“I had my qualms about diving, but once I got started, I knew I would never stop,” Robert Hernandez tells me before pulling a heavy black garbage bag up from the street curb.
We’re in downtown Brooklyn, New York, in front of a Key Foods grocery store, and Hernandez is just getting started for the night. A lifetime resident of the borough, Hernandez is middle-aged and Hispanic, and tonight he wears a baseball cap with the words “Never Give Up” emblazoned along the top. He’s offered to take me and Yana Maximova, a Portland, Oregon-based journalist, dumpster diving.
In the US, 133 billion pounds of uneaten food — nearly one-third of all the food America produces — are tossed in the garbage every year. Dumpster diving is the practice of looking through commercial or residential waste to recover some of that thrown-away food (and other items). It is the literal equivalent of the expression “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Just a year ago, Hernandez was frequenting the supermarkets in downtown Brooklyn as a customer. Every so often he’d see perfectly good food wasting away near the dumpster and would be tempted to grab it. It wasn’t until a new roommate told him about dumpster diving and encouraged him to attend a monthly dumpster-diving group that he realised it was a viable practice. A group of “freegans,” people who forage for discarded food as part of a larger anticonsumerist ideology, led Hernandez on a trash tour. During the nighttime walk, he saw what neighbourhood grocery stores like Trader Joe’s, Garden of Eden, and Perelandra Natural Foods were leaving behind every day.
He was stunned.
“We have so many people starving in this country and then you head to the supermarkets and you see all this waste,” Hernandez says. “It makes no sense.”
Hernandez now makes the rounds of downtown Brooklyn’s grocery stores twice a week to pick through what they leave behind, which according to him, is bountiful.
The legal situation around dumpster diving is murky and depends on the city you’re in. If you get caught in New York, what happens more or less depends on the attitude of the police officer. If you’re looking through a dumpster and a cop is having a bad day, or a store owner complains, you can be booked for trespassing, littering, or disorderly conduct. But most of the time the police and store owners don’t get involved, as long as you are clean and don’t make a ruckus. It’s only a mildly risky endeavour.
At our first stop, a still open Key Foods, we find 20 or so neatly stacked garbage bags from the supermarket on the street corner.
Maximova and Hernandez take to the garbage bags with gusto, stepping right into the pile, untying the first ones they grab, and sticking their hands and a flashlight inside.
Maximova has been dumpster diving since she moved to the US from St. Petersburg, Russia, five years ago. In that time, she has fed herself almost completely from food she finds. She tells me proudly that she even catered her entire wedding in Pennsylvania using dumpstered food.
I am more apprehensive about the idea. It’s not that I have any problem with garbage — a job at a swim-and-tennis club in my teenage years ensured I did my fair share of handling nasty garbage — but I am more sceptical that I am going to find anything of use. I have distinct memories of handling hot, sticky garbage bags filled with unidentifiable garbage juice. There was never anything remotely appetizing.
Nonetheless, I get into the pile and untie a bag. All I find is soggy cardboard and some mushy peaches. I’m starting to think this adventure might be a bust.
“Look for the heavy ones,” Maximova says. “They usually have the best stuff.”
She pulls out a heavy, half-empty bag and unties it. Inside is the first find of the day: no fewer than 30 containers of various flavored yogurts from Fage, Chobani, and a small organic company I’ve never heard of.
I rush over in amazement. A few customers cycle out of the store and look confusedly at us. We take turns pulling out the yogurt containers and wiping them off to place in a box. I look at the expiration date: more than two weeks away. Why the yogurt is being thrown away is a mystery, but I have a hunch.
Most Americans have little idea what expiration dates, sell-by dates, and best-by dates really mean. Many tend to use these dates as deadlines for when to use or buy products, despite the fact that they mostly indicate guidelines for stores. Often, as stores get new shipments of food to place on the shelves, older — but still fresh — food with approaching expiration dates gets replaced in favour of new inventory. The old inventory gets discarded, despite being perfectly good.
Emboldened by the yogurt find, we keep searching through the bags, but Hernandez has gone through seven or eight with no luck and loses interest. I find a bundle of grapes and a package of Brussels sprouts, but we decide to leave those behind.
It’s here that I learn a counterintuitive rule about dumpster diving: Divers are picky about what they keep. Because there is so much good food thrown away every day there is a garbage pickup (three times or more per week), the question quickly evolves from “what will we find?” to “what do we want to take?” Instead of sticking around at Key Foods to look through every last bit of trash, we head to Garden of Eden, a high-end organic market a few blocks away.
There we encounter another hazard of dumpster diving: garbage trucks. Dumpster divers hunt during a small window of time, between when stores put out their garbage (usually when they close) and when the garbage trucks pick it up, usually within an hour or two. This can make dumpster diving a race.
At Garden of Eden, a garbage truck is busy emptying out a dumpster across the street, and it will be soon moving onto the Eden dumpster. We start looking through the dumpster quickly, and the garbage men don’t seem to mind. The Eden dumpster is overflowing with clear bags, which makes the process easier because you can see what’s inside and how salvageable it is. The only issue is that, because there are so many bags over the lip of the dumpster, it is hard to see what could be hiding underneath.
Within seconds, I find a large bag filled with breads of many different shapes, sizes, and types. From the other side of the dumpster, I hear that Maximova has found tons of produce and Hernandez has found some doughnuts. I sort through my bag. The bread is still fresh, and I reason that it will probably last a week or more and take out several rolls and a loaf of ciabatta.
