Last Updated: April 3rd, 2019

If you’ve ever walked behind a mall or restaurant at the end of the day, you may have noticed that a ton of garbage gets put out. What you may not have done is step into the dumpsters, open the garbage bags and look at what’s inside. Which is, you know, your choice. Nobody’s judging. If you had looked inside, you would have noticed what people identify as a real problem in commodity culture—that lots of commodities get wasted for no real reason. Food, clothing, even appliances and big-ticket items get junked by stores and manufacturers for silly reasons like a too-fast approaching expiry date, a slight blemish, that the box has been opened or that the item has been discontinued. Turned a slightly different way, that problem of waste in commodity culture becomes a real solution because trash is just another word for things that are free.

Why so much gets wasted

Think about it—how many times have you or someone you know gotten rid of an electronic device because you/that person you know decided to upgrade. Manufacturers take it one step further, throwing out perfectly good items that haven’t sold just because a newer model has come down the line. The “plan” in planned obsolescence doesn’t guarantee that new models of things will come into usage at the precise moment that old models run out.

Things work kind of the same way with food. When new shipments arrive to grocery stores, food that has a close expiration date gets pitched, even though it’s still fine to eat. It’s a ridiculous system underpinned by our culture’s often misinformed fastidiousness over food safety. Harrison Jacobs explains that there’s a lot of confusion over expiration dates. He says “they mostly indicate guidelines for stores,” and not dates after which food turns inedible and toxic to human health. Stores will keep only food that has a distant expiration date because of the perception that food that’s at or past the date is dangerous, even if the expiration date only means that the food item is no longer at peak freshness.

Who dumpster dives and why

Dumpster diving is a phenomenon that’s grown way more socially acceptable over past ten years or so. People with regular jobs go diving to earn extra income by picking up valuable items and selling them online. Diver Matt Malone suggests he could probably earn about $250,000 a year were he to give up his job and forage full time. More modestly, university students who work retail jobs at the mall cruise the garbage behind the food court and pick up full boxes of things like cinnamon buns and muffins to help cut their grocery costs. There are even dumpster diving groups in large cities like New York that plan out routes to scoop the most valuable items in a reasonable amount of time.

It’s also been picked up by people who want the least possible amount to do with consumer culture but who still, you know, need to eat and wear clothes and stuff. Surviving off of the “surplus” food that companies and stores feel they need to throw away can also be a way to mitigate the amount of waste we generate as a culture, a refusal of our prioritizing of profit over sharing what we have and an active form of non-participation in the cultural drive to forget the amount of materials that go into making our daily lives possible.

Legality and ethics to dumpster diving

If you’re thinking about doing this, you should know it’s sorta legal. Laws around diving differ from country to country and city to city. Often, whether you get fined or told off by the police will depend on who’s on duty that day. Trespassing is definitely not legal, and Wired magazine advises that the safest thing to do is to move along if a security guard or store employee asks you to.

There’s also an ethics to dumpster diving to consider. Jacobs says it’s considered good manners for divers to “untie and retie garbage bags, stack the bags the way they found them, and avoid leaving litter lying around the area,” especially if a store will get fined for not keeping their garbage stacked neatly. There are also some class implications that can get pretty messy. Some people dumpster dive because they want to and some people because they have to. That doesn’t mean that if you can afford not to dumpster dive then you shouldn’t do it, but it does mean that if you find more than enough to eat or wear, the thing to do would be to share with other people who might not have enough.

image: dumpster diving via Shutterstock