Photo by Steve Gibbs, Circa 71
What if two hours a week could cut your food bill in half, refurnish your house, and ease the burden of overstuffed dumps while offering the family a little urban adventure?
- “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.”
- — from “Dumpster diving for dinner in North Park,” San Diego Reader, June 25, 2008, by Ollie
While the above stat is sickening enough, Americans currently discard about 43 billion pounds of food annually at the retail level. That’s roughly eight times the amount measured 25 years ago. This comes at a time when the average family of four spends between $900 and $1200, about 25 percent of their monthly income, on groceries. So, what if two hours a week could cut your food bill in half, refurnish your house, and ease the burden of overstuffed dumps while offering the family a little urban adventure?
Photograph by Steve Gibbs, Circa 71
Until this year, I had never been inside a dumpster. I have benefited from neighborhood discards to score a vintage Smith Corona typewriter, a Canon printer, a gas-powered barbecue, a patio table, a ping pong table, and a desk, all curbside with “free” signs taped to them. With no effort except the loading and unloading these items, I saved enough for a Baja vacation.
But while I had never previously dumpster-dived, I once enjoyed a beggar’s banquet compliments of transient New York native, “curbside shopper,” and dirt-lot philosopher Slim Dooby. Slim was a connoisseur of dirt weed and discarded delicacies. Between the healthy mix of organic vegetables he obtained from the bin at the local health food store and the slightly expired sirloin steaks he lifted from the chain grocery dumpster, I, along with a group of street people fit to populate a Dickens’ novel, inhaled a feast within spitting distance of restaurants where patrons laid down a third or more of their daily bread to impress dates (and only partially fill their bellies).
A man who calls himself “New York” smiles slyly and rolls his eyes before saying, “You should know not to go dumpster diving on trash day.” He then recommends the discount supermarket around the corner, saying, “They sometimes leave out steaks for the homeless in Styrofoam coolers.”
Photograph by Steve Gibbs, Circa 71
After dinner, Slim talked to his guests about waste in America. “We throw away 30 to 40 percent of the food we raise in this country,” he said. “What if we used it to establish relations with poor countries and feed those who are starving in our own?” This wisdom was followed by rants against the government and various conspiracy theories whose logic, or lack thereof, I have long since forgotten.
Now, it’s mid-May; I am rolling my shopping cart through Frazier Farms, an independent organic grocery store off Oceanside Boulevard in Oceanside, when I observe an employee examining bins of avocados before removing some of them. Seconds ago, I would have paid a buck each for those doomed avos. Now, my only hope of seeing them again would be to rescue them when they and I hit the store’s dumpster later this evening. On another aisle, an employee examines organic energy drinks to see if they have passed their expiration dates. And, bam, two dozen cans, valued at around 100 bucks total, are dumpster bound. This same process is occurring in grocery stores across the nation as perfectly good bread, dairy, vitamins, drinks, and meats are disposed of like so much trash. Beyond that are department store discards, where sample $50 makeup kits and $100 bottles of fragrance, plus couches, chairs, desks, clocks, tools, clothing, and toys are sentenced to a lifetime of slow decay.
Tomato sauce for decades.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs, Circa 71
Dumpster diving is legal in this state because of Greenwood v. the State of California. This ruling prohibits law enforcement from rummaging through your trash for evidence and from arresting civilian dumpster divers. But while the act of dumpster diving itself is not prohibited by law in California, trespassing, breaking and entering, and littering, which sometimes accompany the activity, are. It is the job, some would say the honor, of the dumpster diver to retrieve useful items tossed aside by a decadent society.
But I have come neither to praise nor bury dumpster divers. While this is about them, their process, and philosophy, it comes with both a warning and an indictment against a people who have yet to get the concept of limited resources.
It’s not like we can afford all of this waste. Americans as a whole are broke, beyond broke, — in the minus column around $25 trillion collectively, and individually around $90,000. So, swallow your pride, and let’s dig in to see what we can find. Before we do, however, here’s a little something from Marsha Arsenian, a friend of mine whose family has been involved in waste removal and recycling in Los Angeles for decades. “We’ve found some crazy things in dumpsters, including a dead body,” she warns.
