A person dumpster diving
Video of impoverished individuals "dumpster diving" at a neighborhood trash dump in Kabul

Dumpster diving (also totting,[1] skipping,[2] skip diving or skip salvage[3][4]) is salvaging from large commercial, residential, industrial and construction containers for unused items discarded by their owners but deemed useful to the picker. It is not confined to dumpsters and skips specifically and may cover standard household waste containers, curb sides, landfills or small dumps.

Different terms are used to refer to different forms of this activity. For picking materials from the curbside trash collection, expressions such as curb shopping, trash picking or street scavenging are sometimes used.[5] In the UK, if someone is primarily seeking recyclable metal, they are scrapping, and if they are picking the leftover food from farming left in the fields, they are gleaning.[6]

People dumpster dive for items such as clothing, furniture, food, and similar items in good working condition.[7] Some people do this out of necessity due to poverty;[8] others do it for ideological reasons or professionally and systematically for profit.[9]


The term "dumpster diving" emerged in the 1980s, combining "diving" with "dumpster", a large commercial trash bin.[10] The term "Dumpster" itself comes from the Dempster Dumpster, a brand of bins manufactured by Dempster Brothers beginning in 1937. "Dumpster" became genericized by the 1970s.[11][12] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "dumpster diving" is chiefly found in American English and first appeared in print in 1983, with the verb "dumpster-dive" appearing a few years later.[10] In British English, the practice may be known as "skipping", from skip, another term for this type of container.[3][4][13]

Alternative names for the practice include bin-diving,[14] containering,[15] D-mart,[16] dumpstering,[17] totting,[1] and skipping.[18] In Australia, garbage picking is called "skip dipping."[6]


A man rummaging through a skip at the back of an office building in Central London

The term "binner" is often used to describe individuals who collect recyclable materials for their deposit value. For example, in Vancouver, British Columbia, binners, or bottle collectors, search garbage cans and dumpsters for recyclable materials that can be redeemed for their deposit value. On average, these binners earn about $40 a day for several garbage bags full of discarded containers.[19] Some are scammers seeking for receipts to use in committing return fraud.[20]

The karung guni, Zabbaleen, the rag and bone man, waste picker, junk man or bin hoker are terms for people who make their living by sorting and trading trash. A similar process known as gleaning was practised in rural areas and some ancient agricultural societies, where the residue from farmers' fields was collected.

Some dumpster divers, who self-identify as freegans, aim to reduce their ecological footprint by living from dumpster-dived-goods,[21] sometimes exclusively.


The activity is performed by people out of necessity in the developing world.[8] Some scavengers perform in organized groups, and some organize on various internet forums and social networking websites.[8] By reusing, or repurposing, resources destined for the landfill, dumpster diving is sometimes considered to be an environmentalist endeavor,[21] and is thus practiced by many pro-green communities. The wastefulness of consumer society and throw-away culture compels some individuals to rescue usable items (for example, computers or smartphones, which are frequently discarded due to the extensive use of planned obsolescence in the technology industry) from destruction[21] and divert them to those who can make use of the items.

A wide variety of things may be disposed while still repairable or in working condition, making salvage of them a source of potentially free items for personal use, or to sell for profit. Irregular, blemished or damaged items that are still otherwise functional are regularly thrown away. Discarded food that might have slight imperfections, near its expiration date, or that is simply being replaced by newer stock is often tossed out despite being still edible.[21] Many retailers are reluctant to sell this stock at reduced prices because of the risks that people will buy it instead of the higher-priced newer stock, that extra handling time is required, and that there are liability risks. In the United Kingdom, cookery books have been written on the cooking and consumption of such foods, which has contributed to the popularity of skipping.[citation needed] Artists often use discarded materials retrieved from trash receptacles to create works of found objects or assemblage.[22]

Students have been known to partake in dumpster diving to obtain high tech items for technical projects, or simply to indulge their curiosity for unusual items.[23] Dumpster diving can additionally be used in support of academic research. Garbage picking serves as the main tool for garbologists, who study the sociology and archeology of trash in modern life. Private and government investigators may pick through garbage to obtain information for their inquiries. Illegal cigarette consumption may be deduced from discarded packages.

Dumpster diving can be hazardous, due to potential exposure to biohazardous matter, broken glass, and overall unsanitary conditions that may exist in dumpsters.[8][24]

Arguments against garbage picking often focus on the health and cleanliness implications of people rummaging in trash. This exposes the dumpster divers to potential health risks, and, especially if the dumpster diver does not return the non-usable items to their previous location, may leave trash scattered around. Divers can also be seriously injured or killed by garbage collection vehicles; in January 2012, in La Jolla, Swiss-American man Alfonso de Bourbon was killed by a truck while dumpster diving.[25]

Dumpster diving with criminal intentions (Garbage theft)

