What I Learned (and Found) Dumpster Diving, Part I, by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“I get that consumers generally prefer to buy produce that looks a certain way, but can the routine act of trashing whole bags of clementines, apples, or tomatoes because of a few imperfections be justified in a world that is full of hungry and malnourished people?”


Renowned climate change activist and author Bill McKibben spoke at our graduation earlier this year. Among the charges he gave to all of us in attendance (i.e., not just the graduates) was for us older folks to be willing to bear more of the possible “costs” of political activism. His reasoning was that being a 20-something with an arrest record was not a particularly good thing for young job-seekers today.

I was inspired. I thought to myself, “I have tenure, I work with colleagues who champion prophetic civil disobedience, and my class privilege would allow me to post bail if arrested.”

When chatting with a graduate that afternoon, I told him that I’d like to make good on something we once discussed in class during a session on the ethics of consumption—I’d like to go dumpster diving with him.

Mind you, I don’t fit the stereotypical urban scavenger profile (although middle class dumpster diving is on the rise). I grew up in a gated community, once brought my portable curling iron on a junior high church group camping trip, and today am more bourgeois than Bohemian. So what interest did I have in electively digging through garbage?

Dumpster diving as political protest

Some forage through trash because they are indigent and must do what they can to survive. Others do so not because of dire financial need, but for the thrill, resale value, or enhanced quality of life that can result from obtaining useful things for free (e.g., they see an attractive piece of furniture poking out of a dumpster and salvage it to furnish their living space or to sell it on ebay/Craigslist, they can only afford to eat organic or other specialty goods this way). A third group, freegans (a compound of the words “free” and “vegan”) does so out of an ideological commitment to social change.

Freegans intentionally limit their participation in the conventional economy and thus their negative impact on the environment by consuming only what society throws away or what they can forage elsewhere (e.g., in the wild or in the commons). When they reclaim edible food and other usuable materials through dumpster diving, they are simultaneously living out a radical alternative to the conventional industrialized economy and exposing the shame of capitalist excess (n.b., dumpster divers love to post videos on youtube of their hauls to make these points).

In Preparation For My First Dive

My “dive master” recommended that I watch Jeremy Seifert’s 2010 documentary, Dive!. I was appalled to see just how much edible food is deliberately thrown away everyday, not donated to charity. I also learned from it three unofficial rules for dumpstering:

(1)  Never take more than you need, unless you can give it away to others

(2)  The first person at the dumpster has first dibs, but everyone should share

(3)  Always leave the site cleaner than when you found it

Other do’s and don’ts that I gleaned from other sources include the following: “don’t spoil sites for others,” “never get into a compactor,” and “always use your common sense when determining what to scavenge and what to leave behind.”

While we discussed in advance what I should bring (a headlamp and several reusable grocery bags), what I should wear (not my Sunday best), the time we would meet and where we would go (one site only), we didn’t go over much else. So I had to work out on my own what I would and would not be willing to do should various scenarios arise (e.g., I would not break or tamper with any padlocks; I would politely comply with any requests by police/security guards/store employees to leave if confronted, etc.)

My Dive

Though I had seen that Dive! documentary, the 2008 Lisa Ling freeganism and “trash tour” report on Oprah, and various youtube videos of dumpstering hauls, it was still shocking for me to see the sheer quantity and quality of good food that had been literally cast off as trash.

Take this bag of individually packaged salads, lettuce leaves, and sandwiches. While the “use by” dates on these packages was the day of our dumpster dive, that labeling (like most) said more about the manufacturer’s suggestion for peak quality than anything about food spoilage.

(Please note: I photoshopped out the store’s name and the use-by or best-by dates in all of the items in these photos because I wanted to make a larger point about food waste without either excoriating that store in particular or incriminating myself in the process).

Here are some photos of other trash bags we opened. I get that consumers generally prefer to buy produce that looks a certain way, but can the routine act of trashing whole bags of clementines, apples, or tomatoes because of a few imperfections be justified in a world that is full of hungry and malnourished people? 3.8 million Californians became food insecure during the Great Recession (12/2007-6/2009) alone.

Further bewildering was this cardboard box full of plastic lids (likely from an adjacent store). Surely a school or charity could have found uses for those non-perishables?

Beyond being dismayed at the food waste was my surprise at three things that I would not have believed without firsthand experience.

(1)  There wasn’t an incredible stench. Granted, the dumpsters didn’t smell like a perfume factory, but I am nearly always overcome when I empty out my toddler’s diaper pail and I didn’t have to do anything evasive to avoid foul smells during our excursion (such as hold my breath, plug my nose, or turn my head). Apparently their trash gets picked-up regularly enough that it doesn’t have time to rot.

(2) The trash was surprisingly organized, as one can see from these photos. While any trash bag of mine is normally a jumble of things—watermelon rinds, avocado peels, fingernail clippings, soiled tissues—these trash bags mostly contained groupings of similar foods (viz., produce with produce). Many items were also individually wrapped.

The one exception to this unexpected tidiness was the numerous cartons of eggs that we scavenged. Most contained 1-2 cracked eggs, resulting in sticky residue elsewhere, including in some cases on adjacent food. It might be worth noting that I brought along gardening gloves for protection, but found that they made opening the bags more difficult and thus kept having to take them on and off. Perhaps this is why my veteran dumpstering companions fearlessly used their bare hands.

(3) The bags were easily accessible. I neither had to climb on boxes or milk crates, nor use a stick to reach anything. Both of my feet (and also those of my dumpster diving companions) remained firmly planted on the ground. Thus no body posture of ours resembled anything like the iconic diving position (pictured here).

