Urban Foraging – Dumpster Diving

Did you think foraging was just something rural dwellers with access to lots of forest were able to do? Think again! As more and more of us live in cities (by necessity or not), there are also more and more opportunities found in said city. You might be surprised to see what opportunities show themselves in your own neighborhood if you just start looking for them.

Perhaps more rebellious acts such as dumpster diving can work side-by-side with neighborhood gleaning, or looking for edibles in parks or unused (ask first!) yards. Lastly, especially if you live in college towns or other cities with transient communities, there is almost no limit to the types of curbside treasures you can find. In this post, we dive into the world of dumpster diving.

Dumpster diving introduction

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Dumpster diving is, in essence, looking through what people or businesses have thrown away to see if there is anything of use to you there. Grocery shops, bakeries, etc. often throw away ridiculous amounts of good food because of an arbitrary “best by” date, or because customers demand pristine and always fresh, leaving perfectly good food overlooked.

Quite by accident, I got into dumpster diving recently when I brought my metal and glass to the recycling station at our local grocery store and their general waste container was just standing there, open-doored and inviting. I have friends who dumpster regularly but had been scared off previously by the night-own tendencies usually displayed. The few times we did try in our previous area, we were dismayed to find everything under lock and key. So much so that we completely forgot to check our new area when we moved.

Dumpster diving is a lot less disgusting than it may sound. In our area, temperatures are still a fridge-friendly 5-10C (40-50F), and you are not rooting through rotting, stinking piles of goo. Instead, you get to know your area and look for recently disposed of goods that are still good. Not only that, but our store throws away so much food that no rifling through old food is required. There is so much on top that I fill my backpack just by skimming what I can reach and see.

A whole dinner, apart from the sauerkraut we had already, entirely dumpster sourced!

You’d be astonished by what you can find. Last week we found 50 kg of prawns in 5 kg boxes, all still frozen solid and over 8 months until their “best by” date. We’ve found gourmet sausages, veggie burgers, candy, and pre-made pizza bottoms, all at or before their best by date and vacuum-sealed and safe!

Of course, we also find lots of fruit and veg. Here there will typically be one or two in a bag or a net that has gone bad and can be tossed out, or a section of larger veg that can be chopped off leaving 80-90% perfectly good produce. If it’s an open net of oranges or the like, I give them a baking soda bath to get rid of any gunk before drying and depositing in our vegetable drawer.

Not only does this save us money, it has also rather magically given us access to more expensive stuff that is not typically in our budget. Eating like royals while diverting resources away from the landfill? Yes, please!

The ethics

Depending on the country you live in, there might be laws around dumpster diving you need to be careful of. When we lived in London, trash was considered the property of the store/company before it was picked up by the trash company and considered their property, thus classifying the act as theft. If you need to access private property, it might be considered trespassing.

Look for local dumpster diving groups in your area for tips and tricks and updated information on the safety of dumpster diving before heading in. Some places pour bleach or detergents over their trash to deter this activity, so absolutely use your sight, smell, and instincts when inspecting potential finds. When in doubt, leave it.

Food waste

Once you get into the data of it all, it is pretty tragic how much perfectly good food we, as a society throw out. And this is only the waste we know about. This article from Norway (NB, in Norwegian!) talks about how a lot of waste from production to packaging, simply isn’t even logged, placing an unfairly high burden of “being the wasteful” on the consumer, when that is not the whole story at all! Back in 2011, it was estimated that a full 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. That’s just mad!

We are already using more than 75 % more resources each year than the planet can replenish, and thus are effectively in debt, borrowing ever more from our future and future generations. It goes without saying that at some point, this whole system will collapse if we don’t make some drastic changes. Yes, this is a “band-aid” solution to a much larger problem. But diverting resources from the landfill while filling your belly (for free!) has to be a win-win.

As with Bob and his excellent recent guest post, we have drastically reduced our meat intake when we learned of the environmental impacts of it (maybe a few times a week now). With as much meat as we have found recently, it would be a no-brainer to swap to dumpster-found meat when we aren’t buying from local farmer’s markets. When you aren’t rewarding shops with your money for encouraging factory farming and anonymous sources, they will be forced to change their practices.

Aside from that, I must admit that I have been both overwhelmed and flabbergasted by the sheer amount of good food that is thrown away, just at our normal-sized local grocery store. I’ve been up several times a week and no matter how many times I fill my backpack, it seems our single household can’t even make a dent in the mountain of food from this one, little shop alone.

