The Ultimate Guide To Dumpster Diving

I first came into contact with dumpster diving when I volunteered with the organization Food not Bombs (FNB), Toronto Chapter. Their objective is to recover food that would otherwise have been thrown away, and cook up delicious vegan meals for whomever wants some. Although a lot of the food they get is donated from bakeries and shops (who’d otherwise dump the food), they do dumpster diving to fill in the gaps.

Recently, one of the members of the group held a dumpster diving tutorial in downtown Toronto.

After I attended the tutorial, I went solo in my town, with huge success. This, coupled with the times I had gone with FNB in the past, makes me confident enough to create this megatutorial for everyone on the internet to benefit.

dumpster diving
Dumpster diving tutorial in downtown Toronto

Before I dive in, I need to offer a few obligatory disclaimers.

Obviously, getting food from dumpsters isn’t the most sanitary thing you can do, so don’t do it if you are immunocompromised. Never eat food that smells, looks or tastes weird.

Avoid meat and dairy. Avoid cooked food. Be careful when climbing in and out of dumpsters. Wear gloves to protect your hands from sharp objects.

BE THAT AS IT MAY

Much like pre-owned materials, dumpster food faces illogical prejudices.

Our natural human disdain for eating rotten food has been warped by the unreasonable hygienic standards of our times. In our current day, we have developed a paranoia of anything with blemishes, fuzz or past it’s “best before” date.

These have little to do with whether food is edible and safe. Nonetheless, food is routinely thrown out due to these reasons. It’s gotten to the point where 40% of all food created is sent to the landfill.

A large portion of the food thrown away is not dangerous or inedible. As you’ll see in this post, much of it has no issues at all.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, food poisoning seems to be twice as likely in restaurants than at home. Yet we do not regard it as gross or odd that a person should go to a restaurant – even though their chances of getting sick from that food are real and documented.

However, I repeat, if you are elderly, a child and/or immunocompromised, I’d say avoid dumpster diving. Otherwise, enjoy dumpster diving with joyful care!

The Dumpster Diving Code

As I learned during my initiation into the dumpstering community, there is a code of conduct to which all dumpster divers adhere. If you fail to adhere to the code, you risk having the owner of the dumpster lock the bin, pour bleach on the food or wait for you to return and shout at you for being a dirty hippie. None of that is fun, so read carefully.

Rule 1: Dumpster discretely

You don’t want to draw attention to yourself while you are dumpstering. People might get spooked and call the cops, or you might get shooed away. Keep noise to an absolute minimum. Speak with an inside voice, don’t throw things around and avoid knocking things over loudly. Go during the cover of night if you can.

Rule 2: Leave things better than how you found them

Dumpster diving can be messy, smelly business, but you’ve no right to go mess up someone’s garbage area. Avoid tearing bags open, tossing trash on the floor or leaving bags outside the dumpster. If you do need to tear the bags, make sure you tie them back up.

Not only is it rude to leave an area messy, you might attract raccoons and other pests, creating a problem for the innocent dumpster owner. Breaking this rule is a huge motivation for owners to lock their dumpsters, preventing future generations of divers to benefit from the cornucopia of food.

dumpster diving
The results of breaking the code

Rule 3: Is dumpster diving illegal?

In the province of Ontario, Canada, where I live, anything you put into your trash is public property, and so anyone can help themselves (including the Police, FYI).

From my research, it seems like dumpster diving is legal in most parts of the USA. It is illegal in Britain. Here is a good page for information on the legality of dumpster diving.

Never break any locks, climb fences or otherwise force yourself into a dumpster.

Obey all signs. If a sign says “no trespassing”, let it be and go. If someone tells you to leave, then leave. If they tell you to never come back, then never come back.

And that’s it!

Other than these 3 rules, you nearly can’t go wrong.

What can you find while dumpster diving?

In this age of over-consumption and thoughtless waste, you can find anything and everything in dumpsters, including:

  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Food
  • Electronics
  • Building materials
  • Raw materials (wood, metal, etc.)
  • Recyclables
  • Books
  • Baby supplies
  • And so much more…

The sky is really the limit! The focus of this article is on food. You can find the rest of that stuff cheaply and easily in thrift stores, or on online classifieds.

What gear do you need to dumpster dive?

Dumpster diving is a messy business.

You’ll want to ensure that you are well-equipped for the job so that the task is as pleasant as possible.

Long sleeve shirts and pants. I recommend that you equip yourself with a long sleeve shirt and pants. There is a risk that you might splash something nasty on yourself, and it’s better that it should end up on your clothing than your skin. What’s more, long sleeves and pants will protect you from any sharp objects and keep you warm.

