Garbage picking

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A person dumpster diving
The result of dumpster diving in Linköping, Sweden.

Garbage picking 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 garbage picker. Garbage picking may take place in dumpsters or in landfills. When in dumpsters, the practice is called dumpster diving in American English and skipping in British English.[1][2] Dumpster diving is viewed as an effective urban foraging technique.[3] Dumpster divers will forage dumpsters for items such as clothing, furniture, food, and similar items in good working condition.[3]

Etymology and alternative names[edit]

The dumpster diving term originates from the best-known manufacturer of commercial trash bins, Dempster, who use the trade name "Dumpster" for their bins,[4] 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,[5] containering,[6] D-mart,[7] dumpstering,[8] tatting, skipping[9] or "recycled" food.

Furthermore, the term "binner" is often used to describe individuals who collect recyclable materials for their deposit value. In Australia, garbage picking is called "skip dipping".


A man rummaging through a skip at the back of an office building in Central London

Traditionally,[when?] most people who resorted to dumpster-diving were forced to do so out of economic necessity, but this is not the case today.[10]

  • 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.[11]
  • The karung guni, Zabbaleen, the rag and bone man, waste picker, junk man or bin hoker are people who 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.[12]
  • Students have been known to partake in dumpster diving to obtain high tech items for technical projects, or simply to indulge their curiosity for unusual items.[13]
  • 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. Private and government investigators may dumpster dive to obtain information for their inquiries.
  • 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. Many retailers are reluctant to sell this stock at reduced prices due to the risks that people will buy it instead of the higher priced newer stock, that extra handling time is required, and that there are liability risks. In the United Kingdom, cookery books have been written on the cooking and consumption of such foods, and skipping has become popular as a result of this.

Arguments against dumpster diving often focus on the health and cleanliness implications of people rummaging in trash. This exposes the dumpster divers to potential health risks, and, especially if the dumpster diver does not return the non-usable items to their previous location, may leave trash scattered around. Divers can also be seriously injured or killed by garbage collection vehicles; in January 2012 La Jolla identity Alfonso de Bourbon was killed by a truck while dumpster diving.[14] 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 developed countries than in developing countries. In many developing countries, food is rarely thrown away unless it is rotten as food is scarce in comparison to developed nations. In countries like the United States, where 40–50% of food is wasted, the trash contains a lot more food to gather.[15]
  • In many countries, charities collect excess food from supermarkets and restaurants and distribute it to impoverished neighborhoods. Dumpster divers, Karung guni, Zabaleen, and rag and bone men in these countries may concentrate on looking for usable items or scrap materials to sell rather than food items.[citation needed]
  • 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.[16] Some organizations like Geeks Into The Streets, reBOOT, Free Geek and Computerbank try to refurbish old computers for charity or educational use.
  • Sometimes dumpsters may contain recyclable metals and materials that can be reused or sold to recycling plants and scrap yards. The most common recyclable metals found are steel and aluminum.[citation needed]
  • Residential buildings can additionally be a good source of clothing, furniture, appliances, and other housewares.
  • Colleges with dormitories are often a good place to find items at the end of the semester when students throw away many items such as furniture, clothes and electronics.[17]

Legal status[edit]

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 is often not 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.

Companies run by private investigators specializing in dumpster diving have emerged as a result of the need for discreet, undetected retrieval of documents and evidence for civil and criminal trials. Private investigators have also written books on "P.I. technique" in which dumpster diving or its equivalent "wastebasket recovery" figures prominently.

  • 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.[non-primary source needed] 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, Tennant Company v. Advance Machine Company (355 N.W.2d 720), the owner of the discarded information was awarded $500,000 in damages.[18]
  • Dumpster diving in England and Wales may qualify as theft within the Theft Act 1968[19] or as common-law theft in Scotland, though there is very little enforcement in practice.
  • In Italy, a law issued in 2000 declared dumpster diving to be legal.
  • In Germany, a dumpster's contents are regarded as the property of the dumpster's owner. Therefore, taking items from a dumpster is viewed as theft. Be that as it may, the police will routinely disregard the illegality of dumpster diving seeing as the items found are generally of low value. There has only been one known instance where divers were to be prosecuted: the individuals were arrested on assumed burglary as they had surmounted a supermarket's fence which was then followed by a theft complaint by the owner.[20]
  • In Canada, The Trespass to Property Act[citation needed] - legislation dating back to the British North America Act of 1867 - grants property owners and security guards the power to ban anyone from their premises, for any reason, permanently. This is done by issuing a notice to the intruder, who will only be breaking the law upon return. A recent case in Canada, which involved a police officer who retrieved a discarded weapon from a trash receptacle as evidence, created some controversy. The judge ruled the policeman's actions as legal although there was no warrant present, which led some to speculate the event as validation for any Canadian citizen to raid garbage disposals.[21]
  • In 2009, a Belgian dumpster diver and eco-activist nicknamed Ollie was detained for a month for dumpster diving, and was accused of theft and burglary. On February 25, 2009, Ollie was arrested for taking food from a dumpster at an AD Delhaize supermarket in Bruges. His trial evoked protests in Belgium against restrictions from taking discarded food items.[22][23][24]

Notable instances[edit]

