By: Ashley M.
Hopping into a dumpster for the first time is equally embarrassing and exhilarating. I pulled up to a dumpster behind a large shopping center in North Austin and cautiously got out of my truck. I was ill prepared – I didn’t wear proper attire, I didn’t bring a light to illuminate the contents of the dumpster, and I didn’t bring a bag to hold my loot. As I approached the dumpster, a white Honda Accord pulled in and out walked a woman in her early sixties, wearing a floral blouse and a giant, gaudy cubic zirconia necklace with matching earrings. We sifted through the dumpster together for a few minutes until we realized it had already been hit. We started to discuss her diving history – she told me that nowadays more companies lock their dumpsters, but in the past she has found all kinds of things, including jewelry, food products, furniture, etc.
My first experience dumpster diving was fueled by the mysterious online community of makeup dumpster divers, specifically for the beauty store Ulta. Searching “Ulta dumpster diving" on Youtube will prompt over 50,000 videos related to tips and secrets from Ulta dumpsters. Haul videos where divers show off the pricey products they’ve retrieved during dives boast thousands of views.
When beauty and health products are thrown away, Ulta employees are instructed to destroy products before disposal. Divers call this “souping,” a trade term for when employees damage the product to deter divers from rifling through the disposed items. Souped beauty products are normally covered in lotions or foundation. Along with souping, employees often damage the actual product, detaching the nozzles of perfectly new aerosol hair products or opening new tubes of mascara and tossing away the applicator. Sometimes, the integrity of the product will remain intact if only the outside is destroyed. Many beauty bloggers also upload videos about cleaning the products, using rubbing alcohol to disinfect powder-based makeup palettes.
I turned to Reddit before my first dive to gain some insight. The dumpster diving thread is full of first-time and seasoned divers alike sharing their hauls. From high-end body lotion to baking with dumpster pizza dough, the thread provides an insider look at the best hauls in some of the best places and ways to use your goods. Usually, store names are slightly altered to prevent search engine results from picking up on the diving hauls and to prevent corporations from locking their dumpsters or switching to trash compactors.
Through the dumpster diving thread I met Reddit user Uhillbilly, an Arizona resident who’s been diving since the early ‘70s and describes himself as “semi-professional diver.” He credits his fondness of diving to his experience as a nine year old, where he fixed a bicycle he found while digging through a local dumpster. “The experience taught me something – it taught me to be resourceful, to improvise and adapt, to be self reliant. Afterwards I started to collect aluminum cans for extra money, much to my parents annoyance,” he explains.
Diveyjones is another redditor involved in the online dumpster diving community. The 31-year-old DFW local has been diving for about three months, and in that time has found over $250 worth of assorted cookies and a brand new hair straightener, and collected three trash bags full of Reese’s, Kit Kat’s and M&Ms. She doesn’t dive at grocery stores, and instead usually sticks to drugstores, party stores, pet shops and health and beauty places. When she first began diving, she and her husband spent a day driving around local stores and took note which companies used dumpsters and compactors, and then rated each store’s dumpster based on criteria like cleanliness and ease of access. Typically she donates whatever products she hauls and doesn’t end up needing, and always checks for recalls and expiration dates to ensure safe consumption. “I donate probably 90 percent of the stuff I get to our local community center, we just keep what we need,” she explains. “I love telling people about dumpster diving because it's so much going into our landfills every day, and with just a little bit of rerouting it can help people,” she says.
My searching led me to another online community centered around freeganism, a movement which focuses on limited capitalist involvement and using sustainable resources to promote a lifestyle free from “materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.” The term is literally a combination of the words “free” and “vegan,” and most members of the community unite under the belief that in order to live a vegan lifestyle, there must be a separation from the corporate greed that oftentimes exploits animals and their habitats. Thus, most freegans practice some form of “urban foraging”–the process of reclaiming wasted food from dumpsters or foraging for wild food around the city. Freegans are an extreme version of the typical dumpster diver. They strive to reduce their own waste, but also utilize the waste of others to maintain eco-friendly and low-cost living.
My most recent dive was this past weekend on a trip in the DFW area. My friend Eliza and I planned to hit five dumpsters within a 15-mile radius of her Denton apartment. The fourth dumpster on our route was full of disposed Redken hair products, from large bags of 20 volume conditioning developer to half-full bottles of hairspray. We packed all of our finds in fresh plastic bags so we could wash them once we got home.
Now, we’re researching our next upcoming haul and diversifying our diving rolodex to include dumpsters from a wider variety of corporations. I’m far from being considered a seasoned diver, but I’m much more well equipped nowadays.
For first-time divers, I‘d recommend gloves, a flashlight and long pants. Most importantly, know your rights as a dumpster diver. In 1988 the United State Supreme Court ruled that trash is public domain, so divers are usually protected under the law, so long as they aren’t committing any crimes and following “no trespassing” signs. Lastly, enter dumpsters with an open mind. Youtube videos and Reddit subthreads often boast the greatest urban foraging finds, often misleading first-time divers into thinking that the average dumpster contains whole pizzas and a copy of Fallout 4. In reality, it takes multiple dumpsters and multiple trips to actually accumulate a haul worth sharing. But it’s really all about searching, because the hardest part is skimming through the shit, quite literally sometimes, to find the good stuff.