Dumpster Diving 101

Checking the trapline
Checking the trapline

I‘m a dumpster diver. So is my girlfriend, along with the occasional curious friend.

We’re not “freegans”—vegans who only eat tossed-away food as an anti-consumerist strategy to cripple capitalism. Nay, we dumpster dive because it provides us with a steady diet of healthy food. It just happens to be gloriously free—and we use the money saved on groceries to buy delicious, local food at Edmonton farmers markets.

Things we have eaten from dumpsters include: fair-trade organic bananas, gnocchi, tomatoes (both plum and on the vine), organic potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn meal, spinach, pineapple, canned artichoke hearts, pasta, breakfast crackers, organic yogurt, gourmet bread, kale, apples, mushrooms (portobello, button and shiitake), oranges, eggplant, broccoli, asparagus, almond cookies, peppers, avocados, pears, coffee, okra and pomegranates.

For something as gnarly as digging through trash, it has many moments of beauty: washing a whole bathtub’s worth of kale and spinach, or jumping up and down with excitement upon discovering boxes of organic apples. And, of course, the moment you tuck into an amazing dinner that would’ve otherwise rotted in the dump.

Value Chain Management, an independent Canadian think tank, has been publishing reports on food waste since 2010. Their December 10, release “Food Waste In Canada—$27 Billion Revisited” states that Canadians toss $31-billion worth of groceries every year, a $4-billion increase from four years ago. Put in perspective, $31 billion is more than the combined GDP of the world’s poorest 29 countries.

It’s also 40 percent of all the food Canada produces. Using a formula for a more holistic cost—factoring energy, water, land labour, capital investment, transport and so on—the report states that annual food waste costs Canada more than $100 billion annually.

But why?

Attitude plays a big part in the equation. Consumers don’t want a lumpy pepper; they want a perfect pepper, so the lumpy pepper rots. The long supply chain—field to truck to processing plant to another truck to grocery store—is a continuous beauty pageant that eliminates staggering amounts of perfectly good food at every stage.

And then there are “best before” dates. This is the date by which manufacturers guarantee the quality of their product—not the safety of it. “Use by” dates on chicken, meat and fish should be respected—but almost anything, if it has been properly stored, can be safely eaten well past a best before date. But retailers and consumers are scared of food—especially if the calendar has rolled past those magic numbers.

This attitude is why there are dumpsters in Edmonton literally overflowing with good, healthy food. We check our urban trap line at least once a week, foraging for calories. Small and medium-sized grocers are ideal, as bigger chains tend to lock their dumpsters behind fences or indoors, preferring their waste to rot safely in a landfill or as compost. Stores often claim they donate food or repurpose it into soup, but the dumpsters don’t lie: a ridiculous amount of good food is thrown away.

Essential dumpster-diving equipment includes a headlamp, good gloves and thick-soled boots. Dumpsters can contain rusty nails and broken glass—not stuff you want to encounter when wearing flip-flops. I also wouldn’t recommended literally diving into a dumpster head first.

We’ve never gotten sick eating dumpster food. But, obviously, common sense dictates that a good washing is essential. A splash of vinegar in a sink of water is a great way to sanitize produce.

There’s an old saying that if you save someone’s life, you become responsible for them. The same goes for salvaged food: only take as much as you can practically eat, store or share. It can be overwhelming to look at a kitchen overflowing with food that needs to be eaten or stored immediately, if not yesterday. Be picky in your diving: it should go without saying that mouldy and rotten things should be left in the dumpster.

Dumpster diving is legal in Canada, as trash is considered public domain—so long as you don’t trespass or break and enter. I cannot stress this enough: be respectful. Do not make a mess. Leave the dumpster area as clean—or cleaner—than it was before you got there.

Dumpster diving is a total DIY experience: choose your own dumpster adventure. But whatever shall you do with those 10 bunches of asparagus or crates of tomatoes demanding your attention? Fear not! In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing food storage tips and recipes to help you keep and eat your trashy scores.

In the meantime: get diving, Edmonton! 


  • What does this columnist hope to gain? As someone who has been eating predominantly dumpstered food for years, as much due to economic necessity as political inclination, I can’t stand seeing articles like this pop up. Legions of hipsters loading themselves down with as much dumpstered food as they can carry (often in their vehicles) does nothing but sabotage the sort of communities which manifest through these activities. I’m glad you had the means to transport and store a bathtub’s worth of kale, and I’m particularly glad you turned around and spent the (already excessive) money saved on overpriced farmer’s market vegetables. Regardless of your milquetoast pandering, this IS an anti-capitalist pastime, and injecting the sort of competition only the middle-class can by flexing your privilege to the breaking point is somewhere between classist appropriation and a legit act of violence.

  • Excessive waste in our food supply crosses all political and philosophical stripes. We. as a global society, cannot afford to waste food for any reason, be it excessive portions, aesthetics (discarding good food due to size or appearance or blemishes), logistical and distribution problems, etc. The energy required to grow and get food to our plates is not insignificant, and discarding edible food, besides being a crime against those who are hungry, is also a blatant waste of energy, that none of us in this world can really afford.

