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Dumpster Diving and Scavenging: What is the Difference?

Dumpster Diving and Scavenging: What is the Difference?

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We've all heard the phrase "one person's trash is another person's treasure." Dumpster diving and scavenging are living examples of this!

From suburban adventure lovers to TikTok activists to people just trying to feed their kids, dumpster diving has attracted a wide and varied group of participants. Looking through dumpsters has seen a leap in popularity in recent years

The art of dumpster diving is unique in many ways. Many consider it a hobby, a way to reduce waste, and an interesting source of extra income. Others see it as a political action, taking a stand against aggressive consumerism, tragic wastefulness, and an assault on the environment.

What is Dumpster Diving?

An infographic detailing what dumpster diving is
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Dumpster diving is a sound and honorable niche that involves searching through commercial dumpsters or rubbish bins. This usually happens behind businesses and retail establishments. While it is growing in popularity, you can’t say that it’s a common activity.

According to Statista, just 21 percent of Americans admit to dumpster diving. Another 13 percent say they are interested, but haven’t taken the plunge yet. The vast majority of those who go dumpster diving do it only occasionally.

Dumpster divers are looking for items that still have life in them. Good finds range from clothing to electronics to holiday items. DIY crafters and home improvement fans look for salvageable materials, from wood pallet pieces to pottery to fabric. And of course, you can find lots of edible food in dumpsters behind restaurants, supermarkets, and large retailers.

What is Scavenging?

An infographic detailing what is scavenging as opposed to dumpster diving
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Scavenging is a common activity among those who are experiencing food scarcity or poverty. Many people consider these scavenged finds a daily “food source.”

Brenden Rikihana, who posts his dumpster diving activities on social media, explains,

“The working poor, struggling and still having jobs, you might not even be making it check to check, running out of money before your next paycheck. So, I’m seeing a lot more of these people dumpster diving.”

Both dumpster diving and scavenging involve accessing a trash receptacle in order to look for items that are useful or valuable. Scavenging and dumpster diving seem very similar on the surface, but there are key differences between the two.

Difficulties of Scavenging

While dumpster diving is most attractive to those looking for items to use or sell, scavenging is more of a survival action. Scavengers are usually looking to obtain food or other basic daily-life necessities. Typical scavengers may be people experiencing homelessness or people living in severe poverty. Scavengers most often target food establishments, including grocery stores, convenience stores, and restaurants.

In fact, this makes scavenging more challenging than simple dumpster diving. Garbage food scraps are often mixed in with edible food, but it can be hard to sort through it all if it is just tossed in the dumpster together.

While it is not for everyone, one in five people surveyed revealed that they had eaten food out of the trash. This food is not rotten or spoiled. In most cases, the food scavenged is perfectly edible. It simply has been tossed out.

New York couple Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin are creators of a documentary detailing their experience eating for six months out of dumpsters. Not only did they live to tell the tale, they learned a lot along the way.

They had to get creative when cooking and using their scavenged food, and they had to make safety a priority. “We used our senses. If it smelled good and tasted good, it was fine,” explained Jen.

Who is a Typical Dumpster Diver?

Many people think that a dumpster diver is someone with a low income or someone experiencing homelessness. While many such people do come from low income backgrounds, dumpster diving has become appealing to people from all walks of life.

Many divers are concerned about excessive wastefulness and the environment. Truly, there is a significant element of waste when businesses toss out their trash.

From edible food to new clothes to unopened electronics, a dumpster behind a commercial business or food market could be full of items that shouldn’t be just thrown out. Divers often pull out these items for personal use or to sell on sites such as Facebook Marketplace or eBay.

Dumpster divers tend to need an extra source of income. There are so many useable items just tossed in a trash can. Quite a few items are new and still in their original packaging!

These dumpster divers know how to sort through the trash to find sellable items. Many can bring in hundreds and even thousands of dollars each month with their finds.

The Politics of Dumpster Diving

There are also those who see dumpster diving as an act of protest. These people will rummage in dumpsters behind commercial establishments to find items they can use or give away free to others. This is a simple and personal act of protest against unrestrained consumerism.

This goal is often tied to the desire to live a minimalist lifestyle and to never buy anything new. These principled dumpster divers believe that they are contributing to the good of society with their actions.

“We’re making a statement to people,” explains Adam Weissman, a resident of New York City’s Upper East Side.

“I’m going to be walking around the streets of Manhattan, giving out this food to people who can use it.”

As you can see, dumpster diving can be fueled by many different motives.

What Do Dumpster Divers Do with their Hauls?

Any seasoned diver will readily tell you about their favorite finds over the years. In fact, you can spend hours watching YouTube videos like “My Most Memorable Dumpster Diving Finds of This Year,” or “Incredible Dumpster Haul from Our Weekend Outing.”

