I did some dumpster diving back in high school, though we didn’t call it dumpster diving. We didn’t call it anything, really; we were just kids who would occasionally come upon awesome trash. In my limited exposure to trash exploration, it was an occasional opportunity to feel like urban archeologists and get an Indiana Jones-like rush from uncovering something pointless, like an old Tom Clancy paperback. There were no Earth-saving agendas, just the thrill that comes from finding free stuff.
But for some, dumpster diving is all about awareness—a way to defy the system and make a statement about consumerism and the abundance of waste. And, for many people—perhaps more than our sustainable-minded yet squeamish society would like to admit—dumpster diving is a necessary part of life. There will always be people who really need the things that are thrown away.
Dumpster diving received a lot of attention in 2010, when filmmaker Jeremy Seifert released the award-winning documentary Dive! Focusing on the dumpsters behind chain grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, the film takes a hard look at our nation’s waste culture and how perfectly good food is tossed away every day.
“If you can, go dumpster diving,” Seifert says in a phone interview with City Weekly. “Because when you eat trash, something changes in how you see the world. It changes how you see food, how you see trash and what trash is.”
Dumpster diving wouldn’t exist at all without our country’s and our communities’ bad habits. People choosing to toss things in the trash rather than donate them—or use the items themselves—means that the bins behind restaurants, grocery stores, strip malls and apartment complexes are where some Utahns are forced to find the means to survive.
I wanted to meet a real Utah dumpster diver. Not a “freegan”—someone who chooses to live off of free crap—but someone who does it because they have to. And that’s how I ended up driving around Midvale at 1 in the morning with a guy I’d met on Craigslist.
Chris Forbush, who’d posted an ad calling for people to join in on some after-dark dumpster quests, doesn’t come across as your stereotypical dumpster diver. To be honest, I’d still been expecting a trustafarian with dreadlocks, maybe wearing a faded Umphrey’s McGee T-shirt. Instead, Forbush is a tattooed bro who rocks a shaved head and black T-shirts. He looks as if he would be more comfortable on the set of Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory than in a dumpster.
Forbush isn’t a full-time dumpster diver. During the day, he delivers pizzas. As he zigzags across Midvale delivering pies, he jots down valuable information about back-alley dumpsters. He has a notepad filled with addresses, dates, and words and phrases like “wooden pallets,” “plastic pails,” “metal sheets,” “kitty litter” (that means the dumpster is a no-go), “someone just moved out of an apartment.”
“I’ll be sure to come back after work and check out these spots for anything good,” Forbush says as we park the car behind a car wash.
“Most of the time, the trash cans at these things are filled with recyclables—people get lazy when they’re cleaning out their car,” he explains as he pulls a soda can out of the garbage and tosses it into a plastic pail.
Forbush is looking for whatever translates into cash or food for his family’s table. Anything helps; household items that aren’t broken can be sold on KSL for a few bucks, rotten food gets tossed on his compost pile, and a few bags of recyclable cans can equal a partially paid phone bill. Though it’s not much, Utah’s recycling centers pay 29 cents per pound for aluminum cans.
Forbush’s wife also works full time as an assistant manager at a local sandwich shop, but Forbush says their two incomes barely allow them to support their two kids. I ask him if they’ve tried to do something other than finding recyclables and flipping stuff on KSL to supplement their income. But, Forbush says, when you have a 4-year-old son with cystic fibrosis, things can get complicated.
“If I were to pick up another job, it would shut off my son’s Medicaid, and his medicines are extremely expensive,” Forbush says. “Even right now, we make too much money. We can’t even get food stamps. It’s like, what do you do? I can take in some cans, and from the money I get from that I can pay a bill.”
In terms of coming across anything of value, the car wash is a bust, so Forbush decides we should check out a large apartment complex nearby.
On the drive over, he reminisces about the first time he was introduced to dumpster diving. “I was in D.C. back in 2007 at the World Bank protests and I was hanging out with these anarchists,” Forbush says. “We were walking through the subway talking about getting something to eat, and this kid just reaches into the trash and pulls out some grub. It kind of blew my mind at the time, but he was like, ‘Yeah, there’s plenty to eat in the trash.’”
If you’ve spent more than five seconds near a disgusting dumpster, the prospect of touching anything that came from one, let alone climbing inside and pulling out something to eat, might seem unthinkable. We live in a highly sanitized society. In a memorable Seinfeld scene, Jerry criticized George for eating an éclair that was merely “above the rim” of a kitchen trash can. But not everyone has the luxury to turn down food, whether it’s hovering above a trash can or is on the very bottom.
But just because food from a dumpster appears to have nothing wrong with it, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to consume. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s website posts national food recalls that happen almost daily. Some recalls are for something simple like undeclared peanuts, but it can also be for severe health risks like salmonella or Hepatitis C. To make matters even more complicated for dumpster divers, retailers are often told to toss the contaminated food in the trash.