A headlamp. If possible, you want to go dumpster diving during the cover of night to avoid detection and drawing attention to yourself. A headlamp is essential for freeing your hands for maximum flexibility and digging. Trust me, the light of streetlamps will not be sufficient to give you the required visibility for optimum diving.


Headlamp on Amazon, yo.

Thick gloves. You’ll want some gloves for protection and warmth. Getting your hands covered in trash water is unsettling, and also, will get your hands freezing, especially if you are dumpstering at night. Gloves will also protect you from sharp edges, glass and other dumpster hazards.

A face mask. This is optional, but helpful for novices. Even though a large portion of the food retrieved from dumpster is fresh, rot may have settled into a some. If you’ve got a strong sense of smell, a mask can help you stay strong in the light of unpleasant odors.

Close-toe shoes. Leave your dandy sandals at home. Get yourself a sturdy pair of shoes to take with you diving. This will help you jump and walk over the dumpster and its content.

Bags. To take home your haul.

A wheelbarrow/cart. To help carry your enormous, delicious haul

A small knife/scissors. Helpful for cutting into bags and boxes to view the insides, or even cutting away the bruised bit of an apple for a quick snack.

The Best Places to Dumpster Dive 

For finding food, grocery stores dumpsters are your best best, but I’d generally avoid larger or discount chains, such as Food Basics (Canadian chain) or Costco (US chain). These large chains typically have the time and money to use food compactors. This makes their thrown-out food inaccessible.

However, not all large chains are bad.

Walmart may work well – I’ve seen many Walmarts simply toss their food into regular (and accessible) trash cans.

Places like Trader Joes and Whole Foods also tend to not have compactors, and leave their food in unlocked dumpsters and regular trashcans. Really excellent places to get organic goods.

Corner stores are also excellent – these are smaller places and neither have the time or staff to effectively throw out food. If you live in a city, you’ll find a lot of success by going to downtown and checking behind and on the sides of small, corner grocery stores. Often, you can get a lot of good stuff by just skimming the top.

IMG_5423
Behind a corner store

Remember, dumpster diving is a hunt. Don’t give up if the first few places you visit don’t have what you were looking for.

IMG_5421

IMG_5422
Beside another corner store

For stores closely positioned to a street, you may need to walk down to an alley and turn into it. Many cities will have compost-only bins, typically colored in a shade of green. These are perfect. They separate the food away from the non-food items, making it easy to find the grub you seek.

When Should you go Diving?

When is just as important as where.

Try to time your dumpstering adventure close to garbage day in the area you are targeting. You can easily find this information on a municipality’s website.

You can definitely find good stuff during other times, but if you want the biggest volume of things to choose from, go before or on garbage day (before the garbage is taken away, of course).

You might find it easier to dive during the cover of night as you’ll minimize the chance of getting detected. But I don’t give a damn, so I go at noon during FULL SUN.

How to Pick Good Dumpster Food

You might find food right at the surface of the dumpster. This is the best situation, and one which many would prefer.

Other times, you may need to remove a few layers of bags and do some more exploration before hitting gold.

In order to conserve energy and effort, follow the steps below:

  1. Feel the outside of the bag to understand the shapes of things inside. Slightly lift the bag to get an idea of the weight. Are you feeling some boxy shapes? Is the bag lightweight? In this case, the bag may be full of empty containers and not worth the effort into opening it.
  2. Open the bag and give it a sniff. If you smell rotting meat, discard.
  3. If not smelling of rotting meat, open the bag up and have a dig through.
  4. Repeat.

When it comes to dumpster food, you need to throw away many of your assumptions on food and food freshness that you’ve gotten used too. Remember, our caveman ancestors had nothing but their senses to distinguish between good and bad food. We can still apply them to determining edible dumpster food today.

In general, this rule holds true:

If it looks good, smells good, and tastes good – it is good (the LSTG rule for short)

A few important points about dates, those dreaded indicators of food lifespan:

  • Best Before Dates: In North America, these have nothing to do with the safety of the food in question. It is an estimate placed by manufacturers as to how much time a food will remain “fresh” – that is, retain it’s best flavor and texture. Even though many stores and people will dump food that has passed its “best before” date, this date should not dissuade you from recovering food. The LSTG rule applies here.
  • Sell Before Dates: These are used by stores to keep track of inventory, and give an indication of when this food should be moved off the shelf, and to the dumpster. Oftentimes, these ‘sell by’ dates may be many days before the ‘best before’ dates.
  • Use By Dates: These dates indicate a manufacturers estimate as too how many days a product will be safe to eat. These dates are somewhat significant. However, it’s not like a food will suddenly be edible one day before the “use by” date, and then magically become inedible the next. These dates are usually conservative for the sake of safety and as protection from litigation.

