Looking Back: Dumpster Diving

I’m about to graduate, and I want to spend some time looking back at some of the work I did in college. Here’s something I wrote for my Feature Writing class last year:

It’s past midnight, and behind the Penn State Creamery there’s a man standing up to his ankles in a Dumpster. He’s wearing a pair of stained and mismatched leather gloves. The stench inside the cold metal bin is overpowering.

It’s dark out, but under the bright lights of a bustling campus, he feels exposed — especially since what he’s doing may not be legal. But he needs tomorrow’s breakfast.

This is how Eric Weidenhof spends the Sunday before finals week begins — tearing open trash bags in search of the week’s groceries.

He’s a dumpster diver, and one of a growing number in America who forage for food not out of necessity but ideology. Dumpster diving is the process of searching for value in what other people have thrown away. Lots of people have stories about the sofa or set of golf clubs they found sitting on a curb. But others delve deeper, sifting through dumpsters behind groceries, restaurants and supermarkets in search of edible food that is going to waste.

“I could shop at a grocery like other people, and I do sometimes,” Weidenhof says. “I’m not rich, but my main reason to dive isn’t lack of money. It’s just nice to know that I’m not contributing to the culture.”

The culture he’s referring to is one of waste.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away 33 million tons of food each year — or more than one pound per person per day.

Weidenhof winces when he hears this news.

He’s borrowed a bike from his friend Jack Bagby for the night. From the sounds of it, these two, along with others who hang out at Bagby’s apartment, trade bikes like middle schoolers pass notes in class. Bagby is sitting on the sofa watching a documentary and looks up when Weidenhof announces he’s going out.

“Bring back bagels,” he calls out as Weidenhof walks to the door. “I want a bagel tomorrow.”

Weidenhof is comfortable on a bike, riding no-handed and often weaving across the center line. He occasionally breaks into song and talks excitedly about an upcoming vacation he has planned — a 100-mile ride to northern Pennsylvania. He’s still unclear on a specific destination.

Weidenhof says all the local dumpster divers bike to do their foraging. It only makes sense, he says, that if you care about food waste you care about wasting energy as well.

His first stop tonight was the dumpster in the alleyway behind Panera. Two weeks ago, he found trash bags full of loaves of bread and bagels. All were double-bagged, safely separated from the rest of the dumpster’s contents. Some were still warm.

“Enough for a year of breakfasts” he says, already sounding nostalgic for his best night of diving to date. Looking back, he wishes he took a bigger supply of the baked goods when he had the chance, because he hasn’t found any since.

As he jumps down from the Creamery’s Dumpster, he recounts what he’s found so far on the night.

“Packaged herbs. Mint, chives and thyme. Wilted,” he says. The list gets worse from there. Bruised eggplant, red pepper, and cucumbers. His backpack is still empty.

According to Weidenhof, the food you can find in a Dumpster is often as clean, safe and healthy as what you’ll find in the aisles of the grocery store, even if tonight doesn’t prove his point.

Unsurprisingly, food safety experts are not all on his side about the practice of eating food out of the trash.

“There are reasons why food ends up in the trash,” said Marianne Sabella Dempsey, a spokeswoman for Foodsafety.gov. “It’s not good, clean or healthy. Local donut shops throw away donuts at the end of the day for legal reasons. They may be good (not healthy). If a food product is in a dumpster, it’s not clean.”

Weidenhof insists he’s not desperate enough to ever dive for food that he wouldn’t eat otherwise.

Compared to others, he’s a new diver. A recent convert. He’s only gone “trash pickin’” — as he will often, in a mock hillbilly accent, refer to the practice  — a handful of times. Tonight, it shows. He hasn’t had much success