The Etiquette of Dumpster Diving

Dear Helena,
The other day I was loading several bags of groceries into my car when I observed a man rooting through a dumpster near the back door of the store. He had already found a bunch of bananas and seemed to be holding a plastic box containing what looked like a perfectly good carrot cake, with only slightly mashed frosting. I can't believe how much I spend on groceries every week; what if I was to try that? But is this stealing? Is it "rude" to rummage through a business's trash? Is there a polite way go to about it?
–Mashed Cake Tastes Just as Good

Dear Mashed Cake,
It's illegal to trespass on private property, even if all you want to do is salvage some overripe bananas. So don't climb over any fences in your pursuit of free food. Stick to trash bags and dumpsters that are on public property. New York is great for dumpster diving, says Cindy Rosin, a spokesperson for Freegan.info, since all the trash is left out on the sidewalk. Rosin combs through the city's garbage to keep herself supplied with coffee and "organic, unprocessed food." Rummaging through trash that is on public property is usually not specifically prohibited by law. And it's unlikely to bother the business in question if you go about it politely—that is, discreetly.

Of course, some people, like Rosin, salvage food in order to make a political statement—in her case, "to highlight the wastefulness of capitalism." Obviously if this is your goal, you'll want to go in broad daylight. But if you're just aiming to score some free food, then it's better not to be theatrical about it. Follow the rules below.

1. Go early or late. Forage under cover of night, says Ran Prieur, a former dumpster diver now living in Spokane, Washington, who has found delicacies such as wild rice, breaded halibut, and "really high-end bacon." Or go early in the morning, says Keith McHenry, a cofounder of Food Not Bombs. Workers sort through produce and other items before the store opens, and discard anything imperfect. Visit the dumpsters at dawn and you might snag some barely bruised apples or, as McHenry once did, "a $250 wheel of imported French cheese."

2. Stick to grocery stores. Restaurants are more likely to be annoyed by dumpster divers, since arguably they have a greater interest in maintaining a classy image. But there's no point in bothering with them anyway, says Prieur. "Often the leftovers are all mixed together and shoved into a big bag." Even dumpster divers have their standards.

3. Leave it neat. Don't strew garbage everywhere like a wild animal. As well as being rude, this kind of behavior could lead to a business locking its dumpsters or stowing its trash somewhere you can't get to it. In New York, says Rosin, it might also cause the city or the sanitation companies to give the business a ticket. So pick up after other dumpster divers, if they've left a mess, and retie all garbage bags. It's easier to be neat if you come with the proper equipment, says Prieur: work gloves, a pocket flashlight, and, of course, plenty of plastic bags.

4. Share your spoils. It's rude and greedy to hog your finds. "The best thing I ever found was a whole case of extra-virgin olive oil," says Prieur. "I took three bottles and set the case behind the dumpster, and later other people came and took the rest of it." Or spread the love among your friends. Rosin remembers: "We found a five- or ten-pound chocolate bar and shared it with everyone we knew and it still took a month to go through it." But if you serve your finds to your dinner guests, be honest about the ingredients' provenance. Don't dish up a meal of salvaged halibut followed by chocolate dumpster soufflé and then say, "Guess where your dinner came from?"

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