It’s hard to imagine, but before the industrialization of food, people literally used the LSTG rule to determine if they could or could not use a particular food.

If you are a Insane Wolf, you might even consider eating molding food (like me). Not all molding foods are dangerous to eat. Many times, you can simply cut off the molding part and consume the rest with no ill effects. I’ve done so myself many times, with no issue.

 

dumpster diving

However, there are times that even the bravest dumpster diver will need to concede the food to the garbage. I’ve included below a chart which I’ve gotten from the USDA’s website:

FOODHANDLINGREASON
Luncheon meats, bacon, or hot dogsDiscardFoods with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface. Moldy foods may also have bacteria growing along with the mold.
Hard salami and dry-cured country hamsUse. Scrub mold off surface.It is normal for these shelf-stable products to have surface mold.
Cooked leftover meat and poultryDiscardFoods with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface. Moldy foods may also have bacteria growing along with the mold.
Cooked casserolesDiscardFoods with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface. Moldy foods may also have bacteria growing along with the mold.
Cooked grain and pastaDiscardFoods with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface. Moldy foods may also have bacteria growing along with the mold.
Hard cheese
(not cheese where mold is part of the processing)
Use. Cut off at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot (keep the knife out of the mold itself so it will not cross-contaminate other parts of the cheese). After trimming off the mold, re-cover the cheese in fresh wrap.Mold generally cannot penetrate deep into the product.
Cheese made with mold

(such as Roquefort, blue, Gorgonzola, Stilton, Brie, Camembert)
Discard soft cheeses such as Brie and Camembert if they contain molds that are not a part of the manufacturing process. If surface mold is on hard cheeses such as Gorgonzola and Stilton, cut off mold at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot and handle like hard cheese (above).Molds that are not a part of the manufacturing process can be dangerous.
Soft cheese
(such as cottage, cream cheese, Neufchatel, chevre, Bel Paese, etc.) Crumbled, shredded, and sliced cheeses (all types)
DiscardFoods with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface. Shredded, sliced, or crumbled cheese can be contaminated by the cutting instrument. Moldy soft cheese can also have bacteria growing along with the mold.
Yogurt and sour creamDiscardFoods with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface. Moldy foods may also have bacteria growing along with the mold.
Jams and jelliesDiscardThe mold could be producing a mycotoxin. Microbiologists recommend against scooping out the mold and using the remaining condiment.
Fruits and vegetables, FIRM
(such as cabbage, bell peppers, carrots, etc.)
Use. Cut off at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot (keep the knife out of the mold itself so it will not cross-contaminate other parts of the produce).Small mold spots can be cut off FIRM fruits and vegetables with low moisture content. It's difficult for mold to penetrate dense foods.
Fruits and vegetables, SOFT
(such as cucumbers, peaches, tomatoes, etc.)
DiscardSOFT fruits and vegetables with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface.
Bread and baked goodsDiscardPorous foods can be contaminated below the surface.
Peanut butter, legumes and nutsDiscardFoods processed without preservatives are at high risk for mold.

You might also find some foods that are slightly withered – these are fine, if the LTSG rule applies.

Some foods may look badly rotten on the outside, but still have much left to offer. These including layered produce, such as onion and cabbages. You can remove the outer layers directly in and use the rest in a soup.

Been there, done that.

My Dumpster Experience

As mentioned, I’ve been dumpstering a few times. Now I regularly go to a grocery store near where I live (a Canadian chain called Longo’s). They almost always have some nice, fresh produce floating at the top of their bins.

I took meticulous photos of the experience to show how nice the food really was, and reveal what is being thrown out by stores. I have to admit, finding free fresh food is a load of fun. At the same time, it’s very concerning to see all of these being thrown away on a regular basis. Anyways, on to pictures!

dumpster diving
Ah, the old watering hole

As you can see, at first glance, pretty darn disgusting. But I braved the F up and started hitting the sides of each dumpster to see if it was empty, and if not, opened it up to see which gifts were available.

Here are a few pictures of what I found on the inside.