Dumpster diving safely

As with home-canning and preserving food, you can’t be a mindless consumer if you wish to supplement your grocery budget by gleaning local dumpsters. You need to use your sight, smell, feel, and instinct before you decide to take something home, where you might still discover you were wrong once you tasted it and throw it out. That’s okay. It’s all part of the learning process.

Fruit and veg are generally a good place to start for the beginning dumpster diver. There are pretty obvious telltale signs that an apple or orange has gone bad, and so they are pretty easy to weed out and leave you with the good parts. Again, if you have one near you, a local dumpster diver group can be invaluable both for the community (and ability to shout a “hey-yo!” when you find a large amount of good food and want others to partake in the bounty), and for their experience and helpful tips. Also, be generous with your finds and the sites you discover, we want to divert as much good food from the landfill as possible, after all!

Depending on your season, meat and animal products can still be safe to rescue as long as, again, you use your instincts and common sense. Don’t take meat where the package is clearly bloated, for instance. Look for holes or damage to the package that may have compromised the contents and make sure to read the due date. Cured meat may well last past the due date, while fish and shellfish are a “be extra, extra cautious and vigilant” category.

Once home, open the package, let it air out for a few minutes (unless it is obviously rotten-smelling), and then smell carefully. Raw pieces of meat often get a fart-like smell when it sits in a vacuum-packaged environment for too long, but this dissipates after a while. You’re looking for a clean smell that doesn’t make you wrinkle your nose or immediately recoil. Remember, your nose is a sensitive tool. Thousands of years of evolution has gone into fine-tuning it to identify what’s safe to eat and what is not. Learn to use it, and learn to trust it.

Yup, we have found candy in the price range we would not normally buy on our trips. This wasn’t even out of date yet! It was condemned simply because of its cheerful Christmas packaging stuck in the wrong season.

Last but not least – candy! We’ve found both candy and crisps on our hunts, and as long as the package is not broken or has any obvious holes, that ultra-processed stuff is usually good to go.

Other general rules that are good to follow is to pay attention to your local seasons. Sweltering heat in summer will have meat go bad really fast, while below-freezing degrees in winter will spoil sensitive produce like cucumbers and melons. Spring and autumn can be fantastic for discovering food treasures.

We are very lucky to have a standing freezer in our basement, which enables us to rescue a lot more than we normally would. I have no doubt that if we fill it now over spring, we wouldn’t be able to clean it out before temperatures drop over autumn away. We also give away as much food as we can to open-minded friends. One of our city’s soup kitchen operates entirely on “dumpster” foods, only they struck a deal with the local grocery shops who now give them the food directly, no diving required. Tragically, they have to turn several grocery shops away who want to “green” their waste streams in this way, because there are just too many and too much food for their user base to get through!

Disclaimer

I would say obviously, but I’ll put it in here anyway. Ecofrugals are not responsible for what you do after you read this post. So play it safe, use your instincts, and please don’t get in trouble. 😉

Other than that, happy hunting!

Want even more? Check out Rob Greenfield’s book, Dude Making a Difference.

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2 thoughts on “Urban Foraging – Dumpster Diving

  1. So glad you created a post about your new dumpster diving pursuits to raise awareness about food waste as well as the potential for sourcing still very edible food while doing something good for the environment. My three posts about all the food and other items I’ve rescued continue to be among the most popular on my blog, especially the one about how I made several thousand dollars selling items I rescued from thrift store, Aldi, and university dumpsters.

    It is especially frustrating to see this food waste continue in the midst of this severe economic turmoil during the pandemic. Headlines announce a potential shortage of meat here in the US, yet my boyfriend and I just rescued two still cold racks of ribs along with 4 dozen cage-free eggs and a couple boxes of produce on our dumpster diving date last night.

    I haven’t gone into a grocery store in over a month. I feel much safer shopping from the dumpster alone with my bottle of home-made hand sanitizer right now than going in the store and exposing myself to other people and their germs. Most of the food I eat comes from the dumpster and is augmented with food from my boyfriend’s food forests, friends’ gardens, and my local foraging activities. I’m a decent cook and my boyfriend is a really good so we eat very well. I always joke that we are Dumpster Gourmands.

    1. I really hear you on the Dumpster Gourmand part. A lot of the food we’ve saved so far has been of the exclusive, expensive kind we wouldn’t buy and has often travelled half-way across the world before it came here.

      Every time I see a lot of food being thrown away I just think how this just can’t be sustainable. This system will collapse at some point if we don’t make some drastic changes.

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