What You Need to Know to Dumpster Dive in the Twin Cities

Categories: Weird Food

Wilder Burnham navigates a dumpster
UPDATE: We challenged ourselves to go 30 days without paying for food. See how our urban scavenging experiment played out.

When I was in my early teens, being punk and loving trash went hand in hand. Dumpsters cut out the middle man, providing my friends and me with all the snacks and random trinkets we desired -- without us ever having to enter a store. At punk shows and potlucks, we came equipped with crates of Odwalla juice scavenged from a suburban dumpster, where whole cases were thrown away if one bottle was defective. The same went for wine, beer, and anything else that came in a pack. There were dumpsters for everything -- a chip dumpster, a bagel dumpster, a pizza dumpster, and even a toy dumpster. And we're not talking small quantities either. On a good night, we'd score enough bagels to feed a punk house for a month (and yes, the amount of carbohydrates I consumed was slightly appalling).

But dumpster diving isn't reserved for smelly teenaged punk kids. Anyone can search for treasures in the trash, whether they do so for anti-consumerist, ecological, profit-driven, or survival purposes. All it takes is a willingness to move past the stigma and get a little dirty.

"It's kind of like going to vintage stores but for food," said diver Greg Baker. "Instead of looking through a box of records, you're looking through a bag of lettuce or something."

40% of the food produced in the United States is thrown away. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, that means Americans are wasting $165 billion of food every year, largely because expiration dates are misinterpreted as the rigid final word on product safety and usefulness.

"I think we've all been conditioned to accept the fact that something's expired," diver Mark Mouat said. "What does that really entail?"

America's chronic waste problem becomes more pressing when you consider that almost 15% of the country is currently considered food insecure. While dumpster diving may not be a solution to the hunger and waste crises on its own, it's certainly an eye-opening indication of how inequitable our food system is.

Curt Sullivan shows off his bounty.

Sorting through trash isn't as gross as you're probably thinking. Sure, divers come across the occasional dirty diaper and container of rotten ground beef, but, for the most part, foods are still packaged and relatively fresh.

Choosing which foods to snag from the trash is a great opportunity to exercise your common sense. If maggots are emerging from the bag of oranges you found under a pair of soiled underwear, don't eat the oranges. Most of the time, you wont run into anything that disgusting, but dumpsters are unpredictable and that's part of the thrill. And don't pay too much attention to the companies that claim dumpstered food is dangerous: It goes without saying, they want you to buy their food, not take it.

With that in mind, let's set the record straight: Dumpster diving is not stealing. In the 1984 case California vs. Greenwood, the Supreme Court declared that, "The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home," meaning that unless local regulation prohibits dumpster diving or a company has specific rules about privacy and trespassing, their trash is fair game. That said, if you dumpster in an area with a clear "No Trespassing" sign, you risk being screamed at by employees, chased out, ticketed, or (worst case scenario) arrested. A friend I used to dive with once got his head stomped on by employees after being caught dumpstering a bouquet of flowers.

To avoid those consequences, it's best to follow a few general guidelines.

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