Thursday, 9 July 2015

Dumpster Diving 101

Dumpster diving is a big part of my life right now, due to my Stop Shopping Challenge. But because there is always so much free food available and not enough committed individuals who dive regularly, I would like to spread the word about it and provide some basic tips and instructions here.

Where do I start?
Check your local supermarket and see if there is a big grey container or perhaps a green bin, usually next to (or close to) their loading bay or supply area (where the big trucks go with all the new stuff). Some stores have a pressure container, which you can't get in (it's dangerous) so if the dumpster is hooked up to electricity, stay away (it will be written on it too). And some stores keep their dumpsters inside, so you won't find any dumpster.
If you have found one, you could even keep an eye on the dumpster to see when they throw stuff away. Best is to get it out as soon as possible after it has been thrown. Also, knowing how long it has been in there really helps. Plus it minimizes the risk of getting 'caught'. More on that below.

Come prepared!

Bring a big backpack and a headlight (for seeing well inside the dumpster and still having your hands free to bag your groceries) and preferably also some plastic bags to put leaky foods in, or open packages with for example rice or sugar. You can often find plastic bags in dumpsters, or just anywhere else. Pick them up and use them for your purpose! And you can use them for your own bin later.

If you have a bike trailer, bring it along with you! You'll still need lots of plastic bags, but at least you will be able to take all the food with you that is still good to eat. You can probably fill up your whole trailer with one day's waste of one supermarket. Here is what I got from one supermarket on a good day (Saturday):
One store's waste on a typical Saturday

And another good day (Monday):
One store's waste on a typical Monday

If you also find plastic bags in the dumpster, make sure to take these with you! They are useful for all kinds of things. You may also find boxes, crates and other useful storage materials. These ones below are very useful to store food in temporarily that people will pick up if you donate any excesses. It also prevents birds from getting to the foods and making a mess in your back yard.
Rescued food crates - very handy to keep birds out!

Dive with respect

Basically, you get your shopping for free. So it’s important to be humble and grateful. This means to leave the site as clean as (or cleaner than) you found it. Keep calm and quiet so that you don’t bother anyone by being noisy (it helps to go alone or with 1 or at most 2 other people). Be quick and efficient. Don’t spend too much time checking dates and sorting out the food. There is always time for that later. Be willing to share your finds with other divers if you meet them there. Often it is too much for one person (or even a whole family) anyway! And there are almost always duplicates of everything you find. If there is only one item, it makes sense that the person who was there first, gets to choose first too.
It is also best to go after opening hours (not before, because staff often starts working many hours before the store opens). This is not only to minimize your chances of getting caught by personnel, but also so that customers don’t get upset by what they see (and they might start complaining to the manager). This (along with people making a mess and being noisy) is an important reason why dumpsters might get locked! And that’s not a good thing. So basically, dive with some discretion and use common sense.

Getting caught
If you get “caught”, this usually results in a member of staff getting grumpy with you because they don't want to get in trouble. It is then usually not a good idea to give lectures about how ridiculous it is that so much food gets thrown away. It is usually best to just apologize humbly.
If you donate food to others, you could choose to let them know (but also tell them you keep the store anonymous), so that they know that you are not (just) there for yourself. It is possible that they will turn a blind eye then, especially if you already asked the store owner if they are willing to donate. 

I had one shop where I was allowed to dive whenever I wanted because I had asked the manager previously if he was willing to donate. He had told me that he was not allowed to do that (something to do with head office), but that I could do whatever I wanted in my own time. In other words, if I wanted to get food out of the dumpster, than that would be fine with him.
Alternatively, they might say something like: ‘I don’t care whether you donate or not... this is not safe and I will not allow it’.
Best thing then is to be very polite. Just apologize, put the food back if it is not yet in your backpack and leave. Just come back at a better time.

Diving safety
Never dive if there is a possibility that the dumpster may get emptied that day, or that moment! It is always a good idea to do some research first and see if you can find out when it gets emptied. That way you also know when you have the best chances of finding a lot of food. If the dumpster is usually locked, also make sure you don't get locked in!
Full dumpsters are safer than empty ones, because it keeps you from having to touch the insides of the dumpster. If the dumpster is full enough, you may not even have to get in, because the food is right in front of you when you open the door. This is the best case scenario, because the bottom and edges of dumpsters are pretty disgusting. So if you have to get in, it is best to stand on the waste, which is often in garbage bags or neatly packaged in plastic. Avoid standing directly on the dumpster floor (and if you have to, wash your shoes after).
Look out for broken glass, toxic chemicals, needles and other things that can get you hurt.
You may want to consider using (thick) gloves to keep your hands clean and safe, but remember that the food will still get contaminated if you pick it up using the same gloves if you have also touched the dumpster insides with them. Sometimes I wear gloves to get into the dumpster, but then take them off only to take baked goods (bread rolls, croissants, etc) out of their garbage bags and put them in a clean plastic bag. And don’t worry – you will also find clean bags, for example when they throw away a ripped package of sugar: they will usually put it in a clean plastic bag to avoid spilling sugar everywhere. Again, just be conscious of where you find it! If it has touched the edge of the dumpster or if it is on the bottom covered in dumpster fluid, it is obviously no longer clean. After diving, make sure you clean yourself thoroughly (and the food if necessary) before eating or touching anything. Also wash your clothes regularly if you have been inside the dumpster.

