Follow Us

My dumpster diving career

By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
                                      Photo by Mike Sheehan
33 years ago I began recycling garbage. I don’t know if we helped invent dumpster diving, but David and I were the first ones I ever knew to do it. Here’s the story.
My friend, David Wroughton, and I were born entrepreneurs. My lawn mowing business in high school was a good start and we took it to the next level in college in the form of a janitorial service that David and I owned.
One night as we were cleaning up a  commercial enterprise, we got a bright idea, “What would we find if we looked through the garbage at a restaurant?”
So we went behind a seafood restaurant we liked.                                                            
What we found was a lot of food, but on the whole, it was pretty gross. Not anything you’d want to eat. So then we thought, “What about at the local grocery store? What do they throw out?”
We drove over to the Jewel Grocery Store and what we found in the garbage bins blew us away. It was all still in its packages, thrown out because its date had expired, but still quite edible. We loaded up the car and began an illustrious career as dumpster divers.
Some nights were better than others, but you could almost always count on finding something. Once we found over $200 worth of frozen shrimp. Usually there were loaves of day-old bread. Sometimes we’d drive away with our car packed to the gills with food. On one occasion we found stacks and stacks of eggs – hundreds of them still in their cartons. Some nights when the haul was great, you returned home feeling like a triumphant conquistador.
For those of us trying to live cheaply at Wheaton College, dumpster diving was a gift. We fed our house of six and a number of other students as well.
It was also an adventure. You never knew who you might encounter as you scrounged in the dumpster – often policemen came cruising by and waved at us. Once word got out about the sort of treasures you could find for free, we had competition from other students.
Of course the world caught up with us. I’m told that these days it’s hard to find the kind of food hauls we used to encounter. Afraid of law suits, some stores got fancy trash compactors. But garbage is still a thriving source of livelihood around the world. Everywhere our mission teams go, they minister to those who pick through garbage dumps for scraps. Some people look down their noses at their stinky jobs. I prefer to think of them as guerrilla activists in the green movement – retroactive recyclers keeping the planet clean.
Hard times force people to do what God has always blessed – gleaning is in the Bible, even the disciples did it. Waste not, want not. I’m interested to know – have you had experience with modern day gleaning?
Learn more about how to do it at this website.

Comments (32)

  • Scott (Pappy) Pitts

    Seth I grew up dumpster diving, we had to just to survive. I never would have dreamed that you did it though!!!

  • I spend my day recycling at my thrift shop. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” I feel good about giving my community a place to come to buy the things they need at a great price .

  • I was behind the Dominick’s across the street, uploading items from the dumpster into Jim Larson’s van

  • The best dumpster diving for us was waiting for Macdonalds to close and diving for the throw-a-way burgers! And… diving at the storage units – those trash bins were full of treasure!!!!

  • Can’t quite believe what I am reading……………I’m sure you’re right but the thought just makes me queasy!!! Buying dirt cheap clothes and books from charity shops was my student habit but I would eat nothing if I had no money, or try and get in invite to someone else’s for food. I wouldn’t dream of eating anything out of a rubbish bin! But you carry on…….obviously it works for you!

  • When I was church planting as a teen in Colorado in the early 80’s, my roommates & I dumpster dived for furniture, etc. from our apartment dumpster. We had a wooden crate for a living room table, with a chased-down tumbleweed for a centerpiece, all surrounded by lawn chairs for seating. 🙂

  • Rozy McCormick (Squad Mom)

    I’ve never been that hungry but I have no idea what I would do if I were.

    I’m big on finding books where ever I can and have certainly found some treasures for pennies on the dollar but I’ve never really thought through recycled food.

