The Practical Guide to Dumpster Diving

Dumpster diving has been trending for the past few years. It has gone from being unaccepted to being encouraged or even normalized as a part of millennial mainstream culture.

I found interest in this “hobby” when I moved to Beijing. One of the Danish people I lived with told me that he had frequently gone dumpster diving in Aarhus, Denmark. He did this in order to save money. That gave me a great combination of shock and surprise as I had known this guy for several years. And he seemed like a normal guy to me.

After going online and spending hours on research, I understood that dumpster diving was something a lot of people did. And that it had some serious environmental benefits.

Regardless, it’s important to know some rules, such as the laws of your state, how to do it properly, and what is the best time to dumpster dive. Here are my two cents on dumpster diving.

What is the Best Time to Dumpster Dive?

Table of Contents

What’s Dumpster Diving?

As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The term dumpster diving emerged in the eighties amidst the rise of excessive consumerism. This has led people to throw away many valuable items and perfectly good food.

By definition, dumpster diving is salvaging from large commercial, residential, industrial, and construction containers for unused items discarded by owners. This is just fancy talk for going through trash looking for things you might need or want.

If you don’t see what you’d get out of it, you might want to look closer. It has been a go-to option for many people, especially students and travelers. It allows you to save money as well as reduce waste.

Disclaimer: I’m not an American. Frankly, I’ve never been to the U.S.

But 80 % of the people reading Sustainability Matters blog posts are US-based. Therefore, this paragraph will mainly be targeting whether or not it’s allowed in the US. For those of us who live in other countries; I know that most European countries do not have strict rules against dumpster diving. You won’t be jailed for 10 years if you pick up some food from the garbage. 🙂

The laws on dumpster diving are controversial and unclear. The short answer is yes, it’s legal to dumpster dive in the United States, except where it’s prohibited by local regulation.

The long answer is quite complicated. It’s technically legal in all 50 states. In 1998, there was a Supreme Court case (the State of California vs. Greenwood) that ruled searching trash is legal as long as it isn’t in conflict with any city, county, or state ordinances. That means that trash is a public domain and doesn’t belong under the Fourth Amendment.

However, you have to learn your state law on this particular issue, as they’re subject to change. Search for waste or garbage sections.

Moreover, if you dive inside a building, a fenced enclosure, or any kind of private property, you’d be trespassing. If caught, you can be ticketed or even arrested by the police.

Additionally, you shouldn’t tamper with garbage if there’s a lock on the trashcan. You should also lookout for any signs. If you don’t pay attention, it could end in a fine or an arrest. Also, stay away from recycling bins.

Finally, make sure you don’t cause any disorder or inappropriate conduct in public because someone might call the police. Plus, when going through the trash, don’t leave a mess of garbage laying around as this is considered dumping or littering.

101: Where to check if your state/area allows dumpster diving

To sum up, and to answer your question, there are a few laws to go through before deciding to go dumpster diving. Here’s how you do it.

  • Federal law: Legal
  • State law: Legal
  • County law: Variable, do your research
  • City law: Variable, do your research
  • A restaurant, mall or grocery store: Variable, do your research
  • Private Property: Illegal
  •  Warning signs or locks: Illegal

What is the Best Time to Dumpster Dive?

In order to write this paragraph, I needed to do proper research. After all, I’ve never dumpster dived myself. Therefore, I gathered all the information I could from my “dumpster diving friends”. As well as reading on at least 20 different forums like Reddit.

And I think I got the answer now.

The jury’s still out on what the best time to dumpster dive is. Figuring out the best time requires some trial and error. It depends on where you’re planning to go and what you’re looking for.

Restaurants, Bakeries, and Supermarkets

If you’re going diving around supermarkets, some people suggest going early in the morning at sunrise. Most people are focused on either going to work or school, so nobody would notice you.

There’s also a lot of natural light. You wouldn’t need flashlights and it would take you less time to find what you want.

Others suggest going right after store closing times as food is still fresh and it’s harder to be spotted at night. It’s, however, sketchy and more dangerous to go dumpster diving at night. Additionally, there might be more competition at night as most people prefer privacy.

Moreover, diving for food in the winter is a smarter choice. The food stays fresher longer and there are fewer divers around. Also, always check after holidays for seasonal chocolate and candy. You can find gems after Easter, Christmas, and even Valentine’s Day.

Video: Dumpster diving from the restaurants in New York

This guy is quite good at browsing through the “trash” of restaurants in New York. You can clearly see all the delicious food he’s getting in just one night:

To be honest, he’s quite a character as well. 🙂

Apartment Complexes or Suburbs

Apartment complexes or houses are quite a catch when it comes to dumpster diving, especially rich neighborhoods. You can find all sorts of things, from food and clothing to furniture and e-waste.

