Feb 27 2008

Dumpster-diving for food and furniture


When both my mother and my mother-in-law called me within a few minutes of each other and asked if I was watching Oprah, I knew I had better turn on my TV.

The topic of the first half of the show? Living the "freegan" lifestyle.

At the beginning of the show, we saw hordes of people going through trash in New York City to salvage food from groceries and bakeries that have been tossed. They salvaged fresh fruit, bagels, dairy products, canned goods, and nonperishable boxed items to take home and use.

Next, we met a newlywed couple has a closet full of cereal, a bunch of shampoo, an ab roller machine, a desk, and so much more, all from their dumpster-diving trips they regularly take.

They definitely have the money to buy these things, but they want to prevent perfectly good, usable items from going to landfills. Also important to them: They want to decrease their overall product consumption.

One guest made a great point: The more you work, the more you consume. But if you consume less, you’ll be able to work less and still live a great lifestyle.

Instead of spending their paychecks on buying a bunch of things they don’t really need, the newlyweds choose to donate their money to charitable causes, and also to pay off their mortgage.

So what do you think about dumpster-diving?

I’m not comfortable with going through trash for food. It bothers me that there is so much that’s going to waste, but we don’t know why the food was tossed, for sure. Maybe an item was recalled. Maybe a frozen item accidentally thawed within the grocery, and they had to throw it out. Maybe something spilled all over a box of items. Or maybe, most of it is perfectly good for human consumption.

I don’t know. And I don’t think that I’m willing to take that risk.

Instead, I’d rather see restaurants and groceries be more responsible with their waste. Why not put things on super-clearance? That way, we know the food hasn’t been in the trash, at least. Or, arrange for items to be sent to homeless shelters.

As far as furniture and household goods, I say go for it!

Furniture can be found outside of apartment dumpsters all the time. When I was in college, these places were a goldmine at semester’s end.

I found a really nice TV stand, bookshelves, and more sitting on the outside of a dumpster. I don’t think I’d want to climb into a trash can–I’m afraid I’d fall and hurt myself, or get cut on glass, or find some rodents.

Have you found anything great via dumpster diving? Would you consider trying it in the future?

Posted under Uncategorized | 22 Comments »

22 Responses to “Dumpster-diving for food and furniture”

  1. Dumpster diving squeeks me out. As far as furniture is concerned, like you, i will take something off the corner or outside people’s houses on trash pickup day, but i just can’t bring myself to thumbing through others’ trash. Is that even legal?

  2. I’m glad there are people who dumpster dive. American is one of the most wasteful countries in the world; the land of plenty to waste. You’d be suprised what can be cleaned and polished, scrubbed and shinned. I agree about the Super Clearance, but we know that would never happen. Stores know folks like me wait for rock bottom prices. And almost free is rock bottom to me. I just wish the federal government would send some FBI to dumpster dive with a few diving veterans. If they could report and estimate how much food is thrown away, then you’d solve the problem of hungry children in big cities. Tax credits to all the business who send their perishables to shelters. But that might to much trouble to offer tax credits to small business than say, petroleum or pharmaceutical companies.

  3. I love trash picking if I see good things sitting out in the trash. I don’t think I’d have time to dumpster dive, but I guess never say never :)

    And I wouldn’t eat food from a dumpster.

  4. My husband once worked at a bakery and he said it always made him sad how much perfectly good food was thrown out just because it had expired. He wasn’t even allowed to bring it home for personal consumption. The problem is, if someone eats something that’s expired and gets sick, then the store is held liable, and then you get lawsuits, and then it’s cheaper and less hassle in the long run for the store to just throw it out. It’s a sad cycle.

    In Peru, everyone goes through your garbage when it’s sitting out at the curb. My mom used to throw away perfectly good things knowing that someone would see it and pick it up, and it made her feel better. I was absolutely shocked by the waste here in the States. It took a while to get used to, but sadly now I’m just like the rest of the country with throwing things away.

  5. I’d dumpster dive for furniture and other household items, but never food. I’m not that hard up on money to need to do that.

  6. Wouldn’t feel comfortable dumpster diving because of your reasons but also — you never know what’s lurking in large trash recepticles! I have visions of moving a bag and seeing and swarm of maggots and passing out.

