A local man sifts through a dumpster looking to score unwanted items. During this dig he found half a dozen boxes of graham crackers not quite past their expiration date and a case of bruised produce to feed his pigs.
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Kirsten Faurie | Times
The sweet-sour smell of bruised pears and spilled beer rose from a mass of black trash bags heaped in a dumpster.
A Kanabec County resident who wished to remain anonymous, referred to here as Austin, quickly shifted the bags to the side, digging deep to find items he could use that others considered waste.
Every work day he commutes toward the Twin Cities stopping at shopping centers along the way to dig through trash bins in hopes of uncovering something he can use.
Some of his favorite finds from the dumpster include an electric smoker, brand new Shop-Vac, pressure washer, mandolin, mini fridge, food processor and Bluetooth speakers.
Both Austin and his wife work good jobs and are financially stable, so Austin didn’t start dumpster diving because he couldn’t afford the things he needed. Austin is in it for the adventure.
His dumpster diving hobby started situationally. While driving by a dumpster, some landscaping timbers caught his eye as something he could use on his farm. So into the vehicle they went. With the encouragement of a co-worker, the help of online forums and “The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving” by John Hoffman, dumpster diving soon became a passion.
While dumpster diving is not illegal, Austin said it’s an activity that takes discretion due to the stigma it has and the fact that many businesses are uncomfortable with strangers taking items from their trash. Cities can create ordinances that ban dumpster diving (this is rare), but there are no state or federal laws banning the activity.
“I like to go after hours. You are more likely to get stopped by cops but you avoid employees,” Austin said.
Only once has Austin ever been approached while on a dive. While he was digging through a dumpster, a store employee taking out the trash told Austin he couldn’t be there. Without hesitation or argument, Austin left.
Being polite, doing what you are asked, respecting locks and leaving sites cleaner than when you arrived are all part of dumpster divers’ code of conduct. By following this code, the dumpster diving community avoids drawing attention to themselves in order to preserve their hobby.
If store owners saw dumpster divers as a problem, they might be spurred to take actions such as locking up their trash or asking cities to ban dumpster diving.
“I don’t mess with stuff that is locked … but I will go through a gate that is open,” Austin said.
Austin also only takes things that he can use. Some divers try to make a buck by selling their finds or trying to return them for cash. “It’s bad for the hobby. That’s how you get locked dumpsters.”
Most divers go out of their way to avoid confrontation. Austin claimed that some divers even go so far as to dress like the employees of locations they are diving: red shirts for Target, blue for Best Buy.
Austin advised that divers dress inconspicuously by avoiding bright colors or shirts with large, identifiable logos but also to avoid dressing “like a ninja.”
Successful dumpster diving takes strategy. After nearly a year of diving in dumpsters, Austin has scheduled when businesses close and when they typically do their inventory and toss unsold items or items they no longer carry. He said that is part of the joy of the hobby: finding and taking advantage of patterns in activity.
Austin said he doesn’t dig through the personal trash of residents which is dirty and contains little he would want. Instead he targets grocery and retail store dumpsters which often have clean, unused items that were tossed because the store was updating their inventory, they ran out of storage space or the items were slightly damaged.
One hazard to watch out for are animals. Squirrels, crows, raccoons and rats have given him a few frights.
Another hazard is the possibility of injury. The key to avoiding injury is being smart and careful. Wear pants, close-toed shoes and gloves. Know enough not to go digging in places that might have sharps or medical waste. The only injury Austin ever sustained was a scrape from a piece of metal display shelving. Another time Austin was inside a dumpster as a dump truck approached to take the trash leaving him to scramble.
On his farm, Austin raises a pair of pigs. Much of his dumpster diving loot goes to feed them. Things like damaged pumpkins, stale bread, over-ripe bananas and at one time 400 pounds of dog food get turned into ham and bacon.
Austin isn’t afraid to get his own meals from the trash either. Common things he is willing to eat from the dumpster include canned goods, some carefully selected meat, dairy, coffee, packaged foods and lots and lots of produce.
Produce is tossed out daily. By closely monitoring dumpsters, Austin can tell which items were tossed just earlier that day. Common things that are thrown are bags of fruit, like oranges, where one of the oranges is bruised or starting to go bad. The rest? Austin says they are fine for eating.
“You hate to see so much food that is perfectly good thrown away … but no one wants to buy a bruised apple.”
Austin understands food he takes from the dumpster are at his own risk. Which is why he minimizes his risk of illness with what he says is common food sense.
Assess why the item was thrown out. Sorting food from the dumpster is similar to cleaning out your own fridge. Things that are past their expiration aren’t worth keeping. When in doubt? Give it a smell test. Check for broken seals and check the serial numbers against food recalls.
Similar to the kind of pride that comes from growing your own food, Austin said it feels good to eat from the bounty of bins. “I can flip open my lunch at work and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t pay for any of this.’”
Austin recalled telling his co-workers about where his lunch came from. “At first people think it’s gross,” he said. As they talk about it, people transform from disgusted to intrigued.
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