How to Dumpster Dive

Dumpster Diving Guide

Dumpster diving simply means that you are searching through what others may call trash for something useful which can be any number of things. When the SHTF there are going to many people needing to dumpster dive just to survive and there is a very good chance that you will need to do so too.

It’s strange but when I was growing up a dumpster was nothing more than something that was filled with stinky garbage that wasn’t any good to anyone. Nowadays people throw all kinds of things away without even a second thought. Things that you can use. It doesn’t matter if you are looking for food, clothes or something that you can sell, with a little bit of time and patience you can get what you need. A large portion of the food thrown away is not even dangerous or inedible.

In the US alone, homeowners are throwing away $13 billion worth of food each year that could have been eaten. Add in the businesses to that figure and it must be astronomical.

Get Your Equipment Ready

There are certain bits of equipment that you are going to need that can make your dumpster diving safer and a lot easier as well as some items you should use simply because dumpster diving can be a messy job. We recommend gathering the following equipment as a bare minimum:

  • Gloves – Never attempt to sift through any dumpster trash without wearing a pair of heavy-duty gloves such as those used for gardening.
  • Plastic Bags – You are going to need some way of carrying your finds back home. If you have nothing else, a few plastic bags will do just fine. A rucksack lined with plastic bags for protection is my personal choice.
  • Headlamp – It can get surprisingly dark depending on where the dumpster is located but we recommend a headlamp so that you have both hands free. A dumpster is not a playground and you won’t know what dangers are present until you are there so please be safe by being smart.
  • Multi-Tool – A knife would be fine for cutting into bags and boxes but a multi-tool would be better for dismantling equipment if it is only certain parts that you need.
  • Hand Sanitizer – Trust me, dumpster diving can get very messy and very fast. You are going to always want to use this after digging through the trash. This should be used even if you do choose to wear gloves.
  • Transport – Having some form of transport will help if you plan on spending all night out dumpster diving. It could be any mode of transport that can get you from one place to another faster than on foot. Even a skateboard or a bicycle will help you move around quickly as well as carry more finds.

Before getting into the guide I do just want to quickly ask that you please clean up after yourself and don’t leave any mess around the dumpsters. If you take bags or boxes out of the dumpster make sure that you put them back in when you have finished. It is because people leave a mess which is why many places will lock their dumpsters away.

Is Dumpster Diving Illegal?

When it comes to the legality of dumpster diving, unfortunately, there is no straight answer. In most countries, dumpster diving itself is not illegal but if the dumpsters are on private property then you could face trespassing charges.

Dumpster diving can be technically construed as legal in all 50 states unless there has already beeen a ruling. In 1988, there was a Supreme Court case (the State of California vs. Greenwood) which ruled that searching trash is legal as long as it does not conflict with any city, county, or state ordinances.

Doctor Sean Thomas, a senior Law Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, has explained that a freegan cannot be prosecuted for stealing abandoned goods because abandoned goods cannot be stolen. The problem lies in proving that the goods have been abandoned. A freegan, taken to court, could argue that there is a moral right to take rubbish because it benefits the environment and that they believed that the owner would not mind.

Meanwhile in Texas – It all comes down to TX court rulings, which have stated that an object thrown in a dumpster is not actually “abandoned” until it is collected by a waste management company. So yes, dumpster diving is illegal in Texas.

Wherever you are in the world, do check your local trespassing and scavenging laws so that you can strictly adhere to them and not end up on the wrong side of the law. If stopped by the police while you are dumpster diving, be honest and respectable towards them and do as they say.

Early mornings and late at night are often the best times to go dumpster diving as they are usually the quietest times meaning that you have less chance of running into any employees of the building or other people.

  • If you see “No Trespassing” signs posted, promptly leave the area. (“No Dumping Allowed” is completely different from “No Trespassing“)
  • To avoid the police possibly using “disturbing the peace” against you then try not to make too much noise when you are dumpster diving.
  • Lastly, don’t make a mess by leaving the area worse than you found it.

Places to Dumpster Dive

Okay, so you have your equipment and have familiarised yourself with the local laws so next, you need to start thinking about where exactly you are going to dive. I like to choose areas that are far enough out of the way that there is only a slim chance of running into anybody but not too far that I am putting myself in danger.