The unauthorized taking of materials from a dumpster or other waste disposal container is commonly referred to as "garbage theft". Dumpster diving is a different idiom. Due to the typical low value of the stolen goods, garbage theft is not typically recognized as a serious crime, with laws against it frequently focusing on combating identity theft instead. [26] Depending on the state or nation's rules surrounding low-level crime, garbage theft may be considered a form of petty theft and subject to a penalty that often entails a brief period of incarceration, a modest fine, or both. [27][28] As a privacy violation, discarded medical records as trash led to a $140,000 penalty against Massachusetts billing company Goldthwait Associates and a group of pathology offices in 2013 [29] and a $400,000 settlement between Midwest Women's Healthcare Specialists and 1,532 clients in Kansas City in 2014.[30]

Identity theft has historically been carried out through garbage theft, with thieves utilizing bank and credit card statements discovered in trash to assume the identity of a victim or access their credit. [31][32]

Criminals have been known to dumpster dive for cash receipts as part of a scheme to steal items and return them for cash, a form of return fraud known as "shoplisting."[33] Police investigating shoplifting in Bellingham, Washington, found dozens of receipts from retailers such as The Home Depot, Rite Aid and Fred Meyer, along with a list of items on the receipts.[34] Suspects believed to have taken receipts from trash receptacles near Walmart locations were arrested for return fraud in 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin.[35]

Legal status

Since dumpsters are usually located on private premises, divers may occasionally get in trouble for trespassing while dumpster diving, though the law is enforced with varying degrees of rigor.[21] Some businesses may lock dumpsters to prevent pickers from congregating on their property, vandalism to their property, and to limit potential liability if a dumpster diver is injured while on their property.[21]

Police searches of discarded waste as well as similar methods are also generally not considered violations of privacy rights; evidence seized in this manner has been permitted in many criminal trials. In the United States this has been affirmed by numerous courts including and up to the Supreme Court, in the decision California v. Greenwood. The doctrine is not as well established in regard to civil litigation.[citation needed]

Companies run by private investigators specializing in such techniques have emerged as a result of the need for discreet, undetected retrieval of documents and evidence for civil and criminal trials. Private investigators have also written books on "P.I. technique" in which dumpster diving or its equivalent "wastebasket recovery" figures prominently.

By country


In 2009, a Belgian dumpster diver and eco-activist nicknamed Ollie was detained for a month for removing food from a garbage can and was accused of theft and burglary. On February 25, 2009, he was arrested for removing food from a garbage can at an AD Delhaize supermarket in Bruges. Ollie's trial evoked protests in Belgium against restrictions from taking discarded food items.[36]


In Ontario, Canada, the Trespass to Property Act—legislation dating back to the British North America Act of 1867[37]—grants property owners and security guards the power to ban anyone from their premises, for any reason, permanently. This is done by issuing a notice to the intruder, who will only be breaking the law upon return.[38] Similar laws exist in Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan.[39][40] A recent case in Canada, which involved a police officer who retrieved a discarded weapon from a trash receptacle as evidence, created some controversy. The judge ruled the policeman's actions as legal although there was no warrant present, which led some to speculate the event as validation for any Canadian citizen to raid garbage disposals.[37]

United Kingdom

Skipping in England and Wales may qualify as theft within the Theft Act 1968[41][original research?] or as common-law theft in Scotland, though there is very little enforcement in practice.


In Germany, dumpster diving is referred to as "containern",[42] and a waste container's contents are regarded as the property of the container's owner. Therefore, taking items from such a container is viewed as theft. However, the police will routinely disregard the illegality of garbage picking since the items found are generally of low value. There has only been one known instance where people were prosecuted.[43] In 2009 individuals were arrested on assumed burglary as they had surmounted a supermarket's fence which was then followed by a theft complaint by the owner; the case was suspended.[44]

United States

In the United States, the fourth amendment protects against certain searches by the government without a warrant. The 1988 California v. Greenwood case in the U.S. Supreme Court held that there is no common law expectation of privacy for discarded materials, and that therefore the police did not require a warrant to search through trash.[45]

There are, however, limits to what can legally be taken from a company's refuse. In a 1983 Minnesota case involving the theft of customer lists from a garbage can, Tennant Company v. Advance Machine Company (355 N.W.2d 720), the owner of the discarded information was awarded $500,000 in damages.[46]


This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources in this section. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (February 2010) (Learn how and when to remove this message)
Food obtained by dumpster diving in Linköping, Sweden

Dumpster diving is practiced differently in developed countries than in developing countries.

Two Iraqi girls pick up a cloth from garbage, Al-Fathel neighborhood of Baghdad.

Other sources

Notable instances

In the 1960s, Jerry Schneider, using recovered instruction manuals from The Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company, used the company's own procedures to acquire hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of telephone equipment over several years until his arrest.

The Castle Infinity videogame, after its shutdown in 2005, was brought back from the dead by a fan rescuing its servers from the trash.[57]

In October 2013, in North London, three men were arrested and charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act when they were caught taking discarded food: tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and cakes from bins behind an Iceland supermarket. The charges were dropped on 29 January 2014 after much public criticism[58] as well as a request by Iceland's chief executive, Malcolm Walker.[59]

In 1996, the source code for the Atari 7800 was discovered in the dumpster of the Atari office when the company closed.[60]

In popular culture


Television programs


See also


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Further reading