Dumpster diving is legal in Canada, as trash is considered public domain—so long as you don’t trespass or break and enter. I cannot stress this enough: be respectful. Do not make a mess. Leave the dumpster area as clean—or cleaner—than it was before you got there.
Dumpster Diving in Canada: A Portrait
I am sure you have seen the photos of giant piles of food destined for the landfill before being saved by a group of food heroes: Dumpster Divers. Everyone seems to be talking about how much food is wasted, be it at the source with farmers, at the markets, or in restaurants. There are also many books on the subject that are starting to pop up on people’s Amazon wishlists. But, what about dumpster diving in Canada?
Given our strong stance on positive news, instead of focusing on the political issue of food waste, we wanted to know more about the people who dive. What motivates them to do it? Is there a dumpster diver code of conduct? What treasures have they found? What tips do they have for the dumpster-curious out there? All from different backgrounds, Guillaume, Danny, Evelyne and Arige helped us paint a picture of Dumpster Diving in Canada.
We hope you are as inspired as we are to do some diving of your own!
Dumpster Divers: The Stereotypes
I am sure many people still have a very stereotypical, almost comical vision of dumpster divers. Possible labels that come to mind are: dirty, punks, street kids, poor, homeless, hippies etc. Personally, I often have the episode of Portlandia: Season 1 on dumpster diving pop up into my mind, with their over the top exaggeration of how far divers will go to avoid wasting anything, finding rotten food and stale bread. Hilarious, but how accurate is it? Who are the dumpster divers of today? Among the friends we interviewed, many had post-secondary education, regular jobs, ran their own business, and were all from different areas and backgrounds. Dumpster diving in Canada is definitely not limited to the commonly held stereotype.
Why go Dumpster Diving?
After speaking to four of our dumpster diver friends, we realized that there were many reasons why people start rummaging through trash:
One of the reasons often brought up was the environmental issue of food waste. It’s no secret that unimaginable quantities of food are wasted in the food industry. Reducing one’s impact through the recycling of discarded food sounds like a great plan, don’t ya think?
The second most mentioned motivation was the fact that, well, it’s free food! Who in their right mind would say no to free food? Evelyne, for example, dumpster dives when she is low on funds, especially when traveling. Still, she mentions how “some [divers] have jobs and a good salary, we just think its ridiculous to pay for food when you can have it for free. Just think about it, is it better to pay for perfectly good food or to get it for free ?” Arige, who prefers winter dumpster diving, sent me this picture of her recent harvest from a pharmacy. I can see why winter is better for some things: frozen fruits and ice cream galore! This is one of the perks of dumpster diving in Canada: the outdoors become a giant freezer in the winter.
Guillaume’s parents were the ones to first introduce him to dumpster diving and he has continued on his own for two years now. His motivation to continue? “I would say it’s a combination of wanting to do my part to reduce the wasting of food, continuing to eat meat without the negative environmental/ethical aspects all the while spending less on food.” We then got on the subject of freeganism. For those who might be wondering, freeganism refers to when people abstain from consuming animal products unless they were going to go to waste, such as in dumpsters. Another friend, Danny, expresses how “The dairy industry comes to mind since I noticed it’s an incredibly wasteful one. Milk products are transformed, packaged and shipped to the store and a lot are thrown away as they are not purchased in time.”
Finally, going against what is the norm in society is often attractive to certain people. Going through the trash is something the majority of society frowns upon. It comes as no surprise that some people get a certain thrill by going against the system and “playing in the dirt” as Evelyne puts it.
Dumpster Diving Challenges
While from a distance it might seem easy (free food!) Arige reminds us that you have to work for it. We have made a list of the top 3 challenges faced by dumpster divers:
- Access to the food/dumpsters: So many are inaccessible, locked themselves or behind locked gates, or the stores use trash compactors. Several stores purposefully destroy their unsold items to discourage dumpster diving. Evelyne brings up the fact that some companies will go as far as putting bleach or old coffee grinds over the food to make it inedible. Overall, accessing the dumpsters seemed to be the biggest hurdle to overcome for divers.
- Perceived illegality, and uncomfortable encounters with store employees and or the police. The rule of thumb seems to be if the dumpster isn’t locked, or the access isn’t, and there is no sign against trespassing, it’s fair game. Still, we’re not lawyers!
- The smell and the juices during the summer. “I am very sensitive to smell. I dive in the winter because everything is frozen.” mentions Arige.
Here are some of the most surprising or impressive finds that our friends mentioned:
- Beer: One out of six bottles had exploded but all 6 were thrown out. Free booze!
- A Le Corbusier Style LC4 Chaise Lounge Replica: The original is worth over 1000$!
- Frozen vegetables that were good for another 2 years (Why are these even in the trash?
- 100 humus products (A HUNDRED!)
- Two fully functioning curling irons in box. (Danny said they made great gifts!)
- Three jars of cashew butter, (for sale inside the store for 16$ each)
- New Zealand Lamb Chops
- An Orchid with a broken stem (which was immediately adopted)
- A coffee table in perfect condition
- A large framed, printed canvas.
As you can see, you can find many treasures while dumpster diving in Canada, not just food! The other day, I read how we are not, in fact, living in a culture of materialism, proven by our complete disregard for material goods. We are in fact living in the era of consumerism: consuming for consumption’s sake.