Fit for a man cave or a frat house.
Photograph by Steve Gibbs, Circa 71
Dennis Martinez, who journeyed from skateboarding champion in the late 1970s to homeless drug addict, paints a somewhat brighter portrait of the bins’ interior. After trading a well-paying sports career for a needle, Martinez stayed alive by slinging ounces of meth and hitting dumpsters. Sometimes, he would score. “I once found an envelope containing a letter from a girl breaking up with her fiancé. Also in the envelope, there was an engagement ring, a wallet with cash in it, and a nice watch. Another time, I found a set of handmade porcelain dolls that I sold for $5000. Dumpster diving is not always good, but it’s always an adventure. Aside from discarded treasures, I’ve encountered dead animals, live rats, and sometimes homeless people trying to escape the rain. I slept in dumpsters more than once when I was homeless.” While Martinez has long since kicked his drug habit and now runs a drug rehab facility called “Training Center” in Spring Valley, he still contemplates the thrill of the dive. “I still like going once in a while,” he says. “You just never know what you might find.”
Tip: avoid big chain stores. They probably throw away many valuable items (it is rumored that some return items are trashed rather than restocked), but are not worth the effort. Bigger stores tend to have trash compactors and locked dumpsters with walls around them, security guards, and “No Trespassing,” signs.
On the evening of May 14, I am dressed in a black hoodie, sturdy work pants, work boots, and rubber gardening gloves. I am carrying a Swiss Army Knife, wet wipes, a trash picker, and a headlamp. Expectations run high as photographer Steve Gibbs and I approach our first dumpster behind an auto repair shop off Oceanside Boulevard. In a scene that Geraldo Rivera might appreciate, bin number one reveals nothing but some shredded office papers and a freshly deceased rat.
Undeterred, we move on to the Frazier Farms bin behind the building where I had been shopping earlier that day. Door number one reveals a dozen or so gallon-sized cans of tomato sauce. While these bins are as clean as possible, they still offer the sickeningly sweet smell of rotting food. That combined with my rat experience produces a queasy feeling. Because of that, I pass on jumping in to retrieve the cans. Subsequent bins are nearly empty, except for some fresh-looking Romaine lettuce and a sealed chicken salad, still cold and crisp even though it’s 24 hours past the expiration date. There are no avocados in sight. I offer to share my meal with Steve, but he passes, nodding in agreement that this is no different than salads we’ve previously paid five bucks to consume.
Our next stop is a particularly foul-looking (and smelling) communal dumpster behind an unlocked gate. Being hyper cautious about sanitation in these days of plague, I open and shut the fly-infested box quickly and prepare to scout cleaner areas. That’s when the dumpster’s guardian, a man who calls himself “New York,” arrives with his sidekick, Mark, and asks what we are doing there. We tell him that we are journalists in search of a story and he politely informs us that he is paid to keep an eye on the dumpsters and the recently abandoned Oceanside Boulevard police station that has been used as an unofficial homeless shelter.
New York smiles slyly and rolls his eyes before saying, “You should know not to go dumpster diving on trash day.” He recommends the Smart & Final around the corner, saying, “They sometimes leave out steaks for the homeless in Styrofoam coolers.” By the time we arrive, there is no trace of any food other than what is for sale on the other side of the cinderblock wall. On our way out, we pass an encampment of homeless men, huddled together, smoking and eating.
The next dumpster we visit is behind a Vons in Carlsbad, off El Camino Real. There we find a shop vacuum and a rug shampooer that may or may not be in working order. I wonder what Slim Dooby would say about them being thrown out. Because of my wasteful American upbringing, however, I close the lid without checking on their condition. As we stroll to the next dumpster, Steve and I wonder aloud as to why and when society quit fixing stuff and began throwing everything out.