  • In the 1960s, Jerry Schneider, using recovered instruction manuals from The Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company, used the company's own procedures to acquire hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of telephone equipment over several years until his arrest.
  • The Castle Infinity game, after its shutdown, was brought back from the dead by rescuing its servers from the trash.[25]
  • Food Not Bombs is an anti-hunger organization that gets a significant amount of its food from dumpster diving from the dumpsters at small markets and corporate grocery stores in the US and UK.[26]
  • In October 2013 in North London three men were arrested and charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act when they were caught taking discarded food; tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and cakes from bins behind an Iceland supermarket. The charges were dropped on 29 January 2014 after much public criticism,[27] and a request by Iceland's chief executive, Malcolm Walker.[28]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In 2001, dumpster diving was popularized in the book Evasion, published by CrimethInc.
  • In the television show The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack the main characters regularly dumpster dive in search of candy.
  • Author John Hoffman wrote two books based on his own dumpster diving exploits; The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving and Dumpster Diving: The Advanced Course: How to Turn Other People's Trash into Money, Publicity, and Power, and was featured in the documentary DVD The Ultimate Dive.
  • British television shows have even featured home renovations and decoration using salvaged materials. Changing Rooms is one such show, broadcast on BBC One. Recovery of still-useful items from discards is well known in other cultures as well; James Fallows noted it in his book written about his time living in Japan. However, much of the richness attributed to dumpster diving in Japan ended with the collapse of the nation's economic bubble in 1990.[citation needed]
  • In 2009, pro-surfer Dane Reynolds salvaged a piece of polyester foam from a dumpster behind the Channel Islands Surfboard factory. He shaped the foam into a surfboard that, at the time, was thought to be "short, fat, and ugly." The goal of this new shape was to distribute volume to the width and thickness of the board, cutting down on the overall board length needed to use in smaller surf, while staying progressive on the face of the wave. The board was a hit and was dubbed the "dumpster diver". The board changed the way surfboard shapers designed boards for use in smaller waves.
  • The 2010 documentary film Dive! investigates dumpster diving in the Los Angeles area.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lewycka, Marina (02.07.09). "So, I'm a skip addict - avocado bath suite, anyone?". London Evening Standard. Retrieved 2009-10-31.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. ^ "Issue 561". SchNEWS. 22 September 2006. Retrieved 2009-11-11. 
  3. ^ a b Admin. "The Do's and Don'ts of Dumpster Diving". Wilderness Survival Techniques. Retrieved 9 March 2012. 
  4. ^ Erin McKean, ed. (2005). The New Oxford American Dictionary (second ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517077-6. 
  5. ^ Renton, Alex (August 17, 2007). "Why I love bin diving". London: Retrieved November 28, 2009. 
  6. ^ "Dumpster diving stays on trend in Germany". Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  7. ^ Niki D'Andrea (2012-08-30). "Dumpster Dining: For Freegans, Eating Garbage Is Getting Downright Trendy - Page 1 - News - Phoenix". Phoenix New Times. Retrieved 2012-09-07. 
  8. ^ Colon, Dalia (April 11, 2008). "One man's trash is another man's ... lunch ≤or software treat≥". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved November 28, 2009. 
  9. ^ "Skipping Diner". 2010. Retrieved 2012-09-11. 
  10. ^ Trash, Mr. "Are you really interest in Dumpster Diving?". Same Day Dumpsters. Retrieved 12 March 2012. 
  11. ^ Jackson, Emily (2010-07-28). "Vancouver fireworks a boon for city". The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved 2010-08-04. 
  12. ^ Sachs, Andrea (7 November 2004). "Get Your Mind Into the Gutter". Washington Post. Retrieved 20 January 2010. 
  13. ^ Allison, Cyndeth (8 May 2007). "Dumpster Diving". North Denver News. 
  14. ^ Schwab, Dave (11 January 2012). "Victim in alleyway dumpster death identified as Alfonso de Bourbon, 83". La Jolla Light. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  15. ^ Harrison, Jeff (18 November 2004). "U.S. Wastes Half of Food Produced". Retrieved 2010-03-07. 
  16. ^ Ha, Tanya (6 November 2003). "E-waste". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2007-06-11. 
  17. ^ Lawrence, Robyn Griggs (6 May 2011). "College Graduation Means Great Dumpster Diving". Retrieved 2012-11-07. 
  18. ^ "TENNANT CO. v. ADVANCE MACH. CO., INC. 355 N.W.2d 720 (1984)". 
  19. ^ "Theft Act 1968". The National Archives. 
  20. ^ "Archiv". Retrieved 2009-05-07. 
  21. ^ Cory Doctorow. "Wired 5.09: Dumpster Diving". Retrieved 2009-05-07. 
  22. ^ Auteur: Arne Franck. "De Standaard: Arrogante houding houdt voedseldief in de cel". Retrieved 2009-05-07. 
  23. ^ "Update Skipper in de Brugse gevangenis". Indymedia NL. Retrieved 2009-05-07. 
  24. ^ "Lawaaidemo voor Ollie aan de poorten van de Burgse gevangenis". 2009-03-05. Retrieved 2009-05-07. 
  25. ^ "Classic MMOG Raised From the Dead by Past Players - Slashdot". 2005-06-21. Retrieved 2012-09-07. 
  26. ^ Greenwell, Megan (2006-08-16). "Diving for Dinner -".<!. Retrieved 2009-05-07. 
  27. ^ Saner, Emine (2009-12-22). "Skipping: is there anything wrong with taking the food that supermarkets throw away?". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  28. ^ Malcolm Walker (2013-12-04). "Why Iceland wanted the bin theft case dropped". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]