "binner" is often used to describe individuals who collect recyclable materials for their deposit value. For example, in Vancouver, British Columbia, binners, or bottle collectors, search garbage cans and dumpsters for recyclable materials that can be redeemed for their deposit value. On average, these binners earn about $40 a day for several garbage bags full of discarded containers.[18]

The karung guni, Zabbaleen, the rag and bone man, waste picker, junk man or bin hoker are terms for people who make their living by sorting and trading trash. A similar process known as gleaning was practised in rural areas and some ancient agricultural societies, where the residue from farmers' fields was collected.

Some dumpster divers, who self-identify as freegans, aim to reduce their ecological footprint by living from dumpster-dived-goods,[19] sometimes exclusively.


The organization Same Day Dumpsters has written, "Traditionally, most people who resorted to dumpster-diving were forced to do so out of economic necessity, but this is not the case today."[20] However, the activity is still performed by some out of necessity due to poverty.[5] Some scavengers perform in organized groups, and some organize on various internet forums and social networking websites.[5] By reusing, or repurposing, resources destined for the landfill, dumpster diving may be environmentalist endeavor[19] (and is thus practiced by many pro-green communities). The wastefulness of consumer society and throw-away culture compels some individuals to rescue usable items (for example, computers) from destruction[19] and divert them to those who can make use of the items.

A wide variety of things may be disposed while still repairable or in working condition, making salvage of them a source of potentially free items for personal use, or to sell for profit. Irregular, blemished or damaged items that are still otherwise functional are regularly thrown away. Discarded food that might have slight imperfections, near its expiration date, or that is simply being replaced by newer stock is often tossed out despite being still edible.[19] Many retailers are reluctant to sell this stock at reduced prices because of the risks that people will buy it instead of the higher-priced newer stock, that extra handling time is required, and that there are liability risks. In the United Kingdom, cookery books have been written on the cooking and consumption of such foods, which has contributed to the popularity of skipping. Artists often use discarded materials retrieved from trash receptacles to create works of found art or assemblage.[21]

Students have been known to partake in dumpster diving to obtain high tech items for technical projects, or simply to indulge their curiosity for unusual items.[22] Dumpster diving can additionally be used in support of academic research. Garbage picking serves as the main tool for garbologists, who study the sociology and archeology of trash in modern life. Private and government investigators may pick through garbage to obtain information for their inquiries. Illegal cigarette consumption may be deduced from discarded packages.

Dumpster diving can be hazardous, due to potential exposure to biohazardous matter, broken glass, and overall unsanitary conditions that may exist in dumpsters.[5]

Arguments against garbage picking often focus on the health and cleanliness implications of people rummaging in trash. This exposes the dumpster divers to potential health risks, and, especially if the dumpster diver does not return the non-usable items to their previous location, may leave trash scattered around. Divers can also be seriously injured or killed by garbage collection vehicles; in January 2012, in La Jolla, Swiss-American gentleman Alfonso de Bourbon was killed by a truck while dumpster diving.[23] Further, there are also concerns around the legality of taking items that may still technically belong to the person who threw them away (or to the waste management operator), and whether the taking of some items like discarded documents is a violation of privacy. In general a legal concept called abandonment of property covers this question of the subject of ownership of property that is disposed of.

Discarded billing records may be used for identity theft. As a privacy violation, discarded medical records as trash led to a $140,000 penalty against Massachusetts billing company Goldthwait Associates and a group of pathology offices in 2013[24] and a $400,000 settlement between Midwest Women’s Healthcare Specialists and 1,532 clients in Kansas City in 2014.[25]

Legal status

Since dumpsters are usually located on private premises, divers may occasionally get in trouble for trespassing while dumpster diving, though the law is enforced with varying degrees of rigor.[19] Some businesses may lock dumpsters to prevent pickers from congregating on their property, vandalism to their property, and to limit potential liability if a dumpster diver is injured while on their property.[19] Dumpster diving is often not prohibited by law. Abandonment of property is another principle of law that applies to recovering materials via dumpster diving.

Police searches of discarded waste as well as similar methods are also generally not considered violations; evidence seized in this way has been permitted in many criminal trials. In the United States this has been affirmed by many courts including and up to the Supreme Court, in a decision California vs. Greenwood. The doctrine is not as well established in regards to civil litigation.

Companies run by private investigators specializing in such techniques have emerged as a result of the need for discreet, undetected retrieval of documents and evidence for civil and criminal trials. Private investigators have also written books on "P.I. technique" in which dumpster diving or its equivalent "wastebasket recovery" figures prominently.

