Regarding the legality of Dumpster diving, they were unsure. The consensus among the group was “Trash is trash. It’s discarded and doesn’t belong to anyone.”
There’s a Supreme Court ruling that freegan and Dumpster-diving “junk dealer” websites fondly cite. The case is California v. Greenwood of 1988. In it, Investigator Jenny Stracner of the Laguna Beach Police asked a trash collector to bring her the garbage of Billy Greenwood. In the trash, Investigator Stracner found drug paraphernalia and with that as evidence petitioned a judge for a search warrant of Greenwood’s apartment, which turned up more drug evidence.
The Supreme Court found that police going through your trash is not a violation of your Constitutional rights to privacy as protected by the Fourth Amendment. The Court said that Greenwood left his trash on the curb for pickup, essentially giving it away. They also noted that it is common knowledge that trash set outside of private property is “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.” I like that the Supreme Court said “scavengers and snoops.” It has a nostalgic and romantic ring to it.
The case established this: it’s not illegal for police to dig through your trash. The leap that freegans and junk dealers want us to make is that it’s okay for civilians to do the same — a principle with incredible potential to whip around and bite your ass.
Tom said, “It probably depends on what state you’re in and the cop who finds you.” Wisely he noted, “It’s probably not illegal to take someone’s garbage, but what are you going to do, argue with a cop?”
The four freegans debated legality for a minute, sometimes reversing a previous stance. What they agreed on is, trespassing and making a mess are definitely against the law, and if an owner, manager, or employee wanted to press the issue, that’s what they’d use.
Tom said that the one time he was hassled was in a different state, in the bin of a sporting goods store during a cross-country trip. “The police pulled up and told us to leave, and that was it, we just got out and left.”
“While you traveled, were you eating from Dumpsters out of necessity?” I asked.
Tom leaned back, looked up, and thought for a second. “I’ve never been faced with the option of either eating from the trash or not eating at all. But it was a ‘necessity’ to save money, which let me travel longer.”
The guys agreed; none of them had ever needed to Dumpster dive. And they’d each been doing it for the better part of a decade. They did it to save money, but also because they disagree with the amount of food thrown away in this country.
Concerning their stance on waste, it’s hard to disagree philosophically with the freegans. We’re a wasteful country. A study by the USDA from 1997, but still in wide use, reports that “5.4 billion pounds of food were lost at the retail level in 1995.” The “retail level” applies to food that was produced on a farm or factory but never reached a restaurant or consumer. Mostly, that food is discarded from grocery stores.
That’s 5.4 BILLION pounds. Let’s convert that numeric concept of weight into something visual and cool, one of my favorites: dump trucks. American company Caterpillar makes a big yellow-and-black mother dump truck they call the Model 797B. It’s one of the biggest dump trucks in the world, measuring in at 32 feet wide (yes, wide). The Caterpillar 797B can handle a payload of 380 U.S. tons —- a U.S. ton is exactly 2000 pounds. So by my calculations, the 1995 retail loss of food equaled 7105 gigantic dump truck loads. Over 7000 dump truck loads of food, wow. Parked side by side, at 32 feet wide each, a line of those mega dump trucks would span a little over 43 miles. All of them filled with food that at one time was edible, and all of it thrown out to rot in a landfill.
Looking at those facts, the only intelligent conclusion one can draw is that a better system should be devised. The freegans think they have it. In short: Dumpster diving. If a food item hits the trash but is still fit for consumption, they labor to round it up and make sure it’s eaten.
That was our plan for the night’s adventure. We decided to quit jabbering in the dim coffeehouse and instead venture out into the murky night, breathe in crisp air, and plunder trash bins. Excelsior!
You can already guess that the Volkswagen van, our chariot, was dismal, sputtering, cluttered. Casey said the interior looked like a set for the slasher movie Saw. It also smelled of brown rice and forsaken soymilk. In the back seat I searched for a window to crack. My efforts were futile.
I promised I wouldn’t name the outlets we were to visit that night, but I will tell you that both places are major staples of La Jolla. We traveled in the clunky camper van from the quaint streets of North Park, up the 5, past the bright spiky towers of the Mormon temple. Then we wiggled our way through surface streets until the consensus was that we were lost.
“I think it’s back that way, dude” was offered but turned down by the driver.
As we drove on, Tom figured out where we were and skillfully directed us on to the first stop. “On the other side of this fence is the entrance,” he said. “It’s before the parking lot. It’ll take us to the back.” We motored in. Loading docks behind the store sat silent. I checked my phone; it was half past midnight.
Horror from the scent, and fear of potential maiming in the mechanically unsound deathbox, abated when we reached our first destination and cracked open the door.
“Was the van free?” I asked and received a glare in response. We disembarked into the pools of mercury light that flooded the cold asphalt parking lot of a major grocery chain. Four Dumpsters lined up in a row.