legality in a dumpster

Kid in dumpster with mountain of food. Head of broccoli demands, “What are you doing in here?” Kid counters, “What are YOU doing in here?”

Burdens lift and scarcity is averted when the mountains of trash produced by this insane society become supplies and sustenance. Everything that sucks about capitalism is inverted when the dumpster diver scores. Poverty becomes abundance. Loss becomes gain. Despair becomes hope.

-CrimethInc’s “Recipes for Disaster”

Dumpster diving can be magical. It can divert trash from landfills. It can feed people who are poor and hungry. It can teach you a whole lot about scavenging and cooking (as you confront the question “what the hell am I going to do with 25 enormous bell peppers?”), about the place where you live and the values that a money economy insists we assume. And yet tragically—though predictably in the context—dumpster diving also tends to be considered illegal.

Lucky for most dumpster divers, little ever comes of the occasional confrontation with employees, apartment-building residents, security, and police. But on the odd occasion you could realistically find yourself facing a charge of theft or, depending on whether or not you had to climb something to get at the dumpster you emptied last week, trespassing or breaking and entering. You might remember the report on Indy Media about a Belgian dumpster diver arrested in the act or the tale of how I came across one of the people I live with being hassled by police for checking out the university trash corral after hours.

Some folks I talked to at a concert once told me this story about their confrontation with the law while dumpster diving, and as it illustrates the absurdity of dumpster diving’s illegal status quite nicely, I wanted to share it with you. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

So. Once upon a dumpster, some folks who we’ll call John, Jake, Jingelheimer, and Schmidt were driving around late one night in search of produce-filled dumpsters. One grocery store that they visited kept their dumpsters in a walled-in corral. Jingelheimer climbed over and started filling boxes with produce and handing them over the wall to her waiting companions. The car trunk was filling up, and feeling a bit euphoric, they weren’t quiet at all. A neighbor heard the commotion and called the police.

When the police arrived on the scene they didn’t find Jingelheimer—who had cleverly turned herself into an umbrella and remained invisible to the police’s flashlight-aided eyes—but they searched the car and checked the IDs of everyone else. When someone in the group pointed out the absurdity of the situation (how is taking something somebody didn’t want anymore anyway theft?), one of the police officers replied (I am not even kidding): “That’s not the point. If I took a shit in my garden, and you came in and stole my shit, it would still be theft.” And, in so doing, illustrated the dumpster divers’ point even more thoroughly than they.

The story, I am glad to tell you, ends happily. The police let the group and the vegetables go on their way, the grocery store never followed up on the case, and they all lived happily ever after in houses built of bell peppers. Unfortunately however, the controversy continues, and dumpster diving remains in the position of being “illegal but mostly tolerated.” But what is the greater crime? To remove and eat food from the trash, or to have put them in the trash in the first place?

0 Comments on “legality in a dumpster

  1. Well said, I have nothing to add, it is disgusting how accepted it is in our society to waste food.

    Hmmm maybe I can also make a point here that consuming lots of meat also = wasting food (and resources) because it takes so much more of both to produce meat.

    If people just ate all the food that was used for the animals, who knows the exact statistics, but it could feed many more people.

    Google “vegan resources to produce meat” or similar for more info, here’s one of the less biased ones:

  2. Great article! I’m not sure what the laws are in my area on dumpster diving. My personal take on it is that if it is in the trash, it’s fair game and free for the taking…as long as the diver isn’t leaving a mess like scattered trash behind.

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