An un-icky introduction to dumpster diving - Green Indy Blog

An un-icky introduction to dumpster diving

Zero waste is all about drastically reducing your own personal waste, but what about the waste that others make? Is there any way to help even more by taking on the burden of someone else’s trash?

For those who don’t know, dumpster diving is the salvaging of waste from commercial, residential, industrial and construction containers to find items that have been discarded by their owners, but that may prove useful to the picker. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Interested to find out more about dumpster diving and how to get into it? Let’s go!

Why should I think about dumpster diving?

I’ll start my introduction to dumpster diving with the typical shocking stats: according to a late 2016 Guardian article, “roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away—some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting “one third of all foodstuffs.” (source)

Pretty mind blowing, right?!

And that’s just food. Consider all of the returned items or going-out-of-stock items or products with a slight defect or… any other items a store just can’t sell. They don’t go anywhere that they could be used; nope, they go right into the trash.

Clothes, electronics, home goods, and more… all thrown away while perfectly good. Dumpster diving aims to rectify that waste problem.

Pictured below, items recovered from the trash: rug, flower pots, hamper

Personal Experience dumpster diving

For this introduction to dumpster diving, I must say that I’m in no way a pro.

I have rummaged around in a few dumpsters in my day, almost exclusive for non-consumables. Two of my current tables are straight from the dumpster as well as several kitchen items and almost all of the plastic pots I use for flowers/compost/etc.

The best spots for items of furniture/home goods are around large apartment complexes, local second hand stores (they toss a lot of stuff they deem unsalable), or on the side of the road in nicer neighborhoods on a weekend afternoon.

On the consumable side, yes I have fished food out of a dumpster before. I tend to take packaged items as I’m always a little wary of open produce, but I have taken the odd fruit or veggie that can easily be washed off.

And before you ask, no, I do not physically get into the dumpster. I think people seriously underestimate the amount of food waste happening at grocery stores – there’s often so much that you can simply peek in and pick stuff off the top. That said, for something really good, I might hop in. (Really!)

I’ve found that Whole Foods and Kroger tend to have the best selection here in Indy. CVS and Walgreens also tend to toss lots of packaged stuff away.

Avoid more downtown locations and/or areas of high homelessness as businesses tend to have their dumpsters more secure. (Yeah, real nice, right?)

I’ve never been caught since I usually go before the store opens, rather than the more suspicious late at night run. But I also think getting caught would fall into the “awkward” category more than the “going to jail” as a well-to-do looking white woman.

Overall, I think my personal experience basically boils down to: yeah, it’s kind of awkward when someone walks by you rummaging through a dumpster. But… you’re the one who scored free (perfectly good) items that would otherwise be thrown into a landfill.

An un-icky introduction to dumpster diving - Green Indy Blog

Practical Tips for dumpster diving

As shown above, I am by no means a dumpster diving expert, but I am someone who has no compunction about rummaging around other people’s trash.

So here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Get to know local laws. Dumpster diving is not illegal in the US, but may be restricted in your city/town. That being said, if it’s an open dumpster and someone catches you politely rifling through it, likely the worst that’s going to happen is they’ll ask you to leave. Make sure never to mess with dumpsters locked up/surrounded by a fence – that’s just asking for trouble. If you can see someone’s trying to actively keep people out, don’t bother.
  • Go during off hours. This is a pretty no duh idea, but go when there won’t be very many people around, either workers or consumers. I prefer to go early on a Sunday because I’m a morning person and I feel that it’s slightly less creepy to be going through a dumpster in early morning light rather than in total darkness. Be aware, though, you need to go early since garbage trucks often do pickups in the morning.
  • Leave the dumpster/area cleaner than when you arrived. It makes sense – the best way to have a company A) notice you’ve been there and B) lock everything up is by rifling through their trash with reckless abandon. So yes, paw through bags and take what you like, but make sure the area’s neat once you depart. Common courtesy, folks.
  • Dress properly. Another no-duh. While you may not be diving headfirst into a dumpster, it’s probably a good idea not to wear your Sunday best. Also, if you plan to dig a little, gloves are always a good option. That being said, I always try to look a little put-together as (unfortunately) police or workers will treat you better if they think you’re well off.
  • Don’t take more than you need. While the odds of someone else dumpster diving in your area is probably pretty low if you’re not in a major city, it doesn’t pay to load up. Unless, of course, you’re sharing the wealth. Then, go ahead!

Falling Fruit: a user-edited resource that shows where “overlooked culinary bounty” may be found in cities all over the world. I particularly love Falling Fruit because it not only highlights easily accessible dumpsters, but it also points out the location of edible plants throughout the city.

Freegan.Info: freegans are people who survive on a strictly foraged diet (AKA no buying in stores!). This site is a compilation of awesome information about dumpster diving and other ways of consuming with less waste created.

r/DumpsterDiving/: while it’s mostly personal wins, the Reddit page may be useful if you have any questions about getting started.

Have you ever given dumpster diving a try? If so, what was your experience? If not, would you consider it after reading this introduction to dumpster diving?


  • Katy SkipTheBag

    I watched and reviewed a food waste documentary where a couple ate only food that was going to be thrown away (or had been thrown away) for six months. It’s crazy to see what all was thrown away. Thanks for sharing on the Waste Less Wednesday Blog Hop!

  • Marla

    I got to admit I have done dumpster diving and got some nice things. If you go into the higher income areas I have found you find some nice things that should not be thrown away but at least given to the Salvation Army or donation somewhere. We as people waste so many things including food. Congratulations on being featured on #WasteLessWednesdays ! Sharing on tweeter & pinning.

    • Polly

      Yes! I just left a job in a high-income are outside of Indianapolis and I’d occasionally trawl around… absolutely wild the things people consider trash!

      Thank you so much for stopping by!

  • Jasilyn Albert

    Wow! I give you props for doing that. My dad used to own his own ice business and would deliver ice to places (then later deliver ice and bread for other companies). He would come home with some crazy things from the dumpster. One time he brought home a replica tent from a store that looked like a tent for a guinea pig. But he also brought home some of those old bottles with the olives in them (the decorative ones) and my parents still have them! I never would have thought to get food though, but that’s a good idea.

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