    When I was in high school the pretzel shop in the mall I worked for “required” workers to throw out all the extra pretzels at the end of the day. Giving it away, even to employees, management said, would be “unethical.” That was completely counter intuitive to me! When I closed alone I brought pretzels home to my family but also handed some out to the (clearly less fortunate) clerks in leaving for the day from nearby stores. How is it unethical to give human beings food!!

  7. I sure do have some fond memories of full-fledged dumpster diving. I think my favorite dumpster was the one behind Goodwill. I would get tons of shoes/clothes/gifts/household needs/etc. Right around the corner from there was Aldi. Aldi in my former town had wonderful produce! Apples were usually my best bet. They also seemed to have a lot of viable baked goods. The least healthy of them all was down the street at the Made-Rite (chips) factory. Mmm, BBQ chips were my favorite! My friends enjoyed the other varieties. Most of these were freshly sealed bags, with code date errors. Well, I was also picky about which ones I grabbed! And oh my goodness, furniture! You’re right about diving for furniture. Though I’ve never grabbed anything from inside, I’ve found excellent pieces for my home. One piece was a homemade wooden chair, that I rebuilt to be a planter for my strawberries! Good times!

  8. I saw that show today too. I don’t have a problem rescuing furniture and the like from the trash, but I draw the line at food.

    It does make me sad that stores and restaurants throw out so much food, and I can understand why they do with today’s lawsuit happy society. But you never know what maggots have crawled on the food. Or in the case of perishables, how long they’ve been in the trash.

  9. It is such a waste and it’s sad. I do buy “day old” bakery stuff when I see it, though. I doubt I’d ever dumpster dive for food, but I’ve picked up a futon, side tables, and many other items near dumpsters while in college. Kacie’s right — it’s a gold mine. The end of the semester is also a great time to snag great deals on cars that graduating foreign students are getting rid of.

    In Honolulu I see tons of people (many not homeless) going through trash for recyclables because you can claim deposits here. However, it is illegal to go through someone else’s trash.

  10. I wouldn’t want to eat food out of a dumpster. I have worked in enough places to know why it is there. Restaurants and shops have to adhere to standards and those standards are there for reasons to do with keeping people from getting sick.

    I do go junk shopping on garbage day. We have a day once a month when all the big items can get picked up. People circle around with trucks and we just have a car but make do for the things that really are good or that we can actually use.

    I also love going to thrift shops but they have been jacking up prices until often they seem just as expensive as buying new in a retail store. In that case it seems I should buy new and at least have the guarantee which the store would give.

  11. Hi Kacie,

    Charity is good but when you have to pay off your mortagge and credit cards it takes a back seat:) but a good gesture by the newly wed couple.

    have a nice day!

  12. My DH goes curb shopping all of the time for stuff. Some of it he recycles for cash and some of it we have used for furniture in the house. There’s even been stuff that he’s sold on eBay. What we use in the house is usually made of wood; I have issues with couches and matresses. I definitely draw the line at food.

  13. It looks like the general consensus from y’all is: Furniture, OK. Things that go in your mouth: No way.

    Unless, of course, you personally know exactly why certain food products are being tossed. And, if you have a hand in preventing food being thrown away, even better.

    So, I would totally accept an old pretzel from my dear friend Manch, but a bagel in a trash bag? No way.

  14. I didn’t see the show, but I subscribe to the couple’s blog ( http://theburts.wordpress.com/ ) We’ve gotten some patio chairs, among other things, from apartment dumpsters. You’re right- the move-out weekend in college towns is the best time to snag good furniture. I prefer Freecycle to dumpster diving, just because it’s easier & less time-consuming.
    On the topic of tossed-out food- In high school, the campus ministry I was involved in would pick up all the pastries & bagels Panera was throwing out when they closed at 9pm and serve them at the morning meeting the next day. All the day-old bread & pastries were perfectly good. Being a freegan means picking up the food right outside the restaurant or grocery stores door rather than inside

  15. My husband and I have found solid wood dressers, desk, bookshelves that all look like bran new. There have been many things like Tv’s that I didn’t need so left by the dumpster. I have lived in apartment’s for 7 years and am currently located across from the dumpster. All I have to do is look out the window or listen for the thud of heavy objects and go out and retrieve them. Usually all the items need is some soap, water, and a good wipe down and they are as good as new.

