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Dumpster Diving

Dumpster Diving

far as dumpsters go, the one I was standing in didn’t smell all that bad. My garbage can in my kitchen has produced worse smells.

It’s midnight on a chilly spring night in North Carolina.  A young woman, dressed in dark jeans and a hooded sweatshirt hops a short chain link into a nearby alley and scrambles up the side of an open dumpster.  Sounds of rustling emerge as she sorts through newspapers, bulging trash bags and bins of produce.

Are we watching a scene from an afternoon special?  A documentary on the dangers of street living?  A burglary in progress?

None of the above.  The scene I just described took place behind a suburban strip mall. The girl involved?  A graduate student from Duke University.  She was participating in a practice that has become more and more popular

That night, the group I was with found their biggest haul in the dumpster belonging to a natural and organic grocery store chain.  Most of the food was fresh, not set to expire for several days and sealed in protective packaging. Among the loot they collected they counted several 12-packs of organic soda, fresh salsa, soup and a good $100 worth of cut flowers.   

Dumpster diving is far from a new practice. Traditionally, those who have resorted to dumpster diving have done so out of economic necessity. Today divers may range from the curious collector, the green activist concerned about a low-impact lifestyle or the anti-consumerist bucking the system.  They may vary from the merely inquisitive to the hungry and desperate.

But why were these upper-middle class twenty-somethings interested in such a practice? Clearly they weren’t lacking means to purchase food or other necessities. They were concerned about the environment and living “green” lives, but were those concerns their only motivation?

“Not at all,” remarked one of the girls.  “As a Christian, I see this as a great opportunity to reap the benefits of a failed market system.  This food is perfectly good and can be shared.  It’s terrible that stores throw so much away and I don’t know how to fix that. What I can do is help this food not be wasted.”

After discovering there were divers in my own social circle, I knew the phenomenon had to be more widespread. Sure enough, I was right.   

It took only a few phone calls and emails to be introduced to a full-fledged dumpsterer.  Cue Rachel, a 24 year old living and working at a nonprofit in Washington D.C, who states that she gets about 90 percent of her weekly provisions from dumpster finds.  

“My main motivation is as a low-cost food source. Knowing that there is so much food just a dumpster away makes it much more difficult for me to consider going to the grocery store to buy food,” she says. “Dumpster diving also makes my decisions about food purchasing much easier. I am a careful shopper, not just for price but also for environmental impact.”  


Also undergirding her desire to return to the dumpster week after week is her belief that food and things of the earth are gifts from God and should be treated with respect. “Dumpster diving allows me to reduce my environmental impact.  Rather than buying more products, I rescue food that would be added to our already massive landfills.  To me, reducing my environmental impact is a part of acting my faith and being a steward of the earth,” says Rachel.   

Those new to the dumpster-diving craze might have some apprehensions about the safety of eating discarded food and other moral complications of diving.  I presented both of these concerns to Rachel, who answered them quickly and confidently. “Honestly, I am more concerned about the hormones, pesticides, and anti-biotics in [our] food than I am about getting sick from dumpstered food.”

Rachel also brings up her awareness of others in her community that may be more dependent on dumpster provisions to survive. For that reason, she doesn’t dive in places that are accessible by the D.C. Metro system as these are more likely to be frequented by the homeless and needy.   

For Rachel, dumpstering is a way not only to meet her needs in a low-cost way, but also a way to faithfully share the resources she sees as coming from God. “[For me,] dumpster diving is a way to help share the love.  After a dive, I carry copious amounts of food wherever I go and share the bounty.  We have people over for dinner and make sure we send them home with bags of bread and other surplus.”  

There also remains the question of legality.  In many cities it is against the law to scavenge in refuse containers that belong to supermarkets or other businesses. Each city however, carries their own ideas about how strictly to enforce these laws and how stringently to monitor areas where divers frequent. Though most officers will not seek out divers, if they come upon a diver in action, they will usually be asked to abandon their finds.  

These legal issues present a complication for Christians participating in dumpster diving. Is committing an officially illegal act acceptable at any time for a Christian?  Do the possible benefits that come from diving outweigh the law?

In Matthew 5, Jesus says to his Jewish audience “if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”  Here Jesus is referring to the practice of Roman soldiers forcing labor upon civilians.  If a Jew was asked to carry the pack of a soldier, he had to comply. But to force the civilian to carry the pack any further than a mile meant severe consequences for the Roman soldier, along with embarrassment.  Jesus’ words to the Jew to go another mile offered an alternative to both harmful violence and passive oppression.

Jesus’ advice to the crowd in Matthew should not be lost on our ears.  In a place and time where many go hungry and yet food lies uneaten in dumpsters, to which law are we bound?

Perhaps we should consider not only that we are breaking the law of our states and challenging the norms of what is safe or accepted but that by these very actions, more may find their daily bread, that more may eat at the table.

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