Some dumpsters were full of non-edible stuff, or things like bread, which I was not looking for (although I have subsequently dived successfully for bread):

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 12.03.49 AM

But I struck gold with a few:

dumpster diving
That orange stuff is orange peels from the juicer the store has on the inside.

The more I dug, the more fresh food I uncovered underneath. All perfectly fresh, or with slight defects. Here are some individual examples:

dumpster diving
Organize green pepper, slightly withered but still 100% usable
dumpster diving
Grapes covered in orange peel debris (from a juicer – the store makes fresh orange juice for sale). 100% firm, completely OK to eat
dumpster diving
Red pepper, skin flaking a bit at the side, 100% fine otherwise.
dumpster diving
PERFECT tomato, NO defects whatsoever. Firm and ready to eat.

There was more good food available than I could bring back with me in my bike basket, but I managed to recover quite the haul:

dumpster diving
From the bottom left, clockwise: lemons, celery stems, bananas, strawberries, papayas, apples, pears, peppers, lines, jalapeno, onions, potatoes, tomatoes mango, cucumber
dumpster diving
And a lovely dumpster bouquet

Most of the food was pristine – no problems, no defects. Some had minor problems, like this pepper:

dumpster diving
Dumpster pepper, minor spots of rot

But if you cut out the rot, it’s good to go:

dumpster diving
90% of the pepper is still 100% edible.

After trimming other such rotting spots from other produce, I washed my haul in water, and started cutting to get them ready for freezing:

dumpster diving
Delicious papaya, it had zero defects. I had two – one I ate fresh…

 

dumpster diving
…and the other, I cut up for freezing. Papaya-coconut milkshakes anyone?
dumpster diving
Banana ready for freezing
dumpster diving
Peppers ready to be frozen and stir-fried, when the time is right.
IMG_5696
Mango, good for two smoothies.

 

dumpster diving
Apples were peeled and made into delicious apple pockets.
dumpster diving
Some more peppery goodness

The dumpster food ideology

I know what you’re thinking.

“Omg, I really want to go diving but something irrational is stopping me!”

YES. I understand.

Ok you are probably not thinking that – but that is what’s going on in your unconscious mind.

You are suffering from the negative mental, emotional and psychological links between dumpsters and food. A “dumpster food ideology” if I may.

This is a powerful ideology. It’s the ideology that says that food located in a dumpster is no good to eat. Not only that, it may make you sick and kill you.

It’s the ideology which says that there must be a good reason why the food had been thrown away.

These ideas are based on your experiences as an individual dealing with rotten or decomposing foods, as well as habits reinforced by the machine of ideas from the health, medicine and food industries.

First note is that large industries have very different interests than you as an individual.

You are interested in eating food that is nutritious, tasty and safe. You are likely interested in rationally using food resources, and not wasting food when possible.

Industries are interested in making profit in a competitive marketplace. The safety, tastiness and nutrition of the food they produce are secondary to this goal. Rationally using resources are also secondary to this goal.

This make industries behave very different than individuals. Because competition is so intense, industries are required to engage in wasteful habits in order to stay above the competition.

As this post has shown, this includes things like discarding ugly, but otherwise edible, fruits and vegetables to make sure that what you see in stores looks perfect.

This also results in grocery stores overstocking to give the appearance of abundance, which has been shown to increase purchasing. This leads to overstocking and damage to produce being placed in bottom of piles of food.

As mentioned above, sell-by/best before dates may also force grocery stores to throw food away. Because of public perception, it would be unseemly for grocery stores to hold on to “expired” food – even though, these dates are often meaningless when it comes to food safety.

Finally, grocery stores will often throw away ‘damaged’ foods – produce with imperfections, packaging with dents, outdated boxing aesthetic (for example, Christmas decorations on cereal boxes).

Behind the facade of perfect food lies a mountain of needless waste.

It would be better to have an economic system which reconciled the human need for food with the need to rationally process the resources with have available on this planet.

But that is a topic for another blog post.

Eating from the trashcan

Although a few people dumpster diving won’t really make a dent in terms of reducing food waste, I still feel it’s a valuable exercise.

  1. It can help you break perceptions on what is and is not “ok” to eat.
  2. It may be a valuable way to save money on food, and get your hands on healthy produce.
  3. It helps change perceptions required to push forward policies and changes which will force grocery stores to end wasting food. There is no one solution that will completely solve the problem.

You are now armed with the tools to go out and finish a successful dive. Remember, the biggest barrier is the one in your mind. And for this reason, I suggest that everyone go diving at least once. Breakdown those mental blocks!

But what do you think? Are you ready to take the plunge, or are you still too grossed out?