But what do they do with all these dumpster treasures? Some keep the items for themselves, others share them with family and friends, and others sell them for profit. It all depends on a person's motivation for dumpster diving and their need for particular items at the time of a dumpster adventure. Here are some of the ways that dumpster divers make this pastime worthwhile.

An infographic on dumpster diving and what dumpster divers do with their hauls
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1. Personal Use

Virtually every dumpster diver will run across something they can use themselves. That is most of the fun of dumpster diving! You can expect to find everything from a bunch of dishes to a set of tools to some brand-new shoes in your size. Even divers who do it for profit will end up keeping many of the items themselves.

2. Selling Items

No doubt, dumpster diving for profit is a key motivation for many people who are willing to dip into a stinky dumpster. After all, if you do this often and long enough, you’ll end up with more than you can ever use.

A diver may not know what each specific item is worth when they pull it out of the garbage container. However, a quick search on eBay can reveal which items are junk and which are treasures. Dumpster divers sell their goods on:

  • eBay
  • Facebook Marketplace
  • Yard sales
  • Flea markets
  • Consignment shops

3. Donations

Not everything can make you money. Also, completing the whole selling process can be a hassle. Many who dumpster dive keep what they can use themselves and then donate the rest. This is especially common among those who scavenge for food. If the food is still good and is not contaminated, it can be donated to a local food bank or soup kitchen.

4. Upcycling

There are lots of materials in dumpsters that can be repurposed. Upcycling dumpster finds saves on the cost of raw materials and allows you to let your creative side shine.

Examples of dumpster diving upcycling include:

  • Garden planters made from wooden pallets
  • Quilts made from old clothing
  • Sculptures made from discarded scrap metal

A dumpster dive can also be a good source for a DIY project like building shelves, rehabbing patio furniture, or making throw pillows.

5. Recycling

Some divers are concerned about the impact of trash disposal on the environment and want to make a difference. It is common to find material in a dumpster that could be easily recycled, from aluminum cans to glass to plastic. Removing these from a dumpster prevents these items from ending up in a landfill.

Will Dumpster Divers Target Roll Off Rentals?

Most divers look for their finds behind businesses, but there can also be profitable finds in rental dumpsters. These roll off dumpsters are often found at construction sites, home remodeling jobs, and hoarder clean-outs. Because of the potential for finding useable material, a new dumpster can become easy targets for dumpster divers.

At a construction site, a diver will look for building materials, tools, scrap metal, and landscaping material. There could be large pieces of drywall, lumber, insulation, and bricks. Those scrounging for building materials can often find useable scraps or even unopened packages of these types of items.

Homeowners often use rental dumpsters when doing a home renovation project or a big home clean out job. These dumpsters can be tempting to dumpster divers because they have easy access. These trash containers are placed right in front of a home and typically have near-by street access. Dumpster divers targeting residential rental dumpsters are looking for furniture, electronics, clothing, books, and building material.

Dumpster Diving and the Law

While it may seem easy to rummage through a dumpster that a business or a homeowner has rented, it is actually illegal. In order to access a rental dumpster, you would likely need to go onto private property. This can get you a trespassing charge. Most municipalities and counties have ordinances against removing items from a dumpster on private property.

If you are interested in looking through a roll off dumpster container, talk with the owner of the property first. Don’t be surprised if you are denied access, but it never hurts to ask. Do not enter a dumpster on private property uninvited.

There could be significant potential legal consequences if you decide to dumpster dive in a rental dumpster, so think carefully before you attempt to go treasure hunting in a roll off container.

On the other hand, dumpster diving on public property is usually legal. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that any trash put out on a curb or in a dumpster is considered abandoned property. It is fair game for anyone who wants to rummage through it.

A dumpster on private property does not fall under this ruling and there may be other legal restrictions. Be sure to check the laws about dumpster diving in your community before heading out for some trashy treasure hunting.

Beware of Dumpster Diving When You Rent a Dumpster

Is your next big project around the corner? Call Discount Dumpster for affordable prices and swift service to your location!

Beware; here be dumpster divers matey!

Dumpsters at any location will attract divers. This can be dealt with in reasonable ways, as our blog pointed out. Most divers are just people trying to make a living. They wish no harm on anyone!

Discount Dumpster can help you with useful tips to prevent dumpster diving on your property or how you can possibly help the known dumpster diver in your area. Its all going to the garbage anyway!

Call to Reserve Your Dumpster Rental Today! - (888) 316-7010

About Monica Mayhak

I am an expert content writer with a depth of experience in the waste management and dumpster industry, with over 25 years of experience writing about construction, home improvement, property management, and education topics. As lead research writer for Discount Dumpster, I have expanded my knowledge and understanding of waste management, construction, and environmental issues over the past several years.

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