Our own experience with dumpster diving in Canada was similar. When we went dumpster diving with our friend Emelie at the Atwater Market, we found enough to make this colorful salad, sauteed mushrooms and pureed cauliflower curry, all we had to add was a can of coconut milk, some oil and the spices! In the same dive we found enough grub to make 2 hearty portions of roasted veggies, they made delicious lunches!
Dumpster Diver Code of Conduct
By talking to these regular divers, we discovered that there seemed to be a certain code of conduct within the dumpster diving community. Dumpster divers want to help build a positive image of dumpster divers and maintain good relations with store owners through these ‘rules’. Who knows, if everyone respected this code, maybe store owners would stop discouraging diving and make their dumpsters more accessible! Here are 6 ‘rules’ for dumpster diving in Canada:
- Open bags and close them when done with them, as opposed to ripping them open;
- Don’t throw things on the floor;
- Close dumpsters if that’s how you found them;
- Take what you need, nothing more. If you take more distribute it among friends or family, put the goods in front of a metro station or in a park and put a little sign saying its good and for free;
- Leave the area cleaner than how it was when you arrived if possible;
- Finally, always be respectful with any store-owners or employees you run into. Sometimes, if you establish a good connection, you may find store owners set aside food for you, as Evelyne points out.
Tips for the Dumpster-Curious
These four were overflowing with advice for anyone who is thinking of doing some dumpster diving of their own. Here are 10 tips for you:
- Trust your nose and taste-buds: if it smells or tastes bad, you probably shouldn’t eat it.
- Pickings can vary a lot: check many places and check often.
- If you get arrested or ticketed for dumpster diving for food contact Rob Greenfield.Of course, you should try NOT to get arrested in the first place! He helps in cases both in the States and in Canada.
- You should wear old clothes and shoes if you’re worried about dirtying yourself (in some cases you will). Wearing plastic gloves is also a great way to keep your hands clean.
- If scared of doing it alone, find a buddy to do it with, ideally someone who has done it before who can teach you. There are many Facebook groups where one can find someone to go with.
- Avoid diving when the stores are open. Yes, some people do dive during store hours. Still, it’s more likely to have an awkward encounter with a store owner or employee, or hurt the image of the store.
- Bring a headlamp.
- Bring bags and/or boxes to bring back your findings.
- Clean up after yourself.
- Don’t get discouraged!
This bear takes dumpster diving to a whole new level. We don’t think the code of conduct applies to him…
How to Dumpster Dive in Safety
You might be wondering how dumpster divers stay safe, both while diving and when it comes to eating discarded food. How do you know what is safe to eat? Well, our friends reassured us that there were ways to stay safe and to prevent getting sick.
One of the main things to watch out for is the depth of the dumpster itself. Sometimes, they go underground, so make sure you can climb out of any dumpster you jump into! Evelyne, standing at 5 feet, uses bags in the dumpster to make a pile to climb out if she finds herself falling a bit short. Also, she warns to check for sharp edges around the dumpster’s ledge, and to avoid any compactor or crusher, as they can start at any time and are dangerous. As mentioned in the tips for newbies, wearing proper clothes, closed shoes or boots and gloves can also help protect your skin. Finally, you should always be aware of the possibility of there being bleach, which can you can usually detect easily enough by it’s strong smell.
Eating your Finds
Before bringing anything home there are a few things to check first. Danny warns us to stay clear of any container or can that is swollen, as it is a sure sign of spoilage. Avoid ripped or damaged packaging, and be wary of expiry dates for certain goods. Evelyne brought something up that we would never have thought of: “if there’s a ridiculous amount of a certain thing and it looks really nice, check online if this product has a problem. It happened with pre-cut lettuce from Dole not too long ago.” Also, check for rodent bites in all produce and discard any that you find.
Once you’re at home, they suggest cleaning all produce with water and vinegar, or a soft soap, to kill any bacteria, making sure to rinse everything properly afterwards. Anything that you can peel and/or boil reduces any contamination risk as well. For meat, they recommend cooking everything well-done to be on the safe side. As a rule, Guillaume suggests eating a very small portion of a product, seeing how you feel, and eating the rest if all goes well. This reminded us of those warnings for hair dyes and creams that suggest testing on a small patch of hair or skin beforehand.
Dumpster Diving for the Greater Good
Through our talks with these experimented divers, we noticed a pattern. While they all saw the individual benefit of free food, most also saw the potential of helping others by redistributing any excess to friends, family, community kitchens or local food banks. Many shared their finds on social media for anyone wanting to share in the haul. Guillaume let us in on his own vision: “I think my next endeavor will be to contact my local food bank, and approach stores as a spokesperson for the food bank. That way more people would benefit from the food I found.” It was obvious that these dumpster divers weren’t thinking only about themselves, but of their community as well. This speaks volumes of what dumpster diving in Canada is really all about.
Dumpster Diving in Canada: More than Garbage Picking
What inspired us most from our talks about dumpster diving in Canada? The passion with which these individuals shared their knowledge. We were being invited to join in on the next excursion, to participate in any way we could. They volunteered the tricks of the trade, sent me photos of their most recent hauls and were overwhelmingly positive about their experience. To sum it up, dumpster diving in Canada is about sharing, personal responsibility, taking care of our planet and of our community, reducing waste, and all the while, saving money on our groceries.
We hope you learned a lot about dumpster diving in Canada! Do you have any tips to add? What were your dumpster diving experiences? Let us know in the comments below!