    I’m kind of with Carol, I’m queasy right now……

    I think you just cured me of wanting lunch 🙂

  • Anna Coffey *WR Alumni (Jan ’09)*

    My encounter actually includes you Seth. I had no idea. I threw away food that had expired in the AIM training center kitchen and the next day I hear that you pulled it all out and took it home. Emily told me it was an old past-time of yours.
    If I would have known before hand, I would have saved you the trouble and set it aside for you but then I may have taken the excitement of dumpster diving away from you. Haha.

    🙂 God bless!

  • Yes, I was there too, with photos as proof. I didn’t believe the stories Seth and Wroughton told about the enormous amounts of perfectly edible, neatly packaged food, available for the legal taking. Then, one night several of us went along and hit the jackpot. I’ll never forget the enormous haul of eggs and bread.

    Looking back now from an adult (with a daughter in college), I can state it was my first real glimpse of the staggering amount of waste in this country. I wish we would have called it “gleaning” as Seth mentions. It would have made it seem more palatable… It just seemed like a great deal and a great way to save money. I’m not at all surprised that “dumpster diving” as it’s now called has been practiced by lots of folks from lots of walks of life.

    Nice posting, Seth. Maybe we can try it again at the 30th college reunion? Day old shrimp, anyone?

  • Great post, Seth. Brings back memories.

    In college, a group of friends and I used dumpster diving to cash in on a Wendy’s/AirTran promotion. The deal: 64 Wendy’s drink cups could be redeemed for a free roundtrip ticket anywhere AirTran flies. In the first night of dumpster diving, our group of four collected more than 500 cups. We kept 128 each, 2 full roundtrips, the maximum allowed per person. The rest of our filthy harvest we cleaned up and sold on Ebay.

    The one-night operation became a full-on enterprise, and we ended up selling more than 1,000 cups, gleaning a profit of about $400 per person within a month while giving airline tickets as gifts to loved ones.

    It was an unforgettable experience. I don’t miss the stench of grease bags and rancid burger buns, but I do feel a pang of nostalgia for those care-free days.

    The full story and more on my philosophy of dumpster diving: http://stillstandingforhim.blogspot.com/2008/12/dumpster-diving.html

  • I too am “outing” myself as a dumpster-diving disciple of Seth. I remember the awe of observing two upright freezer’s full of stuff: frozen pizzas, etc.. Seth beamed like one of the skippers on “America’s Deadliest Catch” gloating over a hold full of fish. These two econ majors had a systematic routine they’d follow. I was both elated, and saddened, at the abundant edible food tossed out every day. Dumpster Diving is now en vogue if you’re a part of the “Compact Movement” -a growing number of Americans opting out of new purchases for a calendar year. Best jackpot: Miller 8oz “little boys” out behind Safeway liquor; drank ’em with Steve D. sittin’ on the soccer bleachers later that night. For a college kid, it was a great haul.

    • Anna – yeah, “waste not want not” is still my motto. Life has gotten more complicated, but I’ve seen too many hungry orphans and I’ll probably be a scrounger to my dying day. I don’t know if that’s God equipping me for the task he’s given me, or just an extreme aspect of my personality.

  • oh yes. dumpster diving. such memories. I used to do this OFTEN at the Salvation Army. It was more than a business though, it was a “safe” place to go. I got all the clothes and shoes I could possibly wear and sell. It was a cushy and a dark place to sleep. It was such a good hiding place, too. I loved my dumpster. Don’t miss it one bit though. Thanks, yet again, for reminding me what the LORD has done for me!

  • For those of us who followed you at Wheaton, we officially changed the name to “gleaning”. DuPage County was at the time the 4th richest in the nation. Expiration dates were strictly adhered too, and if one egg was broken the entire cartoon was pitched. Some of us went so far as to have “Glean Mobiles” (an MK’s car that was used regularly) and “Glean Bibs”, (just-let-them-smell clothes). Gleaning provided unique unions….Wheaton students & single parents & homeless…sharing their discoveries, food dropped off on doorsteps of the lonely and hungry.

    A final project in bi-culturism class included a 7 course meal….all gleaned. And no worries….my roommates father worked at Nestle. Tested stuff in his lab. All good.