The price we pay is greater than what we lay down at the register. The environmental bill is something that won’t come due for years. To get an idea of this, just look down any aisle in any store and see how much plastic is being used in the form of linoleum floors, displays, lighting, packaging, and the items themselves. Once at the register, it gets wrapped in another plastic bag and will be placed in still another plastic bag when it is thrown out. Every day, the world tosses an estimated 14 billion tons of trash, most of it plastic, into the ocean. At the current rate, this amount is expected to triple in the next 10 years. None of this will break down until long after the current generation is buried in their pre-fab coffins.
Continuing down the alley behind Vons we encounter a dumpster containing a couch worthy of a man cave or frat house, a gently used kids’ scooter, and other interesting recyclables. Rat phobia keeps me from deeper investigation.
It’s about freedom
- “The lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.”
- — Khalil Gibran,
- The Prophet
Bobby is a fit, articulate, good-looking man approaching 60. He has lived on both sides of the dumpster, and while multi-skilled, values freedom over what he calls the “corporate prison,” a suit-and-tie nine-to-five sentence he imposed upon himself until recently. He has decided to keep his location and full name secret. This is not out of shame for his lifestyle — he’s proud of it — but because he has some well-to-do dog-sitting clients who might not understand his living in his van on a ranch a few miles east of Eden.
Bobby has an MBA, and what he jokingly calls “an honorary Ph.D. in fun, common sense, and free living.” His practical priorities kept him from fitting in with his former peers. According to him, “What changed my life was seeing how much was required to make things work. Around six years ago, I asked a friend who was single and making $80,000 a year how much he could save a month. He said he would be hard-pressed to put $500 aside. Another young friend of mine was making around $300 a day in tips as a waitress. She lived at home and was still unable to save any money. I was no different than them.”
Unlike them, however, dumpster diving made good sense to Bobby. After work, he would shed the suit and tie in favor of something fitting the occasion. A half-hour later, he would be driving home with more food than he could eat in a month. He has since cut back substantially, not because he lost the taste for it, but, as he says, “Dumpster diving for food became more difficult after markets began donating leftover food to charities and food banks. I am honestly glad for that, since one of my main reasons for dumpster diving was simply that I hate waste. A few years back, I would get chickens still cold from refrigeration along with various types of salads, all sealed and ready to eat. I spent nearly nothing on food for over two years and saved thousands of dollars while having the best meals anyone could afford.”
Bobby concurs with other divers, saying, “You have to know where to go, but it’s also about timing. Get there too early and you’re likely to get run off, too late and somebody else may have beaten you to it. I always arrived just after closing time.”
Not wasting is so important to Bobby that he uses everything, including the bones of a chicken to make stock for soup. According to him, “It pisses me off that it’s no longer legal for restaurants to give their leftover food to feed livestock. So much of it simply gets thrown away. The problem is that many people operate on the idea that life remains steady. Well, 100 years ago when we were primarily an agrarian society, nobody thought that way. There was no guarantee that a famine wouldn’t hit. Not wasting was part of their being prepared for bad years. Now, every credit card may be maxed out, but you’ve got that hot car. As a society we’ve become no different than a heroin addict whose solution to addiction is more heroin.
“Back when I was working full-time, I could easily afford to go into any store or restaurant and buy whatever I needed or wanted. Instead, I got it when it had just expired. I’m a pretty decent chef, and when I’ve had friends over for dinner, I never told them where their food had come from. When they were done, someone inevitably mentioned they couldn’t get such good food in a restaurant. They didn’t know how right they were.”
Bobby was making good money, but spending the majority of it on rent and the entertainment required to numb him against a job he disliked. According to him, “When I realized I wasn’t getting much satisfaction from my work and was not saving anything, I quit my job, let go of my apartment, sold my car and bought a cargo van that I have since converted to live in.
“I figured I had a year to get things together, so I put 20,000 interest-free dollars on my credit card and found a place to park my van. I was making around $300 a week caring for dogs, and with that alone, I was able to take down my entire debt in just over a year. From there, I began saving, and now have around $60,000 saved, something I never could have done while working full time.”
