Why Dumpster Diving Is a Thing (And 3 Ways We Can Stop Shaming Those Who Do It)

A bunch of dumpsters and recycling bins behind a building

Source: iStock

I’m a little guy. So when I hoist myself into a dumpster, I hoist myself into a dumpster. I’m talking running-start, hand-vaulting, should-probably-go-for-the-Olympics hoisting.

The biggest problem with this technique – aside from my sometimes being too malnourished to do it – is that I can’t see what’s inside. I can’t see what I’m going to land on.

I’ll never forget the day I vaulted, landed feet-first on soft, squishy garbage bags, and promptly noticed the used needle poking sideways from the rubber of my sneaker.

It actually wasn’t the most horrifying of moments. I mean, I’d been in dumpsters with used needles before – just not one sticking out of my shoe. I gingerly plucked it off, put it aside, and instantly returned to my concerns of whether or not anything edible was lurking beneath me.

The reason for my story is hopefully to prompt two responses from you: 1) “OMG, people actually do that?!” and 2) “OMG, are you okay?!”

Yes, I’m okay. The needle didn’t pierce all the way to my foot. Thank you for asking.

And yes, hold your gag reflex for a second and let something very important sink in: Dumpster diving is a thing. It’s the act of sifting through other people’s garbage for edible food.

I don’t know the numbers (and quite frankly, I don’t think a study has ever been done on it), but quite a few of us poor people do it.

It’s not cool, it’s not pretty, it’s not glamorous. But you know what? There are too many of us in America that are too hungry to care.

As of 2013, there are a documented 45.3 million people in poverty. (And that’s considered the first decrease in the rate since 2006.)

Food is food when you’re hungry. When your brain itself has become starved for long enough, it only knows one thing: food + free = not dead. It’s pretty simple math.

Yet despite all of the starvation and poverty, the United States throws out huge amounts of food. About 263 million pounds of it, in fact. Every. Single. Day.

That equals about 40% of all food produced in America being wasted, adding roughly 31 million tons of waste to landfills each year.

That’s a lot of hungry people that could’ve been fed.

But the food keeps being tossed. Even though there’s a federal law in place since 1996 to protect anyone who donates food “in good faith” to homeless shelters or food banks (in case anybody were to get sick), plenty of businesses (et al) still worry about lawsuits. They just don’t donate.

For those of us who are poor and starving, that kind of waste is the sin of all sins.

So yes, diving is a thing.

And while diving is a thing, it can also be a(n unnecessarily) dangerous, shameful, or dehumanizing thing.

Plenty of restaurant owners don’t like people trolling through their garbage, especially those pesky eyesores known as poor people. What a nuisance.

To deter divers, many places give direct orders to their workers to destroy the food in question or otherwise make it inedible before tossing it, combine it with dangerous products such as cleaning chemicals or broken glass, or put padlocks on their dumpsters.

In short, they’d rather spend the extra time, effort, and money to shame poor people and let them to go hungry instead of just allowing diving to happen.

That’s some serious dedication to making sure suffering people stay suffering.

And it’s ridiculous.

Make diving a more accessible practice by following these simple suggestions and we’ll all be better off. We get our food, you have less waste to deal with. Done.

1. Don’t Padlock Your Dumpsters.

“But Jaaaaaaames,” you whine. “If I don’t lock these dumpsters, people are going to get in and make a mess! I paid good money for those garbage bags!”

I’m sure you did. But your being worried about trash being strewn, bags being slashed, or a mess otherwise being left for your hands to clean is a completely unfounded reason for padlocking.

We don’t make messes when we dive. The bulk of us are actually quite courteous and put all unwanted items back into their bags. We even take the time to re-tie them.

The worst I’ve seen divers do is dangle the good stuff over the dumpster’s edge or otherwise make it more accessible for the next person who comes along. This is particularly prevalent when it comes to clothing.

And believe me, while it may not look pretty for a short while, it has the same reaction as students leaving a pretty good couch out on the sidewalk: It’s going to get snatched up fast. And when was the last time you scoffed at a bunch of students grabbing a free couch?

Basically, don’t padlock your dumpsters because you automatically think poor people will be inherently messy about our diving. It rarely happens.

Besides, in the end, why would we want to piss you off? Talk about biting the hand that feeds. We want to be able to keep coming back, you know? So we stay nice and courteous.

2. Don’t Ruin Perfectly Good Food

Stop dumping coffee grounds on your six-hour-old donuts, mixing broken glass in with your overcooked hamburgers, or pouring bleach on your pizzas with incorrect toppings.

