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, binning, alley surfing, aggressive recycling, Curbing, D-mart, Dumpstering, garbaging, garbage picking, garbage gleaning, dumpster-raiding, dumpstering, dump-weaseling, tatting, skally-wagging, skipping, or trashing.
Another use of the term refers to a "sport" mostly practiced by youngsters who directly dive into the dumpsters, often filming it to show others who dares the best dives, as one could do at the beach or pool when diving into water. It carries the risk of injury on broken glass or other dangerous or disgusting objects.
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.
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, dumpster monkey, 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, maybe 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.
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 a way of making money or getting valuable goods. 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 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 insure 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 used 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 only reprieve for items being buried in landfill.
Many consumer electronics, particularly computers, are dumped because of their rapid depreciation, obsolescence, cost to repair, or expense to upgrade. Frequently, owners of functional computers find it easier to dump computers 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. Dumpster divers who find computers tend to strip them for parts and metals then discard the rest.
Another activity associated with dumpster diving is recycling collection. People often 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, Jamaicaand 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 of 2006. Authorities and scrap yards are increasingly requiring more proof of ownership and traceability.
All too often, dumpsters can be an inadvertent source of information. Unwanted files, letters, memos, photographs, IDs, and other paperwork have been found in dumpsters. This oversight is a result of many people not realizing that sensitive items like passwords, credit card numbers, and personal information they throw in the trash could be recovered anywhere from the dumpster to the landfill. This recovered information is sometimes used by criminals for fraudulent purposes, such as identity theft and the breaking of physical information security. Information to most Dumpster Drivers is unusable and if the items found are unusual (stolen wallets/purses) sometimes these items are turned over to the Police or their owners.
Targeted information diving was more common in the 1980s due to lax security. When businesses became aware of the need for increased security in the early 1990s, it became routine for sensitive documents to be shredded before being placed in dumpsters. Security mythology still portrays the stereotypical lone hackers or malicious crackers commonly searching through office waste, but this may be more of an urban legend because social engineering is often easier, more productive, and is a more predictable source than dumpsters.
Experienced information diving is commonly practised by watchdog and news organizations seeking information on groups they are investigating. The Trinity Foundation successfully used this technique to report on the activities of televangelist Robert Tilton, and has also obtained information on Benny Hinn using this practice.
Because dumpsters are usually located on private premises, dumpster diving is illegal in some parts of the United States, though the law is enforced with varying degrees of rigor. The California v. Greenwood case in the U.S. Supreme Court held that there is no common law expectation of privacy for discarded materials. Dumpster diving per se is probably legal when not specifically prohibited by state or local law.
Police (and possibly other) searches of dumpsters and like discards are not violations; evidence seized in this way has been permitted in many criminal trials. The doctrine is less well established in regard to civil litigation. Similarly in the United Kingdom, while dumpster diving in England and Wales may qualify as theft within the Theft Act 1968 or as common-law theft in Scotland there is very little enforcement in practice.
Companies run by private investigators specializing in dumpster diving have sprung up around the country as a result of the need for discreet, undetected retrieval of documents and evidence for civil and criminal trials.
In Italy, a law issued in 2000 declared dumpster diving to be legal.
In Sweden, the contents of a dumpster is the property of the owner of the dumpster so taking items from a dumpster is technically theft.
In Canada, The Trespass to Property Act - legislation dating back to the British North America Act of 1867 - grants property owners and security guards the power to ban anyone from their premises, for any reason, permanently. This is done by issuing a notice to the intruder, who will only be breaking the law on return. A recent case involved a police officer who retrieved a discarded weapon from trash as evidence; the Judge ruled it as legal without a warrant, so some have speculated this is enough backing for anyone to raid garbage.
There are limits to what can legally be taken from a company's refuse. In a 1983 Minnesota case involving the theft of customer lists from a garbage can, Tennant Company v. Advance Machine Company, the owner of the discarded information was awarded $500,000 in damages.
Because some dumpster divers may be people who are nearer to the poverty level than individuals who don't dumpster dive, there are economic traits that they hold in common. The main trait is adapting to scarcity and unpredictability of obtaining items that are easily obtained if one has a higher income. The production model that best describes the diver's economic lifestyle is just in case manufacturing. Just in case, states that when the lack of money to buy an item or the shortage of an item is expected in the future, then it is best to have several of these items in storage, "just in case". The ability of divers to obtain many items at the time it is needed (see Just in time), often is expensive to divers because most items available "just in time" are found in stores at full price. This ultimately means that divers want to hold on to many items that most "just in time" people either throw away or buy as needed. Such items as consumer electronics, refrigerators, cars, tires, and computers, that are expensive to replace or repair immediately, may be kept by the diver in greater numbers to insure that a working supply is available, just in case an equipment failure occurs. Taken to the extreme, some dumpster divers cluttered properties may run afoul of a city's Code Enforcement resulting in fines and forced abatement. The result of such legal actions may actually cause additional hardships on people if they are poor or borderline homeless. According to the City of Seattle, 1:300 people who tend to hoard, may also suffer in some degree from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. It is also believed that this illness is aggravated by poverty in some cases.
British television shows have even featured home renovations and decoration using salvaged materials. Changing Rooms is one such show, broadcast on BBC One. Recovery of still-useful items from discards is well-known in other cultures as well; James Fallows noted it in his book written about his time living in Japan. However, much of the richness attributed to dumpster diving in Japan ended with the collapse of the nation's economic bubble in 1990. In the U.K Steptoe and Son and the U.S remake Sanford and Son showed the life of a junk man. This was also the name of a song from a Staten Island band named Pseudohoodlum.