Dumpster Divers Find Their Gold

  • One man's junk could be another man's organic groceries or building material. (Photo by Andrew Purtell)

A group of activists has found a way to live almost entirely off the stuff other people throw away. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Amy Coombs finds one person’s trash is another’s ethical lifestyle:


A group of activists has found a way to live almost entirely off the stuff other people throw away. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Amy Coombs finds, one person’s trash is another’s ethical lifestyle:

(Sound of dumpster opening and rummaging)

“Cheesy bread, it’s kind of nice heated up… Some people love this crap.”

Jean C. has been dumpster diving for eight years and no longer considers it a chore.

“Dumpster diving can be a spiritual endeavor if you happen to believe it’s a sin to throw away food.”

C. is an activist. She’s also an accountant and is by no means homeless. She says she dumpster dives for food, clothing, office supplies, and building materials because she can’t bring herself to support wasteful manufacturers.

“The point of the dumpster diving lifestyle is to reclaim the waste of consumerist society.”

After dumpster diving in four major metropolitan areas, C. says you would be amazed by how much perfectly good stuff society throws away. If you do your homework, she says you can find almost anything you want.

“We’ve found organic cherries and chocolate and organic tofu, organic tofu burgers, chocolate soymilk, once we even found a whole case of white wine.”

Probably not too surprisingly, health officials say the lifestyle raises some sanitation concerns. Jerry LeMoine is a Food Inspector at the Santa Cruz County, California Health Department. He says even if dumpster-divers go for high-quality organic foods, taking food from a dumpster is risky.

“Potentially any type of bacteria could grow in a dumpster. Flies can get into dumpsters, rats, other types rodents, disease vectors, so it’s just unknown as to what the conditions are there and conditions might change at any moment in a dumpster.”

Dumpster divers say they’re aware of the risks, but Jean C. says she exercises great discretion. She says wading knee deep through other people’s trash is no worse than grocery shopping, as long as you know what to look for.

“We never eat unsanitary or dirty food. We only take meats if they’re frozen or vacuum sealed. Once we found a whole dumpster full of smoked salmon that was not going to go bad for years – and that was good. Everybody ate it.”

Lee Turner,a long-time dumpster diver, says people throw things away because Americans are wasteful. Turner has spent the past thirty years troubleshooting ways to build gadgets from others’ trash. He’s even built a back woods cabin entirely from salvaged materials.

(Sound of crickets)

“Welcome to my home… This is the kitchen, spice rack, this is the food cabinet, got running water, there’s a rain barrel, see…”

(Sound of water)

Turner built his shack illegally in a public forest, but he says he’s always been careful not to hurt the surrounding environment. He considers dumpster-diving to be part of a larger love for Nature.

Turner says using material that’s headed for the landfill makes a lot more sense than buying wood and encouraging the lumber and timber industry to cut down more trees.

“Most of the materials are found materials. Some of the wood came out of dumpsters.”

Turner and C. have turned dumpster-diving into an organized effort. They target the highest quality products, they stake out factory dumpsters to learn when mislabeled items are routinely tossed, and look for store employees willing to leak information about the next scheduled inventory reduction. It’s a conspiracy to salvage.

“What happens in a dumpster-diving collective is that you need to get a small group of quiet people, hopefully, and have them take a large amount of food back to a central location, where you’re going to wash it and process it and redistribute it, so that everyone gets what they need.”

It’s impossible to know how many students, activists, and old nature lovers scour garbage cans, but dumpster-diving is becoming an increasingly popular sport. And despite the social inhibitions and threat of food contamination, activists such as Turner and C. say they won’t abandon their search for edible, usable and fixable refuse any time soon.

For the GLRC, I’m Amy Coombs.

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