It’s you being mean at best and life-threatening for us at worst.

I don’t know if you’ve put this together yet, but hunger is hunger is hunger. If people are hungry, they’re always going to do what they can to eat.

Please consider the types of severe situations destroying food can produce, such as a mother trying to pick broken glass out of a burger for her child to eat. Does it sound like a drastic example? Sure. Does it actually happen? You bet.

You know what’s a great alternative to destroying food? Making the food incredibly accessible.

I used to work at a Dunkin’ Donuts, and I was horrified at how they would toss dozens upon dozens of donuts twice a day into the trash. To deter people from going through their trash, they would destroy the donuts by any means necessary or otherwise make them more difficult to find.

When I was eventually assigned trash duty for both donuts dumps, I made sure that changed right quick.

When my bosses weren’t looking, I simply tossed the donuts into clean garbage bags and made sure to put them on top of any other trash bags in the dumpsters. I even started tying them in a different knot so they’d be easier to identify.

You know what happened? Divers were able to not only get their food safely and unscathed, but the efficiency made their appearances last seconds flat, quite the improvement to businesses who otherwise worry divers are creating a “distasteful scene” outside.

And if saving pennies on a few trash bags is a concern of yours, note that by simply rearranging and basic planning on how I was going to dump trash, my methods never used extra trash bags. I simply kept clean stuff clean and dirty stuff dirty. Not hard.

I implore you, restaurant people, to adopt this method of dumping. It’s a win for everyone.

And if you’re feeling particularly spunky, consider occasionally feeding people more directly. If nothing else, it could give you some good press.

3. Dispose of Your Dangerous or Hazardous Items in Safe, Legal Ways

This one should be pretty easy for you to implement because—hey—the law’s already in gear with this.

Not so much for the safety of divers, but if you’re not doing this already for the safety of your sanitation workers, please note that you could land yourself in some trouble if you’re ever caught.

(Of course, divers of all people would know if you’re following proper protocol or not. We could report you. But we tend to be a little too nice to do that. You occasionally feed us, after all.)

Dispose of your dangerous or hazardous items such as broken glass, used needles, and toxic chemicals in the ways the laws dictate. If you don’t know the laws, it’s time you looked them up.

And while the laws may change a little from state to state and county to county, at least know this: Used needles should always been disposed of in biohazard containers specifically designed for needle safekeeping (and thereafter usually handed over to authorities, hospitals, or any other place that safely disposes of needles).

And as for broken glass, ethics at least encourage you to triple-bag the mess and tape a large, easily-spotted note that says something about the contents.

“Danger! Broken glass!” tends to do the trick nicely.

Sanitation workers will thank you for you not wanting them to cut up their hands and we divers will thank you for not cutting open the insides of our mouths.


Confession time: I haven’t dived for the past year or so.

By working anywhere between 60-80 hours a week, I’ve managed to barely keep my head above water. (Usually. That’s pending any major accidents or illnesses or people in positions of power who just plain want to screw me over.)

It’s nice to be able to afford basic food without freaking out too much at the cost. But despite how hard I work and how thankful I am for my jobs, I’m nowhere near middle class. I know poverty is always right around the corner. It likes to have many friends, and I think it really wants me back.

And if I have to return to diving to survive, I’ll do it.

The only times I feel ashamed about it is when people more privileged than me make me feel ashamed.

Which is just plain weird, if you stop to think about it.

But when I’m diving shame-free, I like to see myself as something of a superhero. I’m single-handedly assisting in cleaning up the food waste problem of this country, of toning down the landfills and their resulting methane emissions that much more, of reducing the need to produce more food (most of which would just be thrown out) and its requirements of energy, water, and other resources to sustain proper production.

I’m saving the planet and helping myself out at the same time. Go divers.

And yet while I like to think that, I also like to think I’m out of the woods and will never have to dive again. It’s terribly stressful, dangerous work and will continue to be so until people and businesses start implementing the three points above.

But to anyone still in the wreckage, remember this in the meantime: Trader Joe’s is known for being diver-friendly; Bed, Bath, & Beyond has some of the greatest-smelling trash, and Dunkin’ Donuts usually throws out its stock at 6am and again at 2pm. Results may vary.

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James St. James is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He isn’t particularly fond of his name, but he has to admit it makes him easier to remember. When he’s not busy scaring cis gender people with his trans gender agenda, he likes to play SEGA and eat candy.