Dumpster diving! The rise of the freegan

Got the Ailuna app yet? Before we find out all about dumpster diving and freeganism, we thought you’d like to download the Ailuna app from the App Store or Google Play. It’s free, and it’s designed to make it fun for you to adopt and build habits with impact – sustainable habits that are good for you and for the planet. Try it now and help us change the world!

Now, onto today’s post! What is a “freegan”, how do some people eat for little or no cost, and how you can start incorporating some freegan habits into your own lifestyle?  In this post, we’re looking at dumpster diving, which Ailuna’s outdoor and alternative living guy, Emil explains.

dumpster diving at night - smiling man looking into a dumpster

8 minutes to read

  • November 13, 2020

Dumpster diving explained

I hope that by writing this article and you reading it, we can remove some of the stigma surrounding dumpster diving and dispel some of the myths and prejudices that come with it.

Dumpster diving is basically a fancy term for picking perfectly fine to eat food out of supermarket dumpsters. Estimates are that between a third and half of all food produced worldwide is discarded, that food waste is responsible for 8% of the planet’s carbon emissions, and that the total costs of food waste every year amounts to approx. USD$2.6
trillion (Source: Project Drawdown).

Seeing those numbers, it is clear that change must happen on a more fundamental level, but there are plenty of things we can do too; recovering food from a waste container being one of them!

Is dumpster diving legal?

The legality of dumpster diving can sometimes be situated in a grey zone and is different from country to country. In the UK, the act of dumpster diving itself is legal, but, depending on the location of said dumpsters, you could be prosecuted for trespassing. So if this is something you’re considering trying, do your due diligence, be respectful of any local rules and take steps to stay safe and healthy.*

freegan part 1 pinterest pin


What is a freegan lifestyle and how does dumpster diving (or bin diving) come into it?

I eat a vegan diet today, but ate anything when I started dumpster diving about 3 years ago. I adopted what some people would call being a “freegan”, which meant that I ate anything as long as it was free, i.e. being served or recovered from a dumpster. I wouldn’t buy meat, but when I found it in the dumpster, it was fair game. Today I barely notice the meat or dairy products when dumpster diving. 

In all honesty, I am not that fond of the term “freegan” and don’t use it myself, but for clarity’s sake and because it is a rather commonly-used expression, it’s useful to talk about. By the way, freegans are not simply freeloaders – which the word can imply – but contribute to society in many ways, including the reduction of food waste.

But whether you’re a meat-eating freegan or a vegan freegan, or anything in between, one thing is for sure, and that is that it is accessible to everyone.

You might read this and think that dumpster diving, of all the freegan “disciplines” (the other two being growing your own produce and foraging, which we will cover in the future) is only for students and people who cannot afford to buy food.  But I know quite a few that are not students, have well-paying jobs and are perfectly able to buy the food they want, though they still bust out their backpacks and don their headlamps to save food from the dumpsters. Dumpster diving is not just a way to save money (although it is a great way to do so), it is a decision to address and do something about societal issues, food waste and, ultimately, climate change. Food waste is one of the biggest contributors to the release of greenhouse gases, so anything we can do to reduce it is a step in the right direction.

dumpster diving food haul

Dumpster diving – a treasure hunt for grown-ups

Every time I grab my backpack and head for the dumpsters, I feel like I am on an adventure
and in many ways, it feels like a treasure hunt for grown-ups.

The hunts have been both bountiful and empty-handed. One day you might find a couple of mashed tomatoes among discarded shelf signage and special offer posters and the next day it will be filled to the brim with perfectly fine to eat food. On any given day, I regularly encounter bananas, apples, pears, grapes, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, celery, salad, tomatoes, potatoes, lemons, limes, bread, pastries, sausages, various types of meat, porridge, rice pudding, fresh herbs. The list goes on, and on, and on. We found beer once and what a glorious day that was!

Finding perfectly good food to eat is like finding gold, but I do often face the dilemma between hoping to find something and hoping not to find something. In an ideal world, dumpster diving would not be a thing!

a dumpster full of discarded food

Dumpster diving – the basics and how to start

First, locate your local food stores and where they place the dumpsters. Depending on the store and your area, they might be hidden in a back alley or around the building. In more urban areas, the dumpsters might be locked or located behind gates. If this is
the case, please do not do anything illegal! Trespassing and/or damaging property to get access to a locked dumpster is illegal, so please do not get yourself into any trouble.

