Dumpster Diving

Dumpster Diving Symbols

Dumpster diving (called ‘skipping’ in the UK) is the practice of sifting through commercial or residential waste to find items that have been discarded by their owners, but that may prove useful to the dumpster diver. Dumpster diving is also viewed as an effective urban foraging technique.

Dumpster divers will forage dumpsters for items such as clothing, furniture, food, and similar items in good working condition. The dumpster diving term originates from the best-known manufacturer of commercial trash bins, Dempster, who use the trade name ‘Dumpster’ for their bins, and the fanciful image of someone leaping head first into a dumpster as if it were a swimming pool. In practice, the size and design of most dumpsters makes it possible to retrieve many items from the outside of dumpsters without having to ‘dive’ into them.

The practice of dumpster diving can additionally be referred to as ‘bin-diving,’ ‘containering,’ ‘D-mart,’ ‘dumpstering,’ ‘tatting,’ ‘skipping’ or ‘recycled’ food. Furthermore, the term ‘binner’ is often used to describe individuals who collect recyclable materials for their deposit value. Traditionally, most people who resort to dumpster-diving were forced to do so out of economic necessity, but this is not always the case today. In Vancouver, Binners or bottle collectors search garbage cans and dumpsters for recyclable materials that can be redeemed for their deposit value. On average, these binners earn about $40 per day for several garbage bags full of discarded containers. The ‘karung guni’ (‘rag-and-bone man’) in Singapore or the ‘zabbaleen’ (‘garbage people’) make their living by sorting and trading trash. A similar process known as ‘gleaning’ was practiced in rural areas and some ancient agricultural societies, where the residue from farmers’ fields was collected.

Some dumpster divers, who self-identify as ‘freegans,’ aim to reduce their ecological footprint by living exclusively from dumpster dived goods. A wide variety of things may be disposed while still repairable or in working condition, making salvage of them if not profitable at least a source of potentially free items for personal use. Artists often utilize discarded materials retrieved from trash receptacles to create works of found art or assemblage. Dumpster diving can additionally be used in support of academic research. It serves as the main tool for garbologists, who study the sociology and archeology of trash in modern life. Others, because of their profession, may practice dumpster diving as a tool for private investigations to seek information and material for official purposes.

By reusing resources destined for the landfill, dumpster diving becomes an environmentalist endeavor (and is thus practiced by many pro-green communities). The wastefulness of consumer society and throw-away culture compels some individuals to rescue usable items (for example, computers) from destruction and divert them to those who can make use of the item in question. Irregular, blemished, or damaged items that are still otherwise functional are regularly thrown away. Discarded food that might have slight imperfections, that is near its expiration date, or that is simply being replaced by newer stock is often thrown away despite being still edible.

Arguments against dumpster diving often focus on the health and cleanliness implications of people rummaging in trash. Divers can also be seriously injured or killed by garbage collection vehicles. Further, there are also concerns around the legality of taking items that may still technically belong to the person who threw them away (or to the waste management operator), and whether the taking of some items like discarded documents is a violation of privacy.

Dumpster diving is practiced differently in undeveloped countries than in developing countries. In many developing countries, food is rarely thrown away unless it is rotten. In countries like the United States, where 40–50% of food is wasted, the trash contains a lot more food to gather. In the United States, Canada, and Europe, some bakeries, grocery stores, or restaurants will routinely donate food according to a Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, but more often, because of health laws or company policy, they are required to discard food items by the expiration date, because of overstock, being overly ripened, spoiled, cosmetically imperfect, or blemished.

Offices, factories, department stores, and other commercial establishments may equally throw out nonperishable items that are irregular, were returned, have minor damages, or are replaced by newer inventory. Most items tend to be in such a state of disrepair or cosmetically flawed that they will require some work by the dumpster diver to make the items functionally usable. For this reason, factory workers will at times intentionally destroy their items prior to being discarded to prevent them from being reused or resold. As proof to publishing houses of unsold merchandise, booksellers will routinely remove the front covers of printed materials to render them destroyed prior to tossing the remains in the dumpster. Though readable, many damaged publications have disclaimers and legal notices against their existence or sale.

Some consumer electronics are dumped because of their rapid depreciation, obsolescence, cost to repair, or expense to upgrade. Owners of functional computers may find it easier to dump them rather than donate because many nonprofit organizations and schools are unable, or unwilling, to work with used equipment. Some organizations like ‘Geeks Into The Streets,’ ‘reBOOT,’ ‘Free Geek,’ and ‘Computerbank’ try to refurbish old computers for charity or educational use.

Since dumpsters are usually located on private premises, divers may occasionally get in trouble for trespassing while dumpster diving, though the law is enforced with varying degrees of rigor. Dumpster diving per se is often legal when not specifically prohibited by law. Abandonment of property is another principle of law that applies to recovering materials via dumpster diving. Police searches of dumpsters as well as similar methods are also generally not considered violations; evidence seized in this way has been permitted in many criminal trials. The doctrine is not as well established in regards to civil litigation. In the United States, the 1988 ‘California v. Greenwood’ case in the U.S. Supreme Court held that there is no common law expectation of privacy for discarded materials. There are, however, limits to what can legally be taken from a company’s refuse. In a 1983 Minnesota case involving the theft of customer lists from a garbage can, the owner of the discarded information was awarded $500,000 in damages.

In 2009, pro surfer Dane Reynolds plucked an old beat up piece of Polyester foam out of a dumpster behind the Channel Islands Surfboard factory. He shaped it into a board that at the time, was thought to be ‘short, fat, and ugly.’ The point of the new shape was to distribute volume to the width and thickness of the board in order to cut down in the overall board length to use in smaller surf, all the while staying progressive on the face of the wave. The board was a hit and was dubbed ‘dumpster diver,’ and it has changed the way surfboard shapers designed boards for use in smaller waves.

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