    And while I am fortunate enough to be able to walk in the front door of a store now, may we never forget those who sift the piles, not saunter the aisles for sustenance.

  • Hey Seth,

    You already know I was a member of this Wheaton College fraternity.

    Some bad pork once was our only disaster.

  • Cool! We call it Skipping here in the UK. Sadly it’s highly illegal and the fine is more than you get for fly-tipping! 🙁

  • Anna Coffey *WR Alumni (Jan ’09)*

    Okay… Okay…
    I can’t lie…
    My Mom used to “dumpster dive” (but never for food) and found some pretty awesome stuff. I actually own some of those “treasures” now. I guess it isn’t as bad as I make it out to be… hahaha.

  • I’ve often thought about that since I work in food service and know how much gets wasted. I really hate having to toss all that stuff every night. The thing that is really frustrating to me is that we do have items that we are allowed to donate to charity, but some employees are just too lazy to wrap them up, so they just dump them in the trash.

    I have often thought that it would be nice to have a seperate bag or box go put expired food items in (epecially things that are just not fresh, but don’t really spoil), and leave it beside the dumpster or in some designated area so that people who are homeless or struggling financially know where they can find food, without having to dig through other messy and smelly garbage. And that way, it still requires some effort on their part to go collect the food, rather than just a hand-out wich can cintribute to unhealthy dependency.

    Maybe if we all petitioned the health department, we could come up with some kind of system that encourages businesses to reduce waste by making it more easily accesable, while also releasing them of liability related to food that is gleened from thier property.

    Hmmm. Need to think on how that could work.

  • Seth,

    As we’ve discussed, we are so much alike! I’ve dived for food, clothing, furniture, and even got some nice mule deer and moose horns (“antlers” for those of you that live out east) one time!

    Can’t help but think of those in the slums around the world!

  • I have been dumpster diving since I discovered it in 1988. I was working part time and had two pre-teen kids and a teen that brought his girlfriend home to live. Life was rough. My first trash pile netted me a bedroom suite, stainless cookware, corning ware and small ladies clothes and shoes that fit my daughter. She needed shoes so bad and these were still in the store box. I passed it on the way home from work and loaded my station wagon. I returned that same night and we tied furniture to the top of the car. We got several bags of food that were cans, boxed and frozen. We dumped until 2 am almost every night that week and even had a yard sale that weekend that brought in over three hundred dollars. I was hooked. When you don’t have anything even trash looks good.

  • Sweet! I love the feeling of getting something for nothing and the sense of discovery/surprise, like a treasure hunt.

    We need to scout out places locally.

  • Some people think it is shamefull but the real shame is to let yourself and your family go hungry and do without. I am extremely honest to a fault and I believe this is an honest and honorable way to survive. Waste Not, Want Not! This old saying rings true today as it ever has. People throw away good stuff they don’t want so there is no shame in taking it home and keeping it out of the landfills. Digging it out of the trash is no different than getting it at a flea market or thrift store except it is free. I kept a running total of everything I found and its value for years. When I stopped eight years ago I had already netted around $19,000.00. That included several cars motorcycles and riding lawn mowers I was given while digging.

  • Aside from reusing pennies from jewelry, not much.

    But I am guilty of collecting lots of stuff in hopes of using them for some magnificent future idea!

  • The author has told about his journey of his dumpster diving career in an interesting way.Pretty impressive to read about what he got in dumpsters.

  • I used to frequent the dumpster recycling bins to find magazines for my wife…too cheap to buy a subscription!

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Radical Living:

Receive updates on the latest posts as Seth Barnes covers many topics like spiritual formation, what if means to be a christian, how to pray, and more. Radical Living blog is all about a call to excellence in ministry, church, and leadership -as the hands and feet of Jesus.

Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

© Adventures In Missions. All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy | RSS Feed | Sitemap