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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.

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Ollie June 27, 2008 @ 8:25 a.m.

This story was better before Ernie Grimm, editor and opera singer, hacksawed it apart and Krazy Glued it together while scratching his head and making fart noises with his lips like an orangutan. At his next opera performance, I want my fans to throw rotten fruit and trash. Luckily, I know just the spot to pick some up.


Casey June 27, 2008 @ 12:21 p.m.

Settle down, cowboy. It's still very good. Put your pants back on and get your Smurfs VHS ready....I'll warm the gin.


Josh Board June 27, 2008 @ 4:02 p.m.

A comment for both Ollie and Ernie.

Ernie, have you heard the song "Opera Sing" from Cake? It's awesome.

Ollie, as a writer, I can feel your pain. But I'm curious. And, I'm sure the editors would have no objections to this (if they do, they can just delete). I've been disappointed with some edits on a few of my pieces. Sometimes, when it was YO DJ pieces, since local DJs are expecting one thing, and if their words come out slightly different, they can be seriously P.O'd. So, a few times, I've posted on this website, the full length of what they had to say.

So, why don't you...right here, post (in 25 different segments, if that's what it takes) your original version. And, we can read it in all it's glory.

As the piece is now, though, I gotta say, it was a good read. My girlfriend and I were cracking up reading it at Subway the other day. We'd go back and forth with things like "Hey...did you get to the part where...."


pete78 June 27, 2008 @ 6:27 p.m.

That was a great story Oliver...Your bike ride story was entertaining as well. Where did you meet these D-Mart shoppers? Did you put an ad on Craigslist or something? I bet these kids probably have some diseases by now.


Ollie June 27, 2008 @ 6:40 p.m.

Josh, it's not that bad. I was just teasin' Señor Grimm.

Pete, Casey found them online. I think she found our guys on Myspace.

Thanks to both of you for reading.


pete78 June 27, 2008 @ 6:54 p.m.

Ollie, Were these guys hipster/scenester kids?


Ollie June 27, 2008 @ 7:29 p.m.

Not really. Although, the older I get the harder it is for me to tell.


Liza June 29, 2008 @ 9:18 a.m.

Ollie-You captured the humorless piety of the Freegans perfectly. I work in a small company that promotes "team spirit" by forcing me attend a potluck in a windowless room once a month with my colleagues. At one point we had one Freegan, two Vegans and one Vegetarian on our "team". You can imagine how much fun they are to dine with! I really tried. No eggs, no meat, no cheese, no cane sugar, no honey. But I refuse to pull wilted foodstuffs out of trash bins. After enduring their scorn (and water-based sauces) for yet another year, I give up. For our next "party" I'm either going to schedule a root canal or make deviled eggs.


Ollie June 29, 2008 @ 12:13 p.m.

Liza, thanks for reading and commenting. Honestly, our guys were very funny and had a good sense of humor, especially about being kind of grubby. Tom is a charismatic young man who will do well at whatever he chooses once he's out of his live-poor lifestyle.

Good luck with your collection of finicky coworkers. Perhaps just leave half a bag of Fritos in the conference room at all times. It's corn, oil, salt, and free. Done.


BadToenails July 1, 2008 @ 9:01 a.m.

... typical whining about editors ... stopit

  1. What happened to the gloves?

  2. Is the sweatshirt a loss, or what?

  3. Who is "Alice?"


Josh Board July 2, 2008 @ 12:26 a.m.

I remember being at a pot luck somewhere about a year ago, and this guy put on his reading glasses. He examined this delicious looking cake very closely. He then asked the ingredients in it. Since I can't cook for crap, I had a girlfriend make it. I had to call her on my cell phone. As she's rattling off the ingredients, he's telling me why he can't eat certain things. One item he's allergic to. Another item, because he's a Vegan. It went on and on, without 15 items he couldn't eat. Since I didn't know the crowd all that well, I merely told him what the ingredients were. What I wanted to say was, "Dude, if you are that picky about what you eat, then it's not everyone elses responsibility to bring a recipe book with them and their dishes. Just don't eat anything that doesn't look kosher or whatever. Stick to the slice of bread and the 2-liter of Pepsi."


uncleleo July 2, 2008 @ 11 a.m.

Dear Editor & Readers:

Am I the only one who found this story juvenile and lacking substance? It was as if the whole piece was saying "ewww boogers!" while these two little kids went around playing in trash cans. There isn't really any humor in people being afraid of germs. I mean, there might be. But not here. The humor comes off as ignorant and pompous.

"Excuse me, homeless man, you're going to get Hep C by going through that trash bin. Ewwwwww boogers!"

Also, what happened to the food? Did the freegans cook up a feast? And why didn't our fearless author and her Babysitter's Club pal eat with them? Was this just bad editing or just poor writing?

Furthermore: I was really excited to read this article when I picked up this issue last week. I mean, I like free stuff and I'm not scared of the fantasy world of germs. And I like adventure. But there was nothing here. I just felt like picking my nose and eating it. Alas.


towelheadedcameljockey July 3, 2008 @ 10:18 a.m.

AJ's Playhouse (93.3) mentioned this cover story on their radio show this morning. They said they sent out one of the guys who works there on a dumpster diving mission because he was inspired by this cover story on the Reader. They went on about Freegans then connected with the guy going diving and had him descibe what he found. I switch stations. He was in back of an In N Out descibing all the half eaten food he found.


lucky2liveNtheMidwest July 7, 2008 @ 2:35 a.m.

I have to agree with uncleleo about this story being sophomoric and disappointing. Even considering that the dumpsters in San Diego seem to be light years away from the treasure trove of goodies I find on a daily basis in my midwestern city, the prissy attitude of the 'journalists' was far from professional.

I am so grateful that my suburban home is filled with fresh roses, gourmet bread and pastries, organic vegetables, and imported fresh raspberries etc. etc. and all from very clean dumpsters with handy doors on each side so I never even have to lean over to partake of the bounty. No smell, no goo, and not even the remote possibility that I would ever have to climb inside.

I dress like the suburban housewife that I am to do my undirty deeds and have gone from a $900 budget down to $280 a month for all food and gasoline for a family of three adults.

I suppose if a person is foolish or shortsighted enough, they might enjoy throwing their money out of the car window as they whiz down the freeway towards their next purchase of a $5 latte at Starbucks. A goodly portion of my gray matter would have to shrivel and die before I'd choose that option over 'diving for dinner'.


Ollie July 8, 2008 @ 6:33 a.m.

Midwest, I take particular offense at your personal attack and name-calling: I'm certainly not a (gah!) "journalist".


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