If there’s one TikTok trend I can get behind, it’s dumpster diving. It’s the act of going through public waste containers to salvage items that are still in good condition, usable, or edible. These include food, clothing, makeup, and even appliances. If you can get your hands on it, it’s yours.
In Europe and Australia, they call it bin diving or skipping after the large steel trash receptacles similar to dumpsters in America. The term ‘dumpster diving’ was coined in the 1980s but the origins of the activity are hard to trace. It’s safe to assume that humans have been finding treasure in trash for centuries in different parts of the world. Usually, it’s to scour for things they desperately need, like discarded food or goods they can sell.
While there are many who dumpster dive out of economic necessity today, there are individuals and groups who consider it as a more ethical way of living. On TikTok, dumpster diving videos are usually from users who also abide by zero-waste principles and denounce the largely capitalistic way of life that’s causing tons of food to end up in landfills.
Whatever your reasons are for dumpster diving, here are a few things I learned while poking around TikTok.
Dumpster diving isn’t really all that gross.
For the uninitiated (like I was), dumpster diving sounds like an icky activity. You’re literally diving into a dumpster where waste is meant to be stored until it’s collected and unloaded into our already overflowing landfills.
But based on the dozens of TikTok videos I’ve seen, dumpster diving doesn’t have to be gross. There are no loose banana peels, biohazard waste, or, rodents crawling inside dumpsters. That is if you know where to go.
Dumpster divers have learned that the best places to check are the dumpsters behind retail stores. They don’t consume products and produce garbage the way households do. Mostly, they throw away things they can’t sell anymore, many of which are still perfectly packaged and ready to be picked by garbage collectors—or dumpster divers, if they’re quick enough.
That doesn’t mean you can take something out of the dumpster and stuff it into your mouth or wardrobe right away. It’s just common sense to clean what you find, regardless of whether you got it from the inside or the back alleys of a store. Spend a good amount of time disinfecting the container of any good you find. If it’s food, make sure it’s still edible before taking it home and washing it off. If it’s already warm, it’s probably been sitting out for a long time. Maybe you ought to skip that one and get food that’s not easily perishable if it hasn’t already gone bad.
The best places and times to go dumpster diving vary.
Unfortunately, stores don’t give out schedules on when they’ll be dumping all their goods into the trash. TikTok users who have been doing this for a while say that scouting ahead and finding a pattern is key to success.
First, go dumpster diving at stores that you would normally shop in yourself. You’re likely to find items that you already know. If you check their dumpster and the lid is down, it’s probably because the waste has already been picked up. But don’t be discouraged. That means that you can come back at a different time of the day or the week and arrive at a container with freshly dumped goods. If it’s food, that means it won’t be sitting out for a long time and there will be a lot you can salvage.
TikTokers also suggest checking residential dumpsters, such as in apartment complexes, motels, hotels, or even dorms in universities. Move out season is the best because university students literally throw their furniture away. That’s fair game for dumpster divers.
Invest in a few simple tools to maximize your dumpster diving haul.
Dumpsters are pretty sizeable things, so you might want to invest in tools to make you more efficient at dumpster diving. First, you’ll need a step stool so you can actually look into the container. And to poke around, use a grabber or a reacher. These are pretty inexpensive but highly useful in dumpster diving.
You’ll also need durable gloves, ideally a pair that is cut-resistant. For obvious reasons, never go dumpster diving barehanded or barefoot! Wear comfortable and nondescript clothing you don’t mind getting dirty, and shin- or knee-length rain or work boots.
Prepare boxes or containers in the back of your vehicle. So you can just grab what you want and go. You can do the sorting later.
Laws around dumpster diving vary per county, not per state or city.
The reason efficiency is key at dumpster diving is that not everyone wants to be caught doing it. It may be a trending topic on TikTok, but there is still a stigma around getting your necessities from what other people have thrown away. Some also want to avoid a confrontation with store owners. Or worse, the cops. Although dumpster diving is legal on a federal level, no one wants to be stopped by the police while doing it.
On that note, it’s important to check your local ordinances surrounding dumpster diving, because they do vary per county or town. Some users suggest calling your city hall and asking if you’ll be breaking any laws by dumpster diving. Technically, waste that has already been dumped is public property, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
What you don’t want to do is trespass on private property. Some dumpsters are fenced or locked, which you should avoid at all costs. It’s proper etiquette in the dumpster diving community to never ever break locks or enter restricted areas. If you do this, you will endanger both yourself and the dumpster diving community.
Dumpster diving is an opportunity created by a massive waste problem.
It’s finally happened. TikTok has made me want to try a trend. Dumpster diving actually sounds like a worthwhile alternative for people who are strapped for cash or want to reduce waste. As much fun as it sounds, it’s hard to ignore the underlying problem that dumpster diving can’t solve. It’s the problem of waste—and not just food waste, but all kinds of unnecessary waste produced by corporations.
When you go dumpster diving, you might be shocked at the number of usable goods that end up getting thrown away. Food is especially heartbreaking to see given that 48 million people face critical levels of starvation. Meanwhile, 931 million tons of food produced only end up in landfills every year. But it’s not just food that are rendered unusable and disposed of. Unsold merchandise like makeup, clothes, luxury goods, and even electronics are quietly thrown away or destroyed so they can’t be used or sold again.
The sad reality is that corporations have been throwing away goods they can’t sell for decades. Perhaps it’s to retain the value of their product, to reduce their liability for goods that they deem unsafe, or to cut on storage or repackaging costs. Who knows how they think?
Fortunately, dumpster diving is gaining traction on TikTok. While it can never solve the horrible problem of overproduction that leads to extreme waste, dumpster diving does shed a light on how wasteful corporations truly are. Perhaps dumpster divers can become the unlikely heroes who can shame retailers into cutting down on waste—or, better yet, donating their unsold goods to the millions of people who could find treasure in their trash.