By country

In 2009, a Belgian dumpster diver and eco-activist nicknamed Ollie was detained for a month for taking food out of a garbage can, and was accused of theft and burglary. On February 25, 2009, he was arrested for taking food from a garbage can at an AD Delhaize supermarket in Bruges. Ollie's trial evoked protests in Belgium against restrictions from taking discarded food items.[26][27][28]

In Ontario, Canada, the Trespass to Property Act - legislation dating back to the British North America Act of 1867[29] - grants property owners and security guards the power to ban anyone from their premises, for any reason, permanently. This is done by issuing a notice to the intruder, who will only be breaking the law upon return.[30] Similar laws exist in Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan.[31][32] A recent case in Canada, which involved a police officer who retrieved a discarded weapon from a trash receptacle as evidence, created some controversy. The judge ruled the policeman's actions as legal although there was no warrant present, which led some to speculate the event as validation for any Canadian citizen to raid garbage disposals.[29]

Skipping in England and Wales may qualify as theft within the Theft Act 1968[33] or as common-law theft in Scotland, though there is very little enforcement in practice.

In Germany, dumpster diving has been referred to as "containern",[34] and a waste container's contents are regarded as the property of the container's owner. Therefore, taking items from such a container is viewed as theft. Be that as it may, the police will routinely disregard the illegality of garbage picking seeing as the items found are generally of low value. There has only been one known instance where people were to be prosecuted: the individuals were arrested on assumed burglary as they had surmounted a supermarket's fence which was then followed by a theft complaint by the owner.[35]

In Italy, a law issued in 2000 declared dumpster diving to be illegal. It is also illegal in Sweden.[36]

In the United States, the 1988 California v. Greenwood case in the U.S. Supreme Court held that there is no common law expectation of privacy for discarded materials.[37] There are, however, limits to what can legally be taken from a company's refuse. In a 1983 Minnesota case involving the theft of customer lists from a garbage can, Tennant Company v. Advance Machine Company (355 N.W.2d 720), the owner of the discarded information was awarded $500,000 in damages.[38]


Food obtained by dumpster diving in Linköping, Sweden

Dumpster diving is practiced differently in developed countries than in developing countries.

  • Food. In many developing countries, food is rarely thrown away unless it is rotten as food is scarce in comparison to developed nations. In countries like the United States, where 40 to 50 percent of food is wasted, the trash contains a lot more food to gather.[39] In many countries, charities collect excess food from supermarkets and restaurants and distribute it to impoverished neighbourhoods. Trash pickers, Karung guni, Zabaleen, and rag and bone men in these countries may concentrate on looking for usable items or scrap materials to sell rather than food items.[40] In the United States, Canada, and Europe, some bakeries, grocery stores, or restaurants will routinely donate food according to a Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, but more often, because of health laws or company policy, they are required to discard food items by the expiration date, because of overstock, being overly ripened, spoiled, cosmetically imperfect, or blemished.
  • Books and periodicals. As proof to publishing houses of unsold merchandise, booksellers will routinely remove the front covers of printed materials to render them destroyed prior to disposing of their remains in the garbage. Though readable, many damaged publications have disclaimers and legal notices against their existence or sale.
  • Irregular or damaged goods. Offices, factories, department stores, and other commercial establishments may equally throw out non-perishable items that are irregular, were returned, have minor damages, or are replaced by newer inventory. Many items tend to be in such a state of disrepair or cosmetically flawed that they will require some work to make the items functionally usable. For this reason, employees will at times intentionally destroy their items prior to being discarded to prevent them from being reused or resold.
  • Returned items. Manufacturers often find it cheaper to routinely discard items returned as defective under warranty instead of repairing them, although a device is often repairable or usable as a source of spare parts to repair other, similar discarded devices.[41]
  • Clothing. While thrift stores routinely refuse used goods which they cannot cheaply and easily resell, the items which they do accept cost them nothing. There is therefore no shrinkage cost associated with discarding mendable garments, repairable appliances or even working donated items which are overstock or find no buyer after some arbitrary length of time.
  • Metal. Sometimes waste may contain recyclable metals and materials that can be reused or sold to recycling plants and scrap yards. The most common recyclable metals found are steel and aluminum.[43]

Other sources

  • Residential buildings. Clothing, furniture, appliances, and other housewares may be found at residential buildings. There is a risk that discarded bedding and furniture may contain bed bugs, a hazard that is best to be avoided.[44][45]
  • College dormitories. Items may be found at colleges with dormitories at the end of the semester when students throw away many items such as furniture, clothes and electronics.[46]

Notable instances

In the 1960s, Jerry Schneider, using recovered instruction manuals from The Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company, used the company's own procedures to acquire hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of telephone equipment over several years until his arrest.

The Castle Infinity videogame, after its shutdown in 2005, was brought back from the dead by rescuing its servers from the trash.[47]

  •, Falling Fruit's global map of food-bearing dumpsters and other freegan resources.
  • [1]How to dumpster dive forum with other dumpster divers pics
  • Dumpster Diving guide, issues and photos
  • Article- "Pick of the Litter: climbing to the top of the heap with an ambitious bottom-feeder"

External links

  • Dumpster Diving - One Man's Trash by Grifter; originally given as a presentation at a 2600 meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. Later published in the Summer 2002 issue of 2600 Magazine
  • Art and Science of Dumpster Diving by John Hoffman; ISBN 1-55950-088-3
  • Dumpster Diving: The Advanced Course by John Hoffman (brings dumpster diving into the computer era) Paladin Press 2002; ISBN 1-58160-369-X
  • Evasion, (2003), CrimethInc. Far East, an autobiography detailing one anarchist's shoplifting- and dumpster-diving-supported travels.
  • Mongo: Adventures in Trash by Ted Botha; ISBN 1-58234-452-3
  • Encyclopedia of Garbage by Steve Coffel, William L. Rathje; ISBN 0-8160-3135-5

