I Dove into the World of TikTok Dumpster Diving — Here’s What I Learned

published May 9, 2022
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Being a consumer of all things food-related, of course I got sucked into the world of Dumpster Diving TikTokers. Consider them the new foragers: rescuing perishables, makeup palettes, and even iPhones, from the depths of dumpsters all over the country. They find all sorts of discarded (oftentimes perfectly good) treasures in the trash and post videos of their expeditions. Also known as “gleaning” (the practice of scouring the land after harvest for salvageable food), “dumpster diving” as a term originated in the 1980s, but its origins and practices are hardly modern. 

With food insecurity and waste an ever-present issue and dumpster divers becoming more present on social media, some praise these divers for going public while others think it encourages people to misuse the system. As a former grocery store employee myself (which means I know and am horrified by what goes into the dumpster), I knew I had to reach out to some of my favorite TikTok dumpster divers and grocery retailers to learn more about what’s going on. Here’s what I found out.

1. Dumpster diving is not illegal … but there are some restrictions.

In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that garbage left on public streets is, essentially, open to public inspection and consumption, which means dumpster diving is, in fact, legal, unless prohibited by local regulations. If dumpsters, however, are located on a store’s private property then divers may be trespassing, which, of course, is illegal.

Unless divers have been given permission to enter by the store’s owner, they can be ticketed or even arrested. Some stores will even put up “No Trespassing” signs to make it clear that these dumpsters are, in fact, on private property and off -imits. Others are less restrictive: “In Oregon, I was in a dumpster and someone came out and asked us what we were doing and I told him we were trying to reduce waste,” says A, a diver based in California. “He later came out with hot soup all boxed up for us to take home!”

2. It can also be dangerous.

Beyond the legality, diving can be risky and, at times, even dangerous. One representative of a national grocery chain noted that dumpsters are often in high-traffic areas. There’s also the chance a compactor is nearby, so divers need to exert extra caution while sorting through the dumpsters.

“[I] wear work gloves in case of anything sharp” says @DumpsterDivingActress. She also explains that she parks her car in front of the dumpster, if she plans to go inside it, so if a truck comes by to collect the trash, the person driving should realize a person is in there. During my reporting, I did encounter divers who mentioned being trapped in a dumpster for a brief period of time or nearly being picked up by a garbage truck.

3. It’s not always clear when food should be donated or tossed into the dumpster.

Most states prohibit the donation of groceries that are close to or past their expiration dates — regardless of whether they are safe to eat. The fate of food that is eligible for donation or the dumpster, however, is often left up to the individuals working in the stores. The first time diving, A found $1,000 in goat cheese. “We’re talking like ten 12-inch wheels of fancy goat cheese,” says A.

As someone who also experienced food insecurity growing up, I’ve always felt bad for dented cans and overlooked browning bananas. So when it was my task to sort through items, I was much less picky when it came to weeding out what would be donated or tossed. Other employees were, well, more hesitant when it was their job, which meant more edible groceries ended up being tossed.

4. Some items aren’t safe to eat … even if they look it.

Large quantities of a singular item, like ground beef or packaged salads, may seem serendipitous, but they can also be cause for concern. Being mindful of any recent food recalls is key to sussing out the safety of foods found in dumpsters. Some of the grocery workers and divers I spoke with noted that sometimes tossed groceries are covered in dangerous chemicals (like bleach) before tossing into the dumpster. And some told me that grocery stores will not throw away food unless they absolutely have to (because they’d rather sell it and make money!). One worker told me about a bunch of milk cartons that looked fine, but had accidentally been left out in the back, unrefrigerated overnight. In the winter, those would have felt cold again in a dumpster.

5. People dumpster dive for different reasons.

In a world where inflation is rising more steadily than wages, it’s easy to see how dumpster diving has provided a resource for people who are struggling. For many, dumpster diving isn’t a trend, but a means of survival. “I started dumpster diving during one of the most desperate times of food insecurity that I’d ever seen in my life,” says @DumpsterDivingActress. “I wanted some way to help people and so I got involved with some community fridges. Aside from donating food (all packaged and sanitized) or items (soap, lotion, paper plates, etc.), I take the time to clean the fridges and the area around the fridge.”

It also instills an incredible sense of community, reduces food waste, is a thrilling hunt, and can lead to some, well, memorable meals. “I made a delicious lemon salmon for my birthday [and] everything but the kitchen sink cookies,” says A.

6. People have mixed reactions to the rise in popularity.

The more awareness there is that dumpster diving is occurring, the more chances that dumpsters will both be visited by other divers or potentially locked to keep divers out. And again, it’s a dangerous practice (for many reasons).

On the other hand, it also means that grocers might be more mindful about what’s being tossed versus donated. According to longtime crew members at Trader Joe’s, the popularity of Dive, a 2009 documentary film that chronicles a group of divers exposing food waste in America, had a huge effect on taking the grocer’s donation policy. Before the film, stores were largely allowed to make up their own rules as to how they diverted store waste into donations to local food banks. Presently, relatively very little goes into the trash, something I can attest to firsthand from working at Trader Joe’s.

The divers I spoke with had mixed feelings: “I love that the diving community has grown like it has,” says Tiffany, @DumpsterDivingMama. “Dumpster diving is kind of like mushroom hunting, no one wants to share their best spots, because if they do often they will get over-picked,” adds A. “However, I think it’s good for waste reduction to get normalized in whatever way we can.”

7. Retailers are incredibly tight-lipped on the topic. 

What I shouldn’t have been surprised by was how many retailers are tight-lipped on dumpster diving and their policies addressing it. I reached out to nearly a dozen grocery retailers across the country in hopes to learn more about the donation process, safety protocols, or even if divers have influenced their own waste-reduction policies, but received little insight and often no response at all. 

What’s more than clear is that public awareness is having an impact. As more divers share their hauls on social media, companies are having to answer for their discarding of seemingly edible food. In recent years, we’ve seen an influx of company-wide food waste reduction programs — many with a heightened focus on new food donation and landfill prevention policies. For example, both Aldi and Kroger have partnered with Feeding America, while Whole Foods Market is working to expand its Nourishing our Neighborhoods program. And that’s all, obviously, great news.

Have you been watching these TikTok videos? Share your thoughts in the comments below.