Thursday, March 1, 2012

Squeeze My Melons and Plow My Furrow, Part 1: Falling In--The Perils of Dumpster Diving

Unless a last minute Voodoo interview comes through, the "Blessed Be Thy Feet" series is over. I know that some of you are tired of feet but that some of you will be sad to see them walk away. The next series that I am writing (with other fun stuff interspersed) may seem a little too granola for the appetites of some of you, but it give a chance. This series may turn out to be grittier than you anticipate.

I have a confession to make. A lot of my food comes from dumpsters. In fact the fruit bar that I'm munching on right now came from a dumpster. No, my food is not rotten, but it has been discarded. I'm occasionally part of a loose, unofficial network of folks who watch for inventory turn over in stores, gather up the discarded inventory outside of the store, and then distribute it to folks. I've always loved discarded treasures, and as everybody's economic situation has started to suck, many other people are discovering just how much waste is out there for the taking if you can put aside the connotations that our nation has with the word "dumpster."
While homeless people do dumpster dive, a growing number of the dumpster divers in urban and suburban areas are people who have homes and even jobs but who are opportunistic. Then there are the Freegans. "Freegan" is a marriage of "free" and "vegan". These folks don't eat meat or animal products and feel that things should be as free as possible. Basically, if you're willing to lower your standard of living to the level that most of the world's population lives at, then in America you can usually survive on free, found food and items, and you have unlimited free time to be a Communist and give back to the community. The Communist part isn't quite accurate, but you get the picture. The Freegans have been instrumental in educating the public in the laws about discarded items, organizing meet-ups and scavenging groups, and being public advocates for squatters' rights. Their website is an invaluable source for anyone curious about dumpster diving and partaking of all the free food left behind stores.
Some Freegans and non-affiliated dumpster divers are Pagan. As the Rede says, "An it harm none, do what thou will," and acquiring free food fits right in with this belief. In most localities, items left in a dumpster or by a dumpster is seen as discarded and no longer the property of the entity that discarded it. So, in other words, you're not stealing. The only exception to this is in fenced in areas. Even if the police do not arrest you for stealing, they can arrest you for trespassing in fenced areas.

One such Pagan is Glen, who started dumpster diving thirteen years ago when a friend took him along for a dive. The proceeds from the sold items that were scavenged from that first dive were used to pay the rent for the friend's Pagan supply shop. After his dumpster cherry was popped, Glen went dumpster diving several times a year, but during the economic collapse of the last three years, he has increased his activity to once or twice a week.
Not only was Glen hit hard by the failing economy, but so were the people around him, Pagan and non-Pagan. "I saw that a lot of the stuff I was getting I could help people with." That's when his private distribution program started.
According to Glen, the best places to look for discarded merchandise are major chain department stores that do not have a trash compactor. Other good stores to visit are food stores that are large enough to have the capacity to sustain a loss. Also, be on the look out for stores that have half empty shelves. It is very likely that the store is taking inventory and removing out-of-date or broken merchandise. That merchandise has to go somewhere, and it might as well go in the trunk of your car instead of the landfill.
In addition to finding the right stores to scavenge, Glen admonishes that new divers remember common courtesy. "If a dumpster has a lot of stuff in it, leave some for the next guy. Don't be greedy." This courtesy is part of an unspoken code that has enabled him to trade products with other divers.
While many new and potential divers may be worried about 5-0 trouble, as I wrote above, dumpster diving is not illegal in most areas as long as the dumpster area is not fenced in. "I've only been approached one time," Glen admitted,  "and that was this year by the Belmont Police, but they are scavenger friendly." They looked through his saved items, but didn't really hassle him or confiscated anything.

Without Glen's scavenging, his family and many others would have very lean tables and austere lives. In the last four years, Glen conservatively estimates that he has saved $10,000-$20,000 on food and household products. Recently, he came across six Keurig coffee machines and several hundred pods of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. One machine alone often sells for a hundred dollars or more. All that was wrong with the machines was that the cords were a little damaged. The damage was easily fixed with electrical tape. The only thing that were wrong with the pods was that someone had opened the packaging in the store but not the pods themselves.
His biggest single haul was worth a little over $3,000 and helped not only his family but 9 other households. Many of the households that Glen distributes food to are in his Pagan group, but some are just folks that others have referred to him. Some of the households helped receive government food assistance, but many of them have head of households that are just employed enough to not qualify for assistance but not employed enough to make ends meet each month. His food distribution has helped bridge that gap.

"I keep in mind my group's needs and the group member's needs. I'll put stuff back [into the dumpster] to be able to take what the members need. I feel like a year-round Befano. I get a lot of joy from seeing the look on people's faces when they get something they've really wanted or needed."
Because of Glen's generosity, thriftiness, and intrepidness, I often get to eat really nice meals made up of fresh and dry food items that nobody had to pay anything for more than the price of gas to go and get. I also get to sip my single serving fancy coffee while I shave my legs and other sweet spots with new razors and dry off with warm towels (as if I would have ever in a million years bought either a Keurig coffee machine or a towel warmer!).

How to get started dumpster diving--tips from Glen and others
  • Locate stores that are appropriate for dumpster diving. Please see the above criteria.
  • Always go with a friend or two. This is not only for safety but also because sometimes you need help lifting and loading items.
  • Stay away from buildings that store items outside, like a garden center. Police often view these stores the same way that they view stores with fences. Plus, how easy will it be to prove that you were only taking stuff from the dumpster and not stealing stored merchandise if you're questioned?
  • If possible, recruit friends who work inside of the stores that you visit. This can be a store employee or someone who is regularly in the store (like independent data collection associates). They can tip you off when the store is trading out old merchandise for new and when the store usually takes items to the dumpster. However, be warned--make sure that you can trust this friend and that you are careful that your actions do not compromise the friend's job.
  • Drive a vehicle that has either has a trunk or other storage space to haul your finds. Also make sure that all insurance and registration on the vehicle is up-to-date. You want to minimize the things a police officer may hassle you about.
  • Always wear gloves and boots or other closed-toed shoes, and make sure to carry hand sanitizer, flash lights or headlamps, trash grabbers, and a home-made hook. Glen likes to carry a golf club with a hook attached.
  • Pick well lit dumpster areas. Going to dark places looks suspicious.
  • Establish a route and a regular time. Working a regular route is advantageous because the folks watching you (and there are always folks watching you) will get use to seeing you and realize that you are not a thief or a vandal. The same applies for choosing a regular time. You can go at night, which is what Glen does, or you can go during the day, which is what his father-in-law does. If you go during the day or shortly after closing, you are more likely to find discarded refrigerated items that are still good. Unopened milk is usually good several days after the use-by date. Packaged cheese is usually good several months after its date.
  • Develop a good sense when to be honest and when to fib. It's usually advantageous to be up front with police officers, but it's often best to fib to store personnel who may catch you in the act. The line, "This ____________ is for my pets (or rescued animals)," is a good one to remember. Some times if they think you are trying to save on pet food, they are willing to let you know when they discard certain items.
  • Don't be afraid to use magic in your scavenging. Shielding, camouflage, and invisibility spells and amulets are all helpful, as are protection and abundance spells and charms.