Most people don’t think twice about where their trash goes or where it comes from. Granted, not many people think to dive into piles of trash in dumpsters either.
These people, called dumpster divers, enter trash receptacles to find salvageable materials. From bruised produce to furniture to hand tools, the possibility of finding something useful is endless.
“I started dumpster diving after I met a girl while camping who got all of her food for her trips from dumpster diving. After she told me it was as simple as finding an unlocked dumpster, and that most places don't actually have laws forbidding it, I jumped into the first dumpster I saw,” says James Moy, a Fisheries and Wildlife alumnus from the University of Georgia from Atlanta.
The term “dumpster diving” was first used in 1983 in Life magazine in the caption “Rat and Mike call rummaging for food in trash bins behind restaurants dumpster diving,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The term is interchangeable with dumpster totting and dumpster skipping, but dumpster diving appears to be the most popular in current media.
Athens has a surprisingly thriving subcommunity of dumpster divers. They may not make their hobby public, but they certainly help tackle one of America’s worst problems – waste.
“Unless you’re in the world of sustainability, people don’t think about cycles or where their trash is going, they think it’s – poof! Gone. But that’s not how it works,” says Jill Blackmon, a University of Georgia graduate with a certificate in sustainability from Lawrenceville, Georgia.
The U.S. leads the world in waste production, producing more than 30 percent of the planet’s total waste while comprising only 4 percent of the world’s population, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Waste occurs in industrial and manufacturing production to the home. Americans throw out 7 pounds of garbage per person every day – which is 2,555 pounds of materials per American every year, according to National Public Radio.
However, a report from Northeastern University Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute states this trash makes up only 3 percent of all solid waste in America – the other 97 percent is generated by industrial processes such as mining, manufacturing and agriculture.
“Examples of things I found: there’s this hardware store, and while we were they they were throwing out packs of tools. It was maybe a pack of allen wrenches like a full row and one was missing so they threw the whole thing away. We got so many tools. It was crazy,” says Blackmon.
Individual companies produce their own waste. Greenpeace partnered with Break Free From Plastic to discover how much waste certain companies produced. With the help of over 10,000 volunteers across 42 countries, nine months and 239 clean up events, the organizations found that the top three companies to in the 187,000 pieces of trash they found were: Coca-cola, PepsiCo and Danon.
Other companies, such as Walmart, hope to embrace a “zero-waste economy,” or an economy that not only doesn’t produce but doesn’t require raw material extraction either; all the materials entering the system have been recycled from parts exiting other parts of the system.
“I usually go to stores like Bed Bath and Beyond or Target. I find really weird stuff. When I went to Target, they were renovating and they had a huge dumpster and had thrown away full tile. I guess they ordered too much and didn’t use it. And I thought, ‘well that’s usable!’ So I thought I took it,” Blackmon says.
The agricultural sector may be the worst culprit of waste in America. Up to 40 percent of food produced in the US ends up in landfills, costing more than $200 billion each year, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council. That equals 52.4 million tons of food sent to the dump each year, plus an additional 10.1 million tons left unharvested on farms, totaling roughly 63 million tons of annual food waste, according to ReFED 2018.
Aldi, Sysco, Trader Joe’s and other businesses selling food are responsible throw out 40 percent of their food as well, according to a 2018 report by The Center for Biological Diversity. No matter where you turn in the grocery store, the food you see will likely never be consumed.
“It’s like, well, we can’t sell it anymore and so it’s going in the dumpster. For example, in a Bed Bath and Beyond, one time I found I found over 100 boxes of unused K-cups of coffee. I guess it was a flavor that no one bought, so they just threw them all away. And I’m like, well, I don’t like K-cups, but it’s better if someone uses it at all than all the unused ones going in the dumpster,” says Blackmon.
While America’s waste problem is deeply systemic, dumpster divers reduce the immense amount of waste in America – one haul at a time.
“It's like a treasure hunt, and while you don't always find what you're looking for in there, you can usually put it to pretty good use. I've also found tons of cleaning supplies and unworn clothes in there, and I've heard some people get all of their make-up from dumpsters,” says Moy.
However, while those who dumpster dive do so passionately, not enough people are salvaging the waste, or reducing the amount of trash entering the landfill. America’s laxed view of what’s garbage may be fueled by cultural biases of desirable and undesirable products.
