Dumpster diving is the practice of sifting through commercial or residential trash to find items that have been discarded by their owners, but which may be useful to the dumpster diver. The practice of Dumpster diving is also known variously as urban foraging, curb shopping, binning, alley surfing, aggressive recycling, Curbing, D-mart, Dumpstering, garbaging, garbage picking, garbage gleaning, dumpster-raiding, dump-weaseling, tatting, trash picking, treasure hunting, skally-wagging, skipping, or trashing.
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The term originates from the best-known manufacturer of commercial trash bins, "Dumpster," 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" inside.
In rural areas and some ancient agricultural societies, a similar process was known as gleaning and some medieval houses had "poor boxes" where still edible food was placed for the poor to take.
Traditionally, most people who resort to dumpster-diving are forced to do so out of economic necessity. The karung guni, the rag and bone man, waste picker, junk man or bin hoker are people who make their living by sorting and trading trash.
Others may practice dumpster diving for various economic and personal reasons. For example, practitioners of freeganism dumpster dive to avoid living a materialistic consumer lifestyle. Artists like Carol Tanzi and Vincent Jones use discarded materials to create artistic works. Students may use salvaged high tech items in technical projects. Still others may dumpster dive just to indulge in their curiosity for unusual items.
Dumpster diving, taken to an academic level, is used as a tool for garbologists, who study the sociology and archeology of trash in modern life. There is a major outpost of academic garbology at the University of Arizona, directed for some decades by William Rathje. Others, because of their profession, may be required to dumpster dive, such as private investigators or police seeking information and material for official purposes. In practice, dumpster diving can range from a one time spontaneous seeing and retrieving of a useful item from the garbage, to an individual's preferred low-impact lifestyle, to a full time livelihood when economic opportunities are not available.
Supermarkets throw away large amounts of unsold food products.
There are several ethical arguments used to justify dumpster diving. One is, by reusing resources destined for the landfill, dumpster diving becomes a green endeavor (and is thus being practiced by many freeganist communities). Others believe that the wastefulness of a consumer society and its throw away mentality requires individuals to rescue usable items (e.g. computers) from destruction and diverting them to the less fortunate. Some see it as their only way of making any money or getting some needed goods in bad economic times. Another belief is, since many poorer people cannot afford to buy many items at market price, that any irregular, blemished, or damaged items that are still functional should naturally be priced closer to their ability to pay. To simply dispose of these imperfect items is looked on by the poor as being economically inefficient, economically insensitive, and a hindrance to their ability to acquire goods that most people can afford. An example is discarded food that might have slight imperfections, that is near its expiration date, or that is simply being replaced by newer stock. Many retailers are reluctant to sell this stock at reduced prices due to the belief that people will buy it instead of the higher priced newer stock; that extra handling time is required; and that there are liability risks.
Dumpster diving is practiced differently in countries whose commercial disposal practices are different from the developed world. In many economically developing countries, food is rarely thrown away unless it is rotten. In many countries, charities collect excess food from supermarkets and restaurants and distribute it to the needy. Dumpster divers, Karung guni, and rag and bone men in these countries may concentrate on looking for usable items or scrap materials to sell.
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. If disposed of "as is" and not destroyed, some of this food may be made "safer" for consumption if properly decontaminated and spoiled ruminates are removed. Otherwise, it is quite possible food poisoning will result from eating dumpster food, especially if it is not cooked/recooked afterwards.
Offices, factories, department stores, and other commercial establishments also may throw out nonperishable items that are irregular, were returned, have minor damages, or are replaced by newer inventory. Generally, the more perishable and inexpensive the item, the more likely that it will be disposed of intact. Otherwise, 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. A general tenet found among seasoned Dumpster Divers is to avoid returning items (for money/exchange) through the front door that were tossed out the back door. Stores who even suspect this has happened will take steps to ensure it ceases, thus ruining future diving.
Residential buildings tend to throw away very little usable food or "new" items that could not be sold, but sometimes are a good source of clothing, furniture, appliances, and other housewares. Because some people find it easier to dispose of an item rather than donating or recycling, the dumpster diver tends to be the last chance to keep items out of a landfill.
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 non-profits 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.
An activity associated with dumpster diving is recycling collection. People go through dumpsters and other trash containers looking for cans or other recyclable materials. In some places these can be sold to recycling plants or scrap yards. Recycling is also possible with other materials such as copper, lead, and other scrap metals but they are far less common than aluminum and steel. Because dumpsters are not a reliable source of scrap metal for dumpster divers, some "proactive recyclers" may resort to stripping buildings and other installations of their valuable metals like brass fixtures, copper roofing, pipes, and wiring. This kind of scavenging has been reported in the United States, the former Soviet Union, Argentina, Jamaica, and others when either scrap prices or unemployment rates soar. This kind of activity is damaging, and can create unexpected effects, such as a very large fire in Brooklyn waterfront warehouses in May 2006. Authorities and scrap yards are increasingly requiring more proof of ownership and traceability.