People Will Throw Anything Away
We roll into the apartment complex and get out of the car. Forbush puts on a pair of gloves, flicks on his flashlight and starts scoping out a row of dumpsters hidden behind an unlocked fence.
Not every dumpster is worth exploring. The smell of a bad dumpster interacting with your gag reflex will indicate within seconds whether or not something has died in there, or that it’s where someone throws their dog’s feces. The first dumpster we come across has a very identifiable stank of burnt Band-Aids. But that’s the game you play. When we open the second dumpster, Forbush gets excited.
He has a methodology when it comes to dumpster diving. Watching him sift through trash is like watching a character from Storage Wars. “A dollar!” he proclaims after pulling something out. “Four dollars!” he yells again. He seems to enjoy every minute of it.
Forbush also follows the three rules of dumpster diving established by Seifert in his film Dive!: 1. First one to the dumpster has dibs, but you should always share; 2. never take more than what you need; 3. always leave the dumpster cleaner than how you found it.
While carefully sifting through the mess, Forbush points out how you have to be careful when dumpster diving. “I take a lot of caution when I’m out here,” he says. “I make sure to look at the scene first; I would hate to jump into a dumpster and get stuck with a syringe.”
Forbush sets the lamp next his car, reaches back into the dumpster and suddenly gets excited. “Check it out, a Bumblebee backpack! My son would love that, and he wouldn’t have to know where it came from.”
“Do your kids understand what this is, dumpster diving?” I ask.
“Um, I think my 9-year-old boy might think that it’s gross, but if I were to present him with a clean, fresh Bumblebee backpack, he would be like, ‘Dad! That’s freaking awesome! Those are 20 bucks at Kmart!’”
The bins are filled with basically anything people didn’t want on move-out day, a gold mine of stuff that could have been donated without making an extra car trip.
Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Utah, for one, will come to your house and pick up just about anything you don’t want. “Our donation center will always come pick stuff up as long as it’s outside on your curb,” says Amberlee Bauman, events manager for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Utah. “We can use almost anything. We take in about 4 million pounds of clothes and households items a year. We have a partnership with Savers, and we take the donations to those stores and they pay us for those items. The money goes toward our mentoring programs for youth. We depend on those donations; it equals about 35 percent of our budget.”
“I’ve never come across anything like that,” Forbush says. “I suppose you could come upon bank statements or stuff like that, but you would hope that people are wise enough to shred anything that is valuable to them.”
On the other side of the parking lot, a woman lights a cigarette and pulls out her phone.
“I think that lady is checking us out right now; we should get out of here,” Forbush says.
“How often do you get kicked out of places?” I ask.
“You know, it’s never happened to me,” Forbush says. “I’m always super hyperconscious and I get spooked easily. If I all of a sudden feel like I shouldn’t be someplace, I get out of there.”
“We haven’t had people calling and making an issue out of it, so I would say, no, [dumpster diving] is not illegal,” says Detective Rick Wall of the Salt Lake City Police Department. “In terms of homes, if the trash is on the curb, the courts have deemed you’ve given up ownership. Now, with a business, it’s a little different, because the dumpsters are usually on private property and businesses are open to the public—so that’s where it falls in that gray area.”
Forbush would rather avoid any confrontation. “I don’t want to overstay my welcome,” Forbush says as we get back in car. “I leave as soon as I feel like it’s getting weird. We’re not doing anything wrong here; it’s just some people are too concerned about the wrong stuff.”
The Big Green Score
We pull out of the apartment complex and head over to Good Earth Natural Foods in Sandy to forage for grub. This organic grocery store is one of Forbush’s favorite spots. As we enter the back alley, he turns off his headlights. “I don’t like to spook the next-door neighbors,” he says.
There are two dumpsters behind Good Earth: one for recyclables, the other for trash. When we open the lid of the trash dumpster, we discover that it’s filled nearly to the brim with cardboard. Forbush immediately starts complaining about sorting recyclables. “Damn, man, they could have walked two more feet and thrown it in the recycling bin,” he huffs as he climbs into the dumpster.
When Forbush lifts up the first layer of cardboard, I swear I hear the sound of Link opening a treasure chest from Nintendo’s Zelda. “Whoa, here’s some perfectly good buckets! Plastic pallets! Garden containers!” Forbush is now knee-deep in the dumpster and discovering new gems with every layer of cardboard he removes. “Ahhhh, dude … duuude, apples! They look fine,” he says as he inspects them with his flashlight.
For the next 20 minutes, Forbush, Mike and I pull out a bounty of seemingly decent produce, which includes celery, tomatoes and about 12 boxes of kale.
“Dude, all this kale is perfectly good,” Forbush shouts.
“What’s the expiration date?” I ask.
Forbush flips the plastic bin upside down. “Use by June 10,” he says. “This makes me sick. That’s over two weeks from now!”