    Watch this movie, “Just Eat It”
    It will cause further thought on this most important topic, and inspire each of us to take action.

    Just sign me
    I’m not hungry yet…

    • Troubleshooting supermarkets is absolutely missing the point. An excessive amount of food is absolutely wasted for ridiculous reasons, but improved shrink policies merely maintain the distance between the lower classes and healthy food. Instituting a hyper-efficient waste reduction strategy without attacking the disparity inherent in capitalism merely relegates those of us without surplus wealth to eating the nutritional equivalent of cardboard, often at the behest of domineering charities.

    • Please, please don’t fish for diving spots online. Everybody does it, but in the long run it just means compactors and locked bins. I will say that organic food stores have the best turnover, second only to wholesale places (assuming you’re diving for food). Honestly, if a place sells food, they create waste. It’s only a question of how much, whether they use a dumpster, and when it’s emptied. Keep in mind that an enclosed bin means you are trespassing, so stay on your toes if there’s a gate. Also, ruined food is no good for anyone; please, be considerate of what you’re standing on/going through. Whyte ave area has several good scores, but also many cops, so watch out. Ideally I would reach out to those around you and see if anyone in your social circle has experience diving (it’s much more fun in groups anyways). Just please, don’t be Scavenger Steve. You don’t need a bathtub full of kale. Honest.

  • What an absurd, preposterous, outrageous article.
    Don’t dumpster dive, people – for the sake of hygiene and safety. You can and will get a disease from handling waste. While you expound the virtues of freeganism, have you ever considered that garbages are the receptacles of human fluids? If you stick your hand in a dumpster, you may touch someone’s semen or menstruation? Mucous? Broken glass?
    You can’t live without cleanliness, and there are a plethora of diseases you can communicate by touching garbage.
    Normalizing is asinine. People do not have the right to pillage through trash. People do not have the right to rip open trash bags. This leads to vermin infestation!
    All you effete hipster types can never convince me this is okay. I am sick of it. My back alleyway looks like Haiti after the earthquake because of transients ripping open garbage bags – looking for cans. Then the magpies, crows and mice get sustained – so do the vector for disease.

    • As someone that has come up with a handful of well used diaper digging in the bin (among other things at different points), I certainly understand the potential for disgusting and hazardous encounters, but I still dumpster. I dumpster because I’m broke and binning makes that tolerable and even liberating. You’re concern for the health of the people you proceed to insult is touching. Funny that your article culminates in minimizing the consequences of a natural disaster and dumping on folks who pick bottles, folks that I can assure you are not the holier than thou hipsters you feel are acceptable targets. Also, you are aware that the word effete stigmatizes femininity, yeah?

    • I am sorry for the people who leave a mess after diving. We are trying to educate them to politeness by opening the bags and closing them gentely without ripping or dropping anything.
      There is a real health issue with dumpster diving and you are right about it.
      I dumpster dive anyway.

  • I’m thankful for this article, unlike some other commenters. What’s your solution to all this waste – do nothing? The writer makes a point of telling people to dress carefully, pick carefully, wash food, and leave it cleaner than when you started. If you want to discourage dumpster diving, you’re better off going straight to the stores and offering to distribute the unwanted food to people who need it. Locking up dumpsters is no solution at all.

    i’ve been dismayed at a story of a bookstore that locked its dumpster when people were taking out discarded books, and I know that hardware stores throw out housewares and building supplies that can still be salvaged whole or for parts. If you let something go physically, let it go emotionally too. Clogging up landfills isn’t fair to everything and everyone who depends on a clean environment. And offering people access to your dumpsters for a low fee is a way to make money, if that’s what it takes to let go of an unreasonable attachment to stuff you don’t even want.

    • The problem with articles like this is that they lead to locked bins by drawing attention to dumpstering, attention that doesn’t discriminate between fellow travelers and managers or cops. Best case scenario (as you suggest and as many stores have done) is to charge for food that would otherwise be thrown away. This may seem acceptable to you. As someone who lives on dumpstered food, I find it incredibly upsetting. “Low fees” are relative. This food should be free, and if your form of environmentalism takes food out of others hands, your ethics need to adapt. If you care about the environment or those you share it with then stop buying, stop selling, and stop working, but by no means stop aiming for a better world. Use that free time and better sense of perspective to pump into learning useful skills and helping to further the autonomy of your community. Adding yet another price tag to yet more autonomous territory just perpetuates the system you oppose.

  • Wearing sensible shoes while dumpster diving, is great advice. You wouldn’t want to injure or impale yourself. Also, your comment about leaving a friend at the sight, while you go get the car, was interesting. I haven’t thought of that before. Usually I go, flee market shopping, not dumpster diving. It would be fun to try though!

  • So what happens when you have a cop pull up while diving? Play dumb.. ?? I am appalled by the amount of stuff being sent to the landfill that is still usable. I not just meaning food.

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