“We are really disconnected from the places where our food is actually produced, and I think that leads us to mistrust anything that doesn't come perfectly packaged and spotless,” Blackmon says.
Often, products that are imperfect – ugly fruit, for example, or edible fruit with visual blemishes – make their way into landfills. And yet, while this perception exists in the mind.
“It’s all psychological. You decide when something is trash. And then you throw it away. And something that has literally no value or use left anymore. But, ideally, in my mind I’m like nothing is trash,” says Blackmon.
While America’s trash problem is a multifaceted issue, the individuals of Athens can help by getting over the gross trash factor and diving into dumpsters – with legal and safety precautions, of course.
Dumpster diving is protected under the California v Greenwood Supreme Court Ruling, stating that trash is not protected by the 4th amendment. Since people leave their trash in the public domain (curbs, multi-resident dumpsters), anyone from the public can take leftover refuse. But not all trash is public -- police would still require a warrant to search the trash inside your home.
Instead, trespassing and loitering regulations comprise the illegality of dumpster diving. If a diver enters private, restricted property, they could be ticketed or arrested by police for rummaging through someone’s private trash collection. According to Consumer Reports, would-be divers should take note of any private property signage, bins against the sides of buildings and any area marked “no trespassing.”
While the trash may be up for grabs, if the dumpster is locked or in anyway indicates private property, it may be best to leave it be and opt for a less restricted dumpster. There are plenty of places, such as Aldi, that will leave their dumpsters open.
“There should be a cycle where it’s not trash and it doesn’t end up in a landfill. It’s a material that I no longer have a use for in its current form, but it can be transformed into a different form where it’s used again. That’s really idealistic, but that’s not what’s happening in society,” Blackmon says.
While dumpster diving remains a harmless and low-risk activity, divers are still nervous about run ins with the laws. Any altercations with the police have more dire effects some divers more than others.
“I also think there are some complicated things at play when it comes to class. The color of your skin and your socioeconomic level can greatly affect how a run-in with the store owners/law enforcement goes,” says Moy. “It's extremely unfortunate too, because there are literal tons of good food sitting in these dumpsters, but people who need it most might be the least able to access it.
Experts divers recommend wearing closed toed shoes, long-pants and long-sleeved shirts. Wearing gloves and a headlamp is especially encouraged, and maybe a bottle or two of hand sanitizers in the car.
Even those new to diving find the activity life changing, as dumpster diving provides an opportunity for students to challenge their comfort zones and get personal with their local waste.
Kerry Steedley, a natural resources, recreation, and tourism alumna from UGA, describes her limited experience dumpster diving.
“I have been dumpster diving one time. It was a night affair. I would definitely do it again. I think some people think that dumpster diving means wading through rotten fruit. Untrue.”
While many people dive for personal use, there are limitless possibilities to repurpose materials found in dumpsters. Some choose to eat “trash” for personal nutrition, some choose to incorporate dumpster dives into their homes, and other may find their dumpster finds beneficial to other people.
“Show your friends your amazing dumpster finds, or even better, gift them with a dumpster find,” Steedley says. “You are getting quality items at literally no cost, and, super bonus, you are redirecting waste in the last moment before disposal. Good for your wallet and better for the planet.”
Aside from emphasizing its environmental and financial sustainability, the best way to get more people involved in dumpster diving, according to Blackmon, is to emphasize the fun of it.
“It’s fun and crazy,” Blackmon says. “That’s how I got my roommates to do it … Instead of going to a trampoline park, it’s the same level of fun to go dumpster diving.”
There’s a burgeoning amount of people trying to live extreme “zero-waste” lifestyle. Some people are able to fit their two-years worth of trash into a single jar. Others join the vibrant underground community of dumpster divers to tackle their waste problem, and they’re trying to spread the word about the perks of dumpster diving too.
“Spreading awareness that it exists and that it’s an option and that the people who do it should talk about it more. I don’t hear about people doing it,” Blackmon says. “When you hear someone dumpster dives it’s usually after along time knowing them. And it’s like, ‘you do it too?’”
Perhaps in the future more will find their way into accessible dumpsters, but for now it will take the dedicated few to brave America’s waste.
“[My] motivation to dumpster dive came from a frustration with how much waste we produce in general,” Moy says. “I think if people are more conscious of their waste footprints and those of their communities, they will be more likely to seek ways to reduce them.”