Since his days in the corporate world, Bobby has made money as a stock trader, a card player, a dog sitter, and a tutor. He can fix most anything, including a gourmet meal on a dollar-store budget. Before the virus hit, he spent much of his time caring for dogs and living in luxury estates in La Jolla, Del Mar, and Rancho Santa Fe. His clients always call him back because he does more than expected while taking great care of their homes and their pets. One of the perks of the job is that his clients allow him to eat whatever’s in the freezer. This includes rare entrées like wild elk, valued at up to $200 a pound, and wild pheasant.
One of the few downsides of living as he does is not inconvenience but other people’s perception. According to him, “If I were to meet a woman in a bar, which I no longer do since my lifestyle requires not spending ten dollars on a two-dollar drink, I eventually have to say that I live in my van. To many people, that’s either one step above or below living with your mom. Now, if I say I live in a multi-million dollar estate, which is sometimes the case, it can be a whole different story. Now add dumpster diving to the mix and, well….
“In dumpster diving, there’s kind of an unwritten law that you yield to the first one there. The guy I was most often in competition with was using the food he gathered to supply a food bank, so I gave him a lot of room and respect. But it has never been about getting free food for me. It was about freedom itself. I’ve got a good bed and a solar shower I designed. I’m comfortable, but I don’t want to get too comfortable. Once you do, you don’t appreciate anything. I appreciate the houses I can stay in, but it would cost $5000 a month just for the taxes. Think of all it takes to earn $5000! Getting paid to stay in Del Mar, La Jolla, and Rancho Santa Fe is like having a friend with a yacht. I can enjoy everything about it without any of the worries. In exchange for all that, I walk the dogs I enjoy being with. To some people, I have nothing, but to me, I’m living the dream. I stay in some of the nicest places in San Diego, eat better than anyone I know, and enjoy the company.
“Eating well for me still doesn’t require spending a lot of money. I recently paid six dollars for 12 ounces of oysters that I cooked in a parking lot two blocks away from a famous seafood restaurant where people were paying many times that amount for the same meal. That was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had. Developing a taste for expensive food and $100 bottles of wine is like developing a taste for drugs. After a while, it doesn’t do anything for you, yet you have to have it.
“I sometimes hunt, and I’ve found that being detached from where our food comes from causes people to miss out on a lot of life. Too often, people follow what other people tell them they need to be happy. Nobody knows the cost of things; they simply think ‘That’s pretty; I want it.’ On $400 a month, I can live better than most of the population in tiny apartments who eat mediocre food at high prices. Then there are people who are always dieting. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a happy person who can’t enjoy a meal.”
Before you rush out and buy a van to live in, you might want to heed Bobby’s advice. “I know a young guy who says he’s going to live in his van and live off the land. That may be okay in some places, but not in California. If you want to live out of a van, you need to be prepared. It’s not that simple. If you are eating out several times a week, you’re probably not going to make it. I’ve been around long enough to realize that there are many ways to go down. If you lose your income, you can’t always depend on bailouts.”
Bobby admires how certain people live by their wits without spending a great deal of money. One such person is “a childhood friend in Santa Monica who finds discarded items, fixes them up, and keeps or sells them. Whenever she finds something better, she takes the old item and leaves it on the curb for the next person to enjoy. Like me, she’s found that the true finds are not always in dumpsters but alleys. A lot of rich kids that come to college from elsewhere have no idea about the value of money. I recently found a carbon fiber suitcase while out walking a dog. It’s strong and light and great for storage. It would cost nearly $300 to purchase new.
“Once I decided to live as free as possible, I considered all the relevant options: A boat, a trailer, a van. I had two weeks to make a decision and purchase something. One of the keys to making it on your own is having no debt, so paying cash for my van made all the difference. Also, over the years I have continued paring down my possessions until now. I can fit everything I own onto one shelf. You have to have a plan and attack it aggressively.”