Now if the dumpster is not locked, simply open the hatch and fill your bags and boxes. It
really is that simple. Some people dismiss the whole idea and are immediately put off by the “diving” part, but most dumpsters I have encountered did not require any jumping in.

When to go is up to you, but as a rule of thumb I don’t go during the store’s opening hours
and will usually wait at least 15-30 minutes from when the store closes, before I visit the containers. There are two main reasons for this:

      1. It does not send a good signal to the shop’s customers and the store might decide to lock up the dumpsters as a result of unwanted daytime dumpster diving visitors.
      2. To respect and not scare or upset the shop’s employees. I have met a handful of shop employees and owners while dumpster diving and never had any problems, but I think it is nice to show some courtesy. On these encounters, I always ask if it is acceptable that I am there and the response has only been positive. One time they said that it was practically not acceptable, but morally very acceptable. So please don’t assume you will always be unwelcome!


dumpsters at the back of a shop in the dark


Advice from a dumpster diving pro

Here are a few pieces of advice I’d offer to anyone heading out dumpster diving for the first time.

Don’t wear your nicest clothes

Dumpsters can get dirty, so wear something that you don’t mind getting dirty, especially if you are literally jumping or diving into the dumpster.

Wear gloves

It’s a good idea to invest in a pair of rubber gloves. They’ll protect your hands from anything you’re not that keen on touching, as well as from anything that might cut you as you rifle around.

Bring bags and boxes

Depending on how you are transporting your newly-rescued food home, it can be nice to protect your backpack or vehicle from potentially sticky food (don’t worry, you can wash it when you get back). I don’t own a car, so for me, that means I carry all my dumpster diving finds home in a large duffel bag lined with plastic bags. 

Bring a headlamp!

Because dumpster diving is an after-hours activity, it can often be dark. Bringing a head torch means you can see what you’re doing whilst keeping your hands free to rummage.

dumpster diving with a headlamp


What to do with your finds when you get home

The most time-consuming process of dumpster diving is usually not recovering the food, but cleaning, preparing and storing it. Make sure you clean the food properly and
remove any possible bad parts of a vegetable or piece of fruit. I usually fill the sink with lukewarm water, add a bit of vinegar, soak everything and dry it with a towel afterwards.

Depending on what you find and how much you find, you might want to preserve it in one
way or another, else you might end up throwing away the food you rescued in the first
place! Two things that have been invaluable in my dumpster adventures are my freezer and
dehydrator. The freezer is always full of bread, frozen fruit and vegetables and my cupboard
is full of mason jars with dried produce.

mason jars filled with dried produce

Besides saving me a lot of money, dumpster diving has made me a lot more creative in the
kitchen. 10kg of pears? Let’s make fruit leather out of them! A box full of ripe tomatoes? Let’s dry them and put them in oil! 15 cucumbers? Let’s make agurkesalat (Danish cucumber salad)!

If the decision is between throwing something out and finding a way to use it, I will
find a way to use it.

food waste infographic


Dumpster diving and diets

There are many positives with dumpster diving. But one thing that challenges me, is when I
find all the stuff that is tempting but I know it’s not healthy!

I try to eat purely plant-based and avoid sugar, but it can be very hard to resist a bag of Danish pastries, knowing that if I don’t take them home they will go to waste. I was definitely tested the day after I decided to go vegan, when I opened up the dumpster lid to find a stack of cheeses and 20kg of chocolate bars still in their boxes. I spent a good chunk of time picking everything out of the dumpster before putting it back in, picking it back out and putting it back in and almost crying on my way back home, debating whether I
should go back again…

There are constant debates about whether it’s better to eat something that’s in a dumpster regardless of your principles or moral beliefs. But that decision is up to the individual – everyone has their own line and their own point at which they’re willing to cross that line. So do what you feel is best and what makes you feel most comfortable. 

This article was fueled by 3 apples, 1 banana and a potato & cauliflower soup, all rescued from a Norwegian dumpster.

One of Emil’s dumpster diving hauls


Want more?

If you want to read more of Emil’s articles, take a look at the two links below:

What is frilufstliv?

Deserving the peak

*Disclaimer: This article is purely written for information and inspiration, and you are solely responsible for your actions. Ailuna or the author takes no responsibility for any
potential legal consequences this information might lead to.

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