When it comes to finding dumpsters, you are pretty much only limited to your imagination but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Supermarkets – If you are after food then these criminals are the worse for throwing out a lot of perfectly edible food every day. Remember, the sell-by date or use-by dates are not to be taken any notice of. Most food items are perfectly fine well past this date as long as they are stored correctly (more on these dates below). Most supermarkets now sell much more than just food so you may surprise yourself at what you can find. We have found everything from food to art equipment and from drinks to electrical items all from supermarket dumpsters.
  2. Colleges – When students move out of their college dorms, they don’t want to be taking everything with them so they end up throwing a huge amount of stuff out which could literally be anything.
  3. Stores – There are stores for everything and they all throw trash out. About 8 or 9 years ago I hit the dumpsters behind our local PC World and it was packed with returns and broken electronics, many of which could easily be repaired.
  4. Construction Sites – Workers often find that they have too much of something and just throw the extra away. This could be anything from cement, bricks, wood, wiring, and even tools.
  5. Apartment Complexes
  6. Pet Stores

When it comes down to it, it depends on the kinds of things that you are looking for.

Best Before Dates

These have absolutely nothing to do with the safety of the food that you have. These dates are only an estimate as to how long the food will retain its best flavor and texture. No food just hits a certain time and date and then goes bad.

Sell Before Dates

The sell before date is used by stores to track inventory and give an indication of when this food should be removed from the store.

Use By Dates

These dates indicate manufacturers estimate as to how many days a product will be safe to eat. While you should take at least some notice of this date it is not gospel. The food won’t be perfectly fine one day and then totally inedible the next.

What to Look For When Dumpster Diving

When it comes to what you are dumpster diving for, it depends entirely on why you are dumpster diving in the first place whether it be for something of use to you or something that you can turn around and sell. Some obvious things to look for would include:

  • Foods and drinks
  • Clothing
  • Electronics
  • Food
  • Furniture
  • Books
  • Returns
  • Wood or metal

Need some inspiration? Check out this article on the Sun website about a guy who netted $20,000 of iPods, Xbox’s, and more.

What to Wear When Dumpster Diving

As I have already said, dumpster diving is a messy business. Ideally, you want to wear old but tough clothes that you don’t plan on wearing elsewhere. I tend to wear a pair of old jeans that I used to use when painting. You certainly don’t want to be wearing your best clothes.

You will also want to wear a pair of thick gloves for protecting your hands and keeping them clean. Also, make sure that whatever shoes you choose to wear have very sturdy soles and are waterproof. Boots are preferred.

Staying Safe When Dumpster Diving

You have to be careful when dumpster diving especially if you are diving for food. Be very careful about the food items that you decide to keep to avoid picking up any illnesses. Another thing to take note of is where the dumpsters are located. If they are in direct sunlight then the heat inside could get incredibly hot which is not good for any food items. Use a little common sense and you should be fine but if you are unsure about anything, leave it.

Canned goods and boxed cereals are usually fine to take but I would never take food items such as seafood, meat, dairy, and unpasteurized juice but this is a personal choice.

When taking fruits and vegetables, make sure that you clean them properly. We recommend using a mixture of 1/3 white vinegar and 2/3 water to wash them well. Rinse them under water afterward.

Dumpster diving can be dangerous – if someone has thrown something sharp away and you aren’t careful and handle it carelessly, you could end up getting seriously hurt. Make sure that you handle everything with care and look out for any objects that could cause you to harm such as broken glass, used needles, and sharp metal.

  1. Never get into a dumpster that has medical equipment or toxic waste inside.
  2. Be careful of the lids as with a gust of wind they can slam down on you and believe me, they hurt.
  3. Always watch out for any sharp or hazardous objects before entering a dumpster.
  4. If the dumpster smells bad, find a different one.

Dumpster Diving Maps

Tips for Dumpster Diving Success

  • Never break a lock to access a locked bin or climb fences or gates when it is clear that you are not allowed to be there.
  • Clean up after yourself and leave the area the same, if not better than you found it. Leaving a mess can lead to the store locking the bins or pouring chemicals over the items inside.
  • Only take what you can use and leave some for others that may need it.
  • Bakeries and sandwich shops throw food out daily so ask inside near closing time if they have anything they are throwing.
  • Avoid high-risk foods such as dairy, eggs, fish, and meat, it’s too much of a risk to your health.
  • Cans, bottles, and tins will normally be put in the bin due to the items being out of date though many of these items are fine well past their date.
  • Items might be put in the bin for a reason, maybe a returned item or it’s been spoiled, make sure you check the color of the items and do a smell test before you consume.

You never know what you might discover and save the planet and your wallet all in the process, super!

Good luck with your dumpster diving journey!

If you have enjoyed this post then please use the buttons below to help share this post with your friends on social media.