Check the food
The first question you should ask yourself is: Why was this thrown out? Most of the time it is because the product has expired, something is broken (e.g. a ripped carton, broken lid, or one cracked egg so they throw away the whole carton), there is mold, a vacuum package is no longer vacuum, a frozen product has been thawed, a fridge item was found outside the fridge or cool room(and they didn’t know how long it was out), perhaps misplaced by a customer, a product is discontinued, recalls (rare), or they throw out the leftovers when a new load gets delivered (this often happens with fruits and veggies. You will know this happened when there are many of them and they look awesome).

Some food safety guidelines (this list is not complete! So make sure you do additional research).
* Most important of all: Use your senses: Common sense, sight, sense of smell, then taste (in that order). If it looks bad and smells bad, then it is probably bad and you shouldn't eat it. Note that you can't properly smell the food if it is frozen! It masks bad smells. So if you want to do the smell test, make sure the food is defrosted first (best to do this before you intend to consume it, as you cannot refreeze the food). You could also check if your pets want it (dog or cat for meat or fish), or maybe the birds (fruits). Or see if you can compost the food safely if it is no longer fit for consumption.
* Once a frozen product has been thawed, you cannot re-freeze it. You can keep it in the fridge for 1 day (or longer if it says so on the package). Make sure that things like meat and fish are still cool when you find them.
* If you eat meat, fish, dairy and other products that should be kept refrigerated, OR if you are planning to donate those products, be extra careful. Make sure these are still cold or cool when you find them, otherwise they may not be safe. Check this even when they have just been thrown out, because it is possible that the food has been sitting in the storage room for a while before it was eventually thrown away. Also make sure you tell the people you donate to that they should always check the food. Perhaps give them some guidelines as well if they don't know much about food.
*  Meat and fish should  smell fairly neutral. If it has already been prepared, you can't really check it and the longer it has been expired, the bigger the risk. The same goes for marinated and seasoned meat. The golden rule: When in doubt, don't eat it! You don't want to get sick and remember there is plenty of other food that you can eat.
* Diving on a hot day: this is where it gets tricky. If possible, try to find a dumpster that is in the shade most of the time, or at least doesn’t get direct sunlight. But even then it can get very hot in the dumpster, so if you are not sure how long it is been there, perhaps it is better to dive on a cooler day, or find out when they throw stuff away.

What kind of things do you find as a dumpster diver?

The most frequent finds probably differ from country to country and even from place to place, but overall, this is what I find most often (I almost never run out of these items):
* Bananas: here in Norway it seems like bananas need to be green to be sold. As soon as they are ripe, they get thrown away. Crazy, right?
* Other fruits. Usually some moldy ones, but also lots of good ones. And sometimes just the leftovers.
* Broccoli and other veggies.
* Mushrooms.
* Dairy products.
* White flour (the package often rips and then they can’t sell it anymore).
* Laundry detergent (esp. the powder type).
* Bread and other baked goods.
* Meat and meat products.
Any other items usually are thrown out in large quantities, so you may find a lot of one thing. For example, I once found about 40 containers of guacamole, or another time I found about 15 cartons of eggs. Once I even found 24 boxes of chocolates and another time about 50 bars of chocolate of 5 different kinds.

Share or donate!
If you often find more food than you can eat, make sure you share your treasures with others! Especially people who really need it. If you don’t know anyone who might really need it, try to find them. Find them online, or in your city. Ask them what they like and bring them their favorites! You can even start your own charity or food rescue organization!

Ask stores to donate and pick up on a regular basis
The next step is to try to form collaborations with stores and get them to donate their food to you. You can discuss rules such as:
- Do they want to stay anonymous? (most probably would) This rules out legal issues, if that is their concern. Make sure you remove any store-specific labeling!
- You can mark or damage the packaging to prevent people from re-selling the food instead of eating it.
- You can call them each day to ask what time you should collect the food, or they can call you whenever they have food available for pickup.
- Be ready to get lots of food and make sure you have a network to donate food to!

Finding a diving buddy to get started:If you are looking for a more experienced person to dive with (or to start diving with), there might be a group for divers in your area (hometown or state) on Facebook. Just type Dumpster Diver/Diving + Your area (hometown, state or country) and click the tab 'pages' or 'groups'. There you can meet like-minded people and exchange tips!

Also make sure you read about the many benefits of diving here and here.

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