The best time is around when people move out, which is usually at the beginning and end of months. You can also take advantage of spring cleaning in the suburbs.

However, keep in mind that residential waste is very different from commercial waste. There’s a lot of garbage you don’t want to be in contact with, such as diapers, vomit filled bags, or medical waste. You’d also want to stay away from food.

Moreover, it’s riskier. If residents hear you, they will chase you off. Therefore, you should be as quiet as possible. It’s very rewarding though. You can find electronics, intact furniture, and clothing, which you can use or fix and resell.

College Campus

College campuses are a happy hunting ground for dumpster diving. Students trying to pack as well as cram for finals, often rush out and throw away a lot of valuable items.

You can come across clothes, household accessories, furniture, electronics, cleaning supplies, etc. More importantly, you can find cookware and stationery, including notebooks and backpacks.

However, students don’t always buy high-quality things. On the contrary, they usually buy second-hand furniture and electronics. Thus, you won’t always find worthy items. This is why you should go more than once, so you can increase your chances.

The best time to dive into campuses is around the final week or after the semester ends especially the seniors’ dorms. Look for move out days on school websites. You can also resell your finds in August at garage sales to incoming students.

Nevertheless, there are some pitfalls concerning diving in universities, which is why you should always do a google search for the particular college you’re planning to visit. Some colleges donate or sell unwanted items, so there’s a slim chance your visit will yield results.

Moreover, colleges are usually private property. This can be great if you’re already a college student as it means less competition. If you’re not, you might want to look for colleges whose trash is put out on public streets.

Malls and Stores

Mall dumpsters are goldmines if you know how to navigate well through them. Mall trash is either thrown out separately outside every store or in a common compacters outside the mall.

A great time to dive in mall dumpsters is at the end of seasons, on holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, as there will be a lot of clearance.

You can find literally everything you need, including beauty products, clothing, books, and school supplies. You can also find bits and pieces of bags, such as buckles, zippers, and latch hoops. These can be very useful in repairing your things.

What to Bring When Going Dumpster Diving?

Dumpsters are obviously not the safest places out there. You have to come prepared and be extra cautious about your hygiene.

Always wear long pants and sleeved tops as well as closed-toed shoes to avoid injury from any nails or screws sticking out. For extra safety, wear gloves while handling trash.

Additionally, there is some equipment that can be of good use, such as a folding knife, a screwdriver, and a multitool. A folding knife can be used to slash trashbags open, while the screwdriver and multitool are for scavenging parts of electronics or otherwise.

Moreover, a small step ladder can be extremely helpful in getting in and out of the dumpster. Strong bags can be a great asset as well, so you can carry your finds back home.

Finally, it’s important to have a reliable method of transportation to and from the dumpster. Although a bike can work, it’s a hassle carrying heavy bags on a bicycle.

In the end, I would also urge everyone to check that they got enough battery on their phone. If you’re stuck inside a dumpster, it would be sad if you had to wait 24 hours for someone to find you. Well…on the positive side…you’re hopefully not going to die from lack of food. 🙂

You never know what you can find, therefore the ideal option would be to bring a car along with you. If that’s not feasible, try to go places nearby, so it’s more convenient to carry things on your bike or on foot.

Must-have accessories while going dumpster diving at night

After talking to some of the more experienced dumpster divers, I was asked to add some product recommendations in this article. I usually don’t do this unless I’ve tried the products myself.

However, I’m quite confident that these guys know exactly what they’re doing.

So these are some of the items that you should bring while going dumpster diving (at night time):