I go over to have a look at Maximova’s find. There are multiple bags filled with hundreds of ripe plums and nectarines. She starts pulling them out four at a time and I have to stop her because there is no way that she or I or Hernandez will be able to eat all of it before it goes bad.
Not everything is good. There is a bag of mutilated avocados that look more like dirty guacamole than fruit. When I find a bag of potatoes and yams, I have to feel through for ones that aren’t damp. The general warm, wet temperature inside the bag is off-putting and I only take two sweet potatoes. Despite the disappointments, we’ve gotten quite a bit from this dumpster and we decide to move on.
We head off to Starbucks and Hernandez tells me that in the 1980s, he used to work at the American Stock Exchange as a data clerk. While the work was satisfying, he couldn’t stand the culture on Wall Street and he grew disillusioned with capitalism as a system.
“The money was good, but I couldn’t stand to see the greed that people sold their souls for,” says Hernandez. “It felt shameful.”
The critique of capitalism is common among “freegans,” who try to opt out as much as possible from American consumerist culture. For freegans, the juxtaposition between the sheer volume of good food in America that goes into the dumpster and the 17.5 million households in America that are food insecure epitomizes the wastefulness inherent in American society today.
“We’re killing the Earth by throwing away good food. It could be going to food banks, pantries, or churches. But instead it just gets thrown in a landfill,” says Hernandez.
Over the course of the night, we visit three Starbucks, all within a few blocks of each other. All three have bulging trash piles, but most of the bags have wet coffee grinds in them, rendering whatever else is in there useless. This is another problem for divers: sabotage, both intentional and unintentional. According to Hernandez, some stores, to dissuade divers from going through their garbage, will intentionally mix good food with liquids, coffee grounds, or other contaminating trash, essentially destroying it.
At the last Starbucks, we hit the jackpot — a clear garbage bag filled with the day’s unsold pastries and sandwiches. Inside are rolls, croissants, cake pops, pecan pies, brownies, scones, flatbread chicken sandwiches, egg salad, etc. The expiration dates range from a day or two away to a week. I bite into a croissant. It tastes as good as any I’ve paid for.
A Starbucks employee pokes her head outside of a door on the side of the store.
“All we ask is that you clean up after yourselves,” she says. “Otherwise we get fined.”
Dumpster-diving etiquette dictates that divers untie and retie garbage bags, stack the bags the way they found them, and avoid leaving litter lying around the area. Most, but not all, divers abide by this.
On our way out from Starbucks, Hernandez shakes hands with a tall, heavy-set man, who tells him that the Trader Joe’s dumpsters are now out. Hernandez thanks him and we keep walking. Hernandez tells us the man is homeless, one of the many he has made a point to talk to and show how to dumpster dive.
“It’s about extending a hand to humanity,” says Hernandez.
As if on cue, we pass a shivering homeless man on the street. He is covered in a torn, bright blue windbreaker and has a scraggly blond beard. His face is whittled down. All three of us stop. Hernandez walks up to the man and asks him if he’d like something to eat. He opens the bag of Starbucks sandwiches and tells him to take as many as he’d like. The man takes an egg-salad sandwich but refuses to take more, despite Maximova’s insistence. He thanks us repeatedly. The homeless man seems overwhelmed by the generosity.
The incident brings up another interesting wrinkle: Most homeless people won’t go into the dumpsters. Both Maximova and Hernandez have tried to feed homeless people with their dumpstered findings — which they eat themselves — and have been repeatedly denied. Only rarely do homeless people take them up on the offer.
“It’s all about people’s perceptions,” says Hernandez. “Everyone is so brainwashed that food has to come from the store shelves, that it has to have a far-off expiration date.”
We head to the evening’s grand finale: Trader Joe’s. The chain is considered something of a mecca for dumpster divers all over the country. The stores are so large and throw out so much food that every day the dumpsters are put out, you can guarantee that you will find good food. Add in that so many of Trader Joe’s products — from meat to vegetables, fruit, cookies, and salad — are packaged, and you can see why its a diver’s paradise.
In front of Trader Joe’s are no fewer than 10 dumpsters, all filled with bags, most of which have usable food inside. On some nights, Hernandez tells me, the scene at Joe’s can become competitive, as divers from all over the city converge to pick through the findings. On those nights, Hernandez prefers to wait out “the wolves,” as he calls them, because he believes the competition is not in the spirit of freeganism, which is about community and sharing.
In quick succession, we find a dumpster filled with egg cartons, Brie, organic chicken, hummus, salad packages, squash, and pita bread. All of it is still fresh, and sell-by dates aren’t even close. There’s another dumpster filled with packages of tilapia, but fish seems a little too risky for me to take. Maximova confirms this suspicion, telling me to be very careful with meat and fish. Any packages that have bulging plastic, look swollen, or smell funky should be avoided, she says.
It isn’t long before we’ve filled up the shopping bags we have on us, and we’ve barely gone through four dumpsters.
“I have no idea why they throw these things out,” Hernandez says. “I don’t know what their standards are. If I knew, maybe I’d understand why so much goes to waste.”
I thank Hernandez for taking Maximova and me out for the tour. He reminds me not to eat anything before washing it, a cardinal rule of dumpster diving.
Here’s a look at my take home at the end of the night:
Business Insider/Harrison Jacobs
And here’s what the produce looked like after it was washed with hot water and white vinegar (as per Hernandez’s suggestion):
Business Insider/Harrison Jacobs
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