Further reading

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  30. ^ Trespass to Property Act, RSO 1990, c. T.21, s. 3(1) (Trespass to Property Act at CanLII)
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  32. ^ The Trespass to Property Act, SS 2009, c. T-20.2, s. 11
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  37. ^ California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35, 40 (1988)
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See also

  • Surfing the Waste: A Musical Documentary About Dumpster Diving, a film by Paul Aflalo, Sandra Lombardi and Tomoe Yoshihara, with music composed by Alden Penner and Nic Boshart.[54][55]
  • Dumpster Wars: Reno's Trash Politics (2008)[56][57]
  • I Love Trash (2007), a 30-minute documentary by David Brown and Greg Mann. OCLC's WorldCat provided a synopsis: "I Love Trash is a documentary about the art of dumpster diving. Starting with an empty apartment, only the clothes they were wearing and a flashlight, David and Greg find everything they might otherwise buy, in trash cans and dumpsters. All their food, clothes, electronics, art materials and entertainment, all out of the trash."[58] Accolades: Skyfest Film and Script Festival, (won 2nd place for Documentary Films[59]); and Lake Michigan Film Competition, (won 3rd place for Documentary films).[60]
  • The 2010 documentary film Dive!, a short documentary written and directed by Jeremy Seifert, investigates dumpster diving in the Los Angeles area.[61] Dive! premiered in October 2009 at the Gig Harbor Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice Award. It has gone on to win awards at many other film festivals, including Best Documentary at the DC Independent Film Festival and Best Film at the Dutch Environmental Film Festival.
  • Spoils: Extraordinary Harvest. A short film/mystery film and documentary by Alex Mallis. (2012) Accolades: Official Selection, New Orleans Film Festival. Official Selection, Independent Film Festival of Boston. Official Selection, DOC NYC.[62][63]
  • The Leftovers: A Documentary about People Who Eat Trash (2008), a 28-minute Swedish documentary by Michael Cavanagh and Kerstin Übelacker.[64] Mykel Bently, Paul Hood, Krystal Trickey, Nick Gill, and Sofia Arborelius (the latter two were exchange students) joined together for this dumpster diver adventure.
  • From Dumpster To Dinner Plate (2011), an award-winning New Zealand short documentary directed by Vanessa Hudson. "As the cost of food reaches record highs an underground movement of dumpster divers is rapidly gaining momentum fuelled by consumers who are forced to find creative ways to feed themselves."[65]


  • British television shows have featured home renovations and decoration using salvaged materials. Changing Rooms (1996-2004) is one such show, broadcast on BBC One.

Television programs

  • Author John Hoffman wrote two books based on his own dumpster-diving exploits: The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving (1993 ; ISBN 978-1-58160-550-1) and Dumpster Diving: The Advanced Course: How to Turn Other People's Trash into Money, Publicity, and Power (2002; ISBN 978-1-58160-369-9), and was featured in the documentary DVD The Ultimate Dive, which was directed by Suzanne Girot and described by the Internet Movie Database as a "Tongue-in-cheek how-to film on the art and science of dumpster diving."
  • In 2001, dumpster diving was popularized in the book Evasion, published by CrimethInc.[51]
  • In Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction novel Fifty Degrees Below (2005), the character Frank Vanderwal joins, for a time, a group of freegans who frequently prepare feasts culled from dumpsters; kind-hearted restaurateurs aid them by setting aside foods which have not been touched by the public.
  • Jeff Ferrell, Professor of Sociology at Texas Christian University, is the author of Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging (2005; ISBN 978-0-81472-738-6).
  • Cory Doctorow integrated garbage picking characters into the plots of his novels Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town and Pirate Cinema. In the former one, the character Kurt gathered all his belongings solely by garbage picking and it is revealed that the main character did dive as well;[52] in the latter one the character Jem who lives on the street introduces protagonist Trevor to the practice of dumpstering to acquire food to survive.[53]


In popular culture

In October 2013, in North London, three men were arrested and charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act when they were caught taking discarded food: tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and cakes from bins behind an Iceland supermarket. The charges were dropped on 29 January 2014 after much public criticism[49] as well as a request by Iceland's chief executive, Malcolm Walker.[50]

In 2009, professional surfer Dane Reynolds salvaged a piece of polyester foam from a dumpster behind the Channel Islands Surfboard factory. He shaped the foam into a surfboard that, at the time, was thought to be "short, fat, and ugly." The goal of this new shape was to distribute volume to the width and thickness of the board, cutting down on the overall board length needed to use in smaller surf, while staying progressive on the face of the wave. The board was a hit and was dubbed the "dumpster diver". The board changed the way surfboard shapers designed boards for use in smaller waves.


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