Read Part II of this blog to see an itemized photo of my haul, learn whether anyone in my family became sick after eating “trash,” and find out how dumpster diving is arguably both feminist and biblical.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a second book project on Asian American Christian Ethics. She is also co-editing a volume with Rebecca Todd Peters that is tentatively entitled “Encountering the Sacred: A Theological Exploration of Women’s Lives.”

Author: Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I'm an ethics professor, author, Christian feminist, and married mother of two. Thanks for stopping by.

11 thoughts on “What I Learned (and Found) Dumpster Diving, Part I, by Grace Yia-Hei Kao”

  1. Fascinating! I’ve always wondered if divers might get stuck in there and not be able to climb out. It’s good to know that your feet remained planted firmly on the ground. I’ve always wondered also why people through such good stuff away. Guess we’ll never know. Or do you have answers?


    1. Barbara – thanks for writing. I think some divers really do jump in (or they’ll have one person jump in and throw bags overboard for the others to rummage through) and thus the advice of “never get into a compactor” for the danger factor of not being able to get out in time! Re: waste, the reasons were plenty, but they all come down to not being worth the store’s time to donate. Maybe there’s an internal policy that says employees cannot take home damaged food (for fear that if employees might start purposely sabotaging food to be able to take it home later on). With non-perishables (e.g., plastic items at Target), I’ve heard that they want to limit their donations to places like Goodwill, for fear that people will buy them for $1 and then try to return them for cash at Target for $5, etc. That’s why it be “worth” their time simply to destroy it (in compactors) than to donate it. Also, stores would be embarrassed if the public knew how much they waste (which is why they want to keep their trash private). In other places, the merchandise is either so seasonal or they get new, fresher food products so often that they just dump it in order to make way for the “better” stuff. We are indeed living in a “throw away” society. It’s really, really alarming.


  2. This is both fascinating and disturbing. I’ve also read about how we have developed a mentality of thinking everything is disposable – so in that sense not only are we a ‘throw away’ society, we are (generally speaking in terms of our U.S.trends) people who think everything is disposable instead of reusable.

    I’m very impressed by your hands-on willingness to learn. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.


    1. Xochitl: I agree. It’s hard for many of us (myself included) to break away from that disposable mentality. What motivates me to break the cycle is when I remember that there really isn’t a place called “away” – as in “throw away” — throwing “away” just really means putting our trash elsewhere (in our seas, in our land, etc.)


  3. Wow, Grace! So much to say here – where to begin? First, I admire your courage! Diving sounds scary to me and I think it is awesome that you decided to dumpster dive and find out about freeganism first hand.

    Second, I am DISTURBED! by the amount and quality of food you found. Yes, so many starving people in the world – how can this be justified? We are such an incredibly wasteful nation – it makes me sad and angry – and almost makes me want to dumpster dive! (I’m still totally scared!).

    I wonder, how do we address this wasteful culture? How can we make change? When I worked for a domestic violence shelter we had an arrangement with local grocery stores that if they had food that could no longer sit on their shelves because of quality dates they would donate to the shelter. Of course we distinguished between spoiled food and best quality by dates. It makes me wonder why this isn’t happening everywhere?

    I’m looking forward to Part II! This is such an important topic and I appreciate the focus that you bring to it!


    1. Gina – thanks for writing. The fear you have about dumpster diving totally makes sense to me – there is indeed an element of danger (in getting caught, wandering around backs of stores or alleys at night, cutting your hands while foraging, etc.) and so I don’t want to make light of that. But your point about donations is well-put. Even stores who make arrangements to donate their food still usually don’t donate on a nightly basis and so there is still a lot of waste. If you get the chance to watch the Dive! documentary (it’s on “watch instantly” on Netflix), you’ll see more what I mean.


  4. Thanks for the write-up on the nocturnal outing! This peek into society’s waste stream highlights a few of the issues related to commercial scale garbage. William Rathje, a self-described “garbologist,” has some great books on the subject for those interested in the social anthropology of trash.

    One local thing related to the waste issue is a current proposal to build a regional trash transfer station in Pomona, just down the hill from Claremont. There’s a growing chorus of voices opposed to the project, but like most NIMBY protests, the transfer station will be have to be built somewhere – if not in Pomona, then probably somewhere with even less economic/political people power (not Claremont!). So the focus, in my mind, should broaden to include the reducing the creation of waste, not just re-locating the disposal.

    Seemingly disparate issues like the plentiful, edible food in TJ’s dumpster, the Inland Empire’s long range regional waste management plans, the plastic gyre floating out in the Pacific Ocean, and scary chemicals in women’s breast milk are all linked together … each of us contributing our weekly allotment by the binful. The concept of regenerative societies (John T Lyle) where residential, commercial and industrial waste streams are designed to become inputs into other processes helps me think about creative ways to start dealing with this stuff.

    In the meantime, my fridge is packed with aged goat milk cheddar and dill havarti, free range eggs, baby zucchinis, roasted pepper hummus, and a large pound plus bar of dark chocolate.

    PS- other great dumpsters include: Bed, Bath & Beyond; Home Depot; Target; Office Depot; any chain nursery; Petsmart and PetCo; Sprouts; and any college campus with dorms at the end of the semester. Happy pickins!


    1. Emrys: You are inspiring in so many ways and I appreciate your point about the big picture, particularly about reducing food waste to begin with. Since my outing, we finally bought a composter (after saying we would after so many years) just so we could reduce our own food waste even better. And I am still harboring thoughts of backyard chickens – our kids would love them as pets, I could be sure about humane treatment in collecting their eggs, and they could also eat our food waste (and other items scavenged from dumpsters if I decide to make this a regular habit). Thanks also for the tip on other places!


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