What is Dumpster Diving?

“Dumpster-diving” or “urban foraging” describes taking things out of bins that have been thrown away. Among the most well-known varieties is the removing of food from dumpsters in the vicinity of supermarkets.

What is dumpster-diving? Joerg Bergstedt and Hanna Poddig give you a taste of it.

Author of this article is hanna
Published on 2009-10-19

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How is that done?

Sometimes the dumpsters are placed directly in the buildings where people have no chance to get to them. But often enough they just stand there on a back lot or parking area and can be easily accessed. Then you can walk right up to them, open the dumpster and take a look at what’s there for the taking. Occasionally the bins are locked (lock-picking may help here—> link or, in the case of conventional dumpster locks, there are standard keys that could fit (?)), or they might be behind fences, in which case people will have to climb over them first. 

Diving is mostly done best at night when the shops have closed. Then hopefully one remains unseen and can disappear again just as invisibly. In addition, several things are to be found only at night, for instance bread and vegetables, which are taken away for recycling or account crediting the next morning with the new delivery.

Practical tools for diving are washable backpacks / bicycle bags or plastic bags inside, torches / flashlights (headlamps are very practical, because then both hands remain free) and possibly (thin) rubber gloves.

What do people find there, and isn’t it disgusting?

Mostly you’ll find lots of units of one item. Which is why it certainly makes sense to get together with others and set up a “co-op” for exchanging dumpstered things. In other words, you don’t go dumpster-diving together: Exchanging or tossing together the dumpstered stuff takes place later on so that each person can take what they need out of the total diversity of items on hand. The condition the things are in varies greatly. Sometimes 1 out of a 100 oranges is mouldy, other times only 1 out of 30 is edible. There are also stores at which dumpster-diving is particularly rewarding on certain days of the week. So it’s worthwhile to check stores out frequently.

What is the legal status?

By law, dumpster-diving is the theft of merchandise with a value of 0. Besides this, dumpster-diving can also fulfil the circumstances for a criminal offence: trespassing (when an “enclosure”, in other words a fence, a wall or something similar has been climbed), or breaking & entering (when a lock is picked etc.). At least in Germany, however, these are all “Antragsdelikte”, offences that are prosecuted only upon application by the victim. This means that the supermarket that has been “victimized” must file a complaint. If that happens, the fact can be made public that this supermarket makes criminals out of people who just wanted the trash out of the bins. What would then also become known is what is being thrown away regularly there – above all to keep the prices high. Customers will be glad to hear about  this – and about being enlightened regarding the logic behind capitalism. All in all, several things speak in favour of viewing possible criminal prosecution as an element in making the dumpster a political topic and, as a consequence, not to be feared.

Is dumpster-diving political?

No, dumpster-diving is not political in the literal sense. For the most part it doesn’t matter if what is often perfectly edible food rots away in the bins or someone takes it with them and eats it. The only measurable factors would be increased wear-and-tear on the dumpster hinges due to more frequent opening and closing, and the waste separation that becomes possible when the dumpster’s content is eaten and the packaging is disposed of separately. Both effects are insignificantly small. Yet dumpster-diving itself does have 2 indirect impacts:

Together, these two points make dumpster-diving politically so “hot” that regions exist in which the local “political” police are criminalising the collecting of food from trash or motivating supermarkets to take more extensive measures to lock things away; all to take away activists’ “livelihood”. It’s sad but true: The greatest enemy of political resistance is neither the weather nor the police but one’s own social environment and fear – of losing a job, for instance. Those able to organise themselves in life (and dumpster-diving is merely a small part of that) become more dangerous to all those who want to keep people dependent and bring them under control. On the other hand, vice versa this means: Dumpster-diving first becomes political when the independence won this way is used towards a robust, politically resistant everyday life as well.


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