On further inspection, one of the boxes of kale is going to expire the next day. “They threw all this kale away because one box was set to expire?!” Forbush exclaims.
That evening, we rescue at least 50 pounds of safe-to-eat food, plus three unopened stacks of Edible Wasatch Magazine that should’ve been in the recycling bin. The cover of the issue reads “Local food is growing! Dig in!”
As we load up Forbush’s trunk, I ask him if he’s vegan—I’ve never seen a meat eater so excited to find free kale.
“I prefer to eat vegan as often as I can,” he says. “But I’m very low-income right now, so I don’t really have a choice to pick and choose. I’ll take whatever comes my way. If it’s free, I’ll take it. Our fridge is getting to where it’s pretty empty, so I won’t tell [my family] where this food came from, but I’ll wash it and know it’s fine.”
I’m not gonna lie, it was exciting to discover that much edible produce in a dumpster, but it was also bittersweet. In 1996, former President Bill Clinton signed the Good Samaritan act, which encourages grocery stores to donate food rather than throw it out when it gets close to its expiration date. The act clears stores of any liability in regard to donated food.
All of that “waste” we found could have easily gone to someone who needed it. According to the Utah Food Bank, 1 in 5 kids in Utah aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from, and 473,000 people in Utah miss at least one meal every day.
“We work with about 220 retailers statewide,” says Nate Call, who runs the Utah Food Bank’s Grocery Rescue program. Annually, the program rescues roughly 12.5 million pounds of food before it hits grocery-store dumpsters, representing 34 percent of inventory for the Utah Food Bank.
“Each store has its own policies,” Call says. “Most of the retailers we work with have this down to a science. They all know what’s going to sell and what’s not going to sell, and they do a great job at working with us. Historically, that food has gone in the dumpster and we want to eliminate that and reduce that amount of food going in the trash.”
According to a manager at Good Earth who asked not to be identified, the organic grocery store donates expired food three times a week to the Utah Food Bank.
“Typically, we’ll donate all of our expired products as long as it’s not moldy,” the manager said in a phone interview. “However, we dump our produce in our dumpster. Even if there’s one thing wrong with it, we can’t sell it. If there’s a spot on an apple, the whole bag will have to go. But it depends on the situation. A lot of it is because organic produce doesn’t stay as long on the shelf.”
Call says that store waste often comes down to educating the business. “It could be that there’s a produce manager who is not familiar with the program and hasn’t yet been trained,” he says. “We have staff who will go out and help with that. Some stores have a varying degree of how they deal with donations; they may have chosen to deal with produce like that.”
We stuff Forbush’s trunk with everything we can fit. Unfortunately, we ended up leaving a massive amount of food behind.
The House That Garbage Built
Before Forbush drops us off back at our car, he wants to show us his house. I’m excited to see it—all this talk of what he’s found in dumpsters has me wondering if he lives in a house made of garbage.
I can hear all of the newly found crap in his trunk bouncing around, so I ask, “Does your wife get upset with you for bringing all this shit home with you every night?”
At first glance, Forbush’s home is a typical beat-up duplex in the heart of Midvale. But as we circle around back, I see a culmination of almost five years of dumpster diving. Tires, cinder blocks, wooden pallets—everyday items that businesses usually toss—have been repurposed to transform the space into an impressive urban garden.
“My goal is to have this whole area set up for my friends and neighbors to come over and grow and learn about food,” he says.
It Starts With a Small Step
Filmmaker Seifert says that dumpster diving changes the way you see food and how you think about trash. And, yeah, it was inspiring to hang out with Forbush for an evening of trash digging and see firsthand what could be done with items rescued from the dumpster.
But, Seifert says, “that’s the problem with a lot of us: We never take that first little step. We read the article, we watch the documentary and then we go, ‘Wow, holy shit, that’s terrible, I should do something,’ but that becomes sort of an end to itself.”
Seifert says dumpster diving is that first step—a small gesture that can galvanize the green-initiative within. So, a couple of weeks after my night with Forbush, I decide to head out to do a little dumpster diving of my own.
With almost zero strategy or planning, I spend an hour and a half hitting as many dumpsters as I can on 400 South between 700 East and State Street. In that short span of time, I discover a perfectly good kiddie pool and a dumpster behind a restaurant that’s overflowing with plastic-wrapped baguettes. I open up one of the bags, pull out a piece of bread and take a bite.
Now, I’m not gonna say it was a communion-like spiritual experience. But it’s a little humbling to realize that it’s still food, not garbage, and it does make you wonder about all the things that make it to the dumpster that shouldn’t.
In a way, Seifert was right. Forbush went dumpster diving in DC almost five years ago, and now he’s running a community garden in the suburbs.
“I know none of us can be perfect and there’s so many issues and ways to improve this planet,” Seifert says, “but I truly believe it’s all about taking that first small step.”