Ironclad Ranchworx Work Gloves RWG2, Premier Leather Work Glove, Performance Fit, Durable, Machine Washable, (1 Pair), RWG2-04-L
Vont LED Headlamp [Batteries Included, 2 Pack] IPX5 Waterproof, with Red Light, 7 Modes, Head Lamp, for Running, Camping, Hiking, Fishing, Jogging, Headlight Headlamps for Adults & Kids
IKEA 172.283.40 Frakta Shopping Bag, Large, Blue, Set of 5
Ironclad Ranchworx Work Gloves RWG2, Premier Leather Work Glove, Performance Fit, Durable, Machine Washable, (1 Pair), RWG2-04-L
Vont LED Headlamp [Batteries Included, 2 Pack] IPX5 Waterproof, with Red Light, 7 Modes, Head Lamp, for Running, Camping, Hiking, Fishing, Jogging, Headlight Headlamps for Adults & Kids
IKEA 172.283.40 Frakta Shopping Bag, Large, Blue, Set of 5
Ironclad Ranchworx Work Gloves RWG2, Premier Leather Work Glove, Performance Fit, Durable, Machine Washable, (1 Pair), RWG2-04-L
Ironclad Ranchworx Work Gloves RWG2, Premier Leather Work Glove, Performance Fit, Durable, Machine Washable, (1 Pair), RWG2-04-L
Vont LED Headlamp [Batteries Included, 2 Pack] IPX5 Waterproof, with Red Light, 7 Modes, Head Lamp, for Running, Camping, Hiking, Fishing, Jogging, Headlight Headlamps for Adults & Kids
Vont LED Headlamp [Batteries Included, 2 Pack] IPX5 Waterproof, with Red Light, 7 Modes, Head Lamp, for Running, Camping, Hiking, Fishing, Jogging, Headlight Headlamps for Adults & Kids
IKEA 172.283.40 Frakta Shopping Bag, Large, Blue, Set of 5
IKEA 172.283.40 Frakta Shopping Bag, Large, Blue, Set of 5

Why are these items necessary when you go dumpster diving?

In other words, the three most important items are:

  •  A large, light-weight shopping bag. Possibly two of these.
  • Some good work gloves that will protect your hands as you literally dig through trash.
  • A decent, but not too expensive headlamp. I was told that the one recommended up here^^ was the perfect shape, size and price range. 🙂

FAQ on Dumpster Diving

I did learn quite a bit when I did all this research. And it would be a waste not to share that information with you.

Q: What type of food can you usually find while you dumpster dive?

Everything. However, the most normal food items to bring home seem to be:

– Bread
– Canned food
– Meat & fish
– Pasta and rice (these are typical items that will “never” really expire. You can almost eat 20-year-old pasta without any problem)
– Vegetables.*

*= Many people think of veggies as something that has a short expiry date. But that’s not true at all. It’s fruit that will expire within days. Most veggies can be kept for at least two-three weeks without any problems.

Q: Is it safe to eat meat and fish?

Some people say it’s safe. Other people say it’s dangerous.

It depends on how long the meat has been laying in the dumpster. You should be extremely careful eating meat that has gone over the expiry date.

Q: Has someone died from dumpster diving?

Unfortunately, yes. Fox News reported that a woman named Stephanie was found dead in a landfill in February 2020.

Please note that it wasn’t expired food that killed her. But the activity of going into dumpsters owned by businesses can be a dangerous thing.

Q: Can you combine this lifestyle with being vegan?

This is actually a hot topic on “dumpster diving forums”. Many environmentalists are also trying to reduce their meat consumption.

However, at least 50 % of what you’re going to find in the dumpsters are non-vegan food items. If you’re picky about what you eat, I would say that dumpster diving isn’t for you.

Q: Can you make a business of it?

Yes, you can. First, have a look at what the uploaders of this Youtube video are able to find in less than 24 hours:

That being said, I would be careful about selling trash to people without being honest about where you found it. Some people might find it unethical that you try to sell them items that have already been garbage.

Please also note that food isn’t the only thing that can be dumpster dived. There are many companies that need to throw out shoes that have “gone out of fashion”, electronics that “don’t sell anymore” and makeup that has gone past its expiry date. When people hear about dumpster diving, they think about food right away – but that’s not necessarily the case.

Also interesting: Our guide on sustainable eating, including tips to which foods to buy.


Dumpster diving is the art of finding diamonds in the rough. It’s a more sustainable and creative way of getting what you want and wanting what you get. And hey, free is free.

Knowing what is the best time to dumpster dive isn’t only important, but crucial to maximizing your benefits out of your visit. Nevertheless, it’s variable as it depends on where you go and what you’re looking for.

You can find more help as well as a community of divers on Facebook, Youtube, or Reddit. Remember to always do your research beforehand on the closing times of stores and the laws of your state, county, and city.

Keep in mind that safety comes first and pay attention to your hygiene while diving, in addition to any locks, signs, or people around you.

4 thoughts on “The Practical Guide to Dumpster Diving”

  1. I do dumpster diving for fun. it’s alright to get some food from it, but I’m more into it because of the game.

    Its really juicy to find something valuable that you can sell on Ebay!! 😉

  2. Dumpster diving is amazing and eco-friendly. Just be safe and use the right gear. If you dont have the right supplies check out [link removed].com

  3. Dumpster diving, is to me, one of the worst things you can do. Just imagine going to some junkyard and pick up food. That is properly disgusting.

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