The Downward Road of Dumpster Diving

If the trend line to homelessness starts with ‘dumpster diving’ I was on the downward road 30 years ago. Luckily I have avoided it, for which I am infinitely grateful.

My dumpster diving started when our daughters were young. One of my customers owned a print shop and I regularly delivered artwork to him. He was in an industrial mall and the unit next to him was an office supply place (before the retail behemoths moved in). They had the best dumpster EVER! In those days office furniture and file cabinets came with tons of lumber around them protecting them during shipping. So any time I was there I would check out that dumpster looking for wood. I would toss it out of the dumpster, knock it down as much as possible to fit it into our Toyota Tercel, and then drive home with much of extending out of the back end of the car. It was so awesome!

I built lots of stuff out of the salvaged lumber. This is a playhouse I built for my daughters.


Oh sure, I could have bought one of those big pink plastic ones, but this was not only free, I made it! Do you know how many times I just stood staring at that beautiful but poorly constructed monstrosity? It was filled with a variety of playhouse-sized furniture and things  salvaged from other peoples’ garbage. The beauty of living in suburbia, especially in a city full of wealthy people, is the great stuff that people just throw out. And we were in our ‘pay-off-the-mortgage’ and ‘get the hell out of dodge’ mode, so there was no budget for a plastic playhouse.

I built lots of shelves and all sorts of other ‘practical’ items, all incredibly ugly, all works of art. There are many still in use 25 years later like this one.


My dumpster diving took a hiatus when we moved to the country because it just wasn’t practical. But after planting my high-bush blueberry patch I began to get coffee grounds. I would call the coffee shop before I left on my drive to the city and ask if they would save me their coffee grounds that day. Sometimes it was pay dirt, sometimes not so much. And I always had to stand in line waiting to get to be served. Often when I asked, “Do you have any coffee grounds you want to get rid of?” I was met with one of those “Oh help me, a crazy man is at the counter” kind of looks. Unless the staff member had been there long enough to have had other gardeners ask for their grounds, these encounters were probably traumatizing for staff. Little did they know that coffee grounds make your soil very acidic and that many berry plants, especially blueberries, thrive in acidic soil.

Recently though, my patience for standing in line has deteriorated and my awareness of where their garbage bins are kept has increased. So often the employees are busy and I feel guilty asking them for grounds and I don’t get many. So now it’s official, I just walk up to those garbage bins and start rummaging. I should be embarrassed, but I’m not. I believe the coffee chain in fact should pay me since I save them having to pay for thousands, and I mean thousands, of pounds of waste going to a landfill. The last time we were there I struck pay dirt! There was a huge bag of coffee grounds but it was way at the bottom. So after some creative organizing (removing the garbage on top) out it came. The other bags then went back in. In a place like this the “garbage” is pretty sterile. Once I wrestled those bags of heavy coffee grounds to the trunk of the car I started craving coffee. I’m convinced I could run hot water through enough of those used grounds and get a reasonable cup out of it. But we haven’t quite got there yet.

On our next stop at other one of these coffee places on our way out of town I happened to grab not only grounds but also a bag of food. A whole bag of expensive, gourmet sandwiches and stuff. The best-before date was that day, so I guess that’s why they were thrown out. The chickens enjoyed the muffins and biscuits and Jasper the Wonder Dog, enjoyed some of the sandwiches. Michelle was paranoid about whether or not they had been kept refrigerated but it was a cool October night and none of the pets got sick from these treats.

Supposedly about 40% of food in North America is wasted. My recent dumpster diving haul convinced me of this. Why this coffee shop wouldn’t have found an institution to donate this sort of stuff to is beyond me. I’m sure there are regulations. I’m sure there is the perception that it’s demeaning to those who are in a situation where they need it.

I, on the other hand may ramp up my pursuit of such hidden treasure. I’m thinking maybe if I got a half decent suit from a thrift store and wore a tie while doing this people would mistake me for one of those rich people you hear about who live like they are penniless and then leave a ba-zillion dollars to a charity when they die. Now if I can just keep my inside voice from becoming my outside voice while plying the waters of garbage bin inspection, I may avoid people leaving coins near me. Although ….



9 Responses to “The Downward Road of Dumpster Diving”

  • Jim:

    I will take advantage of anything which has been discarded by others whether an individual or a shop if I think I can use it directly.
    We have Bunnings which is a super chain hardware franchise almost in every major town in Australia. Our local one must have either go sick of people asking for their old pallets or it was too costly for them to send to the local tip because now they are in a designated area in their car park.
    Often we go past and it is empty except for some broken boards. Last time I was able to get a pallet measuring 4.8m long with fairly top quality timber on it which is enough for me to make into 2 top bar bee hives.
    My projects have included book shelves, chook shed, wicking beds, storage shelves, kids toys, pelmets, cupboards, form work for concreting, doors for hot house, wood heap and I am sure their are lots more.
    Last week our local council had bulky goods pick up which occurs every 6 months for helping those who don’t have trailers to take large “junk” to the tip. We did a drive around and have been able to repurpose a chicken coop, bike for grandson, steel bar and pipe, chair, garden seat, book shelf and another five items which I can’t remember now.

  • André:

    their is a site on the net call Falling fruit . org where people map the best dumpster and or site wher u can find food, vegetable coffe gring and more. in the fall i visit some of those palce for pumpink, squash for pie and jam.

  • tiffany:

    I worked for Tim Horton’s and they were absolutely adamant that all day -olds get put in the garbage, No donations anymore. It was such a waste of food. I guess health concerns! My local grocery store will not give me outside leaves of produce; they are not allowed to, and they are not dumped outside where it would be at the diver’s responsibility.

  • Rita Marsh:

    I have not done much dumpster diving in my life, but I have known many who have. There is a treasure trove of “stuff” to be had in some dumpsters. My daughter used to work for a major craft store chain. After every seasonal sale, what wasn’t sold was taken out back along with a spray can of paint and one of the employees would have the items spread out and would spray a line of paint across them all and then they would go into the dumpster. The items were written off under damaged merchandise. Crazy, huh?

  • Catherine:

    While I have not dumpster dived, I have no problem picking up furniture, lamps, etc that people put out on the curb for the trash truck drivers to pick up. Some I use, some I clean up and give to a thrift shop whose profits are used to purchase Bibles and send them around the world. I have a good sized garden and plan to go to a nearby stable and get horse manure for the garden. Over the winter, the aroma should disappear during the winter.

  • Connie Murray:

    Funny how used to most people means gross, bad, or just not wanted. Antiques are “used” and I like those. Also pre-owned cars are “used” and I drive one of those. Old vegetable peels, old coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, all go into the compost. OK I don’t ask other people for theirs (since we make a lot of of own) but hopefully I am at least setting a good example. Have dumpster dived too. Once I found a stack of old Martha Stewart Living magazines (in pristine condition) and sold them at my garage sale. Once I found four Ethan Allen windsor chairs out with someone’s garbage. After cleaning them up a little bit, they now reside in my kitchen and look very chic. Hooray for dumpsters!

  • Although I’m not sure that I’ll go dumpster diving for them, I will definitely use the tip for my strawberry plants – my daily dose of coffee should be good amount for my little berry patch. I do like your attitude of putting good things to use though! Even if a little safe dumpster diving is needed.

  • Debra Lacy:

    I live in the Puget Sound area and some of the Starbucks have a bin in their stores with bagged coffee grounds available for the taking. It’s quite the hot property around here and you have to have good timing or it’s gone!

  • Gerrit:

    Excellent, Cam. And thanks for the tip about coffee grounds for berry plants.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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