    I have never even considered taking food. There have been large trash bags of food and cases of alcohol that the office has taken out of an apartment that was evicted and left all their stuff. Who knows how long the food had been in their pantry or fridge. Since we don’t drink, we didn’t take the alcohol, but somebody else did.

  16. One summer it was SO HOT in our crappy little apartment. We were thrilled to see a pristine rotating fan sitting by the dumpster when we came home one afternoon! We thought it might be broken, but took it inside and plugged it in. It was powerful and worked like brand new! We used it for a couple of years and now my mom has it. The end of spring semester and beginning of fall is a great time to cruise around and see what’s lying around dumpsters, especially if you live near a college town like us. The students often don’t want to waste things so to save time they sit them beside the dumpster for someone to grab. We never actually dove in for anything and never looked for food–I think it’s illegal here to hardcore dumpster DIVE, possibly because of identity theft.

  17. There have been a lot of articles about this in our local paper (the Tennessean), in fact, on of the couples on Oprah was from Nashville. I kind of grosses me out, but I can see the benefits.


  18. I saw that show yesterday. When I first heard of Freegans dumpster diving for not just furniture etc but for food it totally skeeved me out. I had envisioned the food being tossed in with no packaging whatsoever…like someone who tosses half a sandwich or something. I couldn’t believe stores tossed all that food that was in jars or blister packs etc. I still dont know if ‘I’ could do it. I couldnt believe there was takers for the fish and raw meat they found. I cant believe the stores dont have other options for all that food. I can’t stand waste…esp when others are so in need.

    There was a time when they would toss away all the food backstage that was left for performers after rock concerts. Then some one stepped forward and started an org that initiated that leftover food trays be sent to shelters. Now that is the norm. Perhaps all this current food waste will soon change.

  19. Yep, I’m the one on Oprah. Gosh, I feel so famous!!! :)

    Great comments, everyone. I totally understand how many are grossed out by it (we were too before we tried it), and many of your concerns are valid. There’s a lot of good stuff thrown away, but of course not all of it’s good. You should check out our blog…we’ve described at length (complete with many pictures) about why some products might be thrown away and why they’re still perfectly fine. Specifically, check out the post entitled “Why we dumpster dive and recycle, Part 1.” There’s an FAQ on there.

    I just wanted to shed a little more light on one post (by Ashley, I think?) about the law suits. I, too, always thought that stores didn’t donate because of all the law suits, and whereas I think that might be true some, there’s a law in place that relieves the donor a little. Go to this website and read about this act that was signed by Clinton in ’96.


    I didn’t know about that either until just recently!!!


  20. I work in a development with maby..20-25 dumpsters. I personally am too busy to go dumpster diving, but I have helpers who will dive while I’m on the phone or throne(both located at dumpster sites) the concensus is that about3/4 of the TV’s work and I can’t help but notice we are a throwaway society. Some of the things I know that were taken from the dumpsters that worked or were discarded with minor damage and still in working order amaze me. I think a lot of it comes down to it’s amazing how helpless or stupid people really are. It is nice when people will set things next to the dumpster, it is a sigh it works and is there for the first taker. Where I work it is claimed that an employee brought his new truck from copper and aluminum collected from dumpsters.

  21. I saw the show and was almost inspired to go dumpster diving for a moment, until my husband aisd that he would absolutely not do it.

    The other thing is that I was born and raised in New York City…and witht the rodent population I would not risk climbing inside of a dumpster.

    When I do visit the city I walk as far away from the trash piles as possile. I have heard and seen rodents rumaging through the trash on many occasions.

    But it looked so clean on the Oprah show.

  22. You’re missing the point Jason….it’s BECAUSE they don’t buy hba, expensive foods and new clothing and furniture that they can afford to give their money away.

    I read that restaurants and shops in New York, knowing that homeless people (and now freegans) go through the throwaways, put the food into clean bags. Those bagels appeared to be in a clean trash bag. I doubt anyone would have taken them otherwise.

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Hey! I'm Kacie, wife and mother of 3. I write about my family's finance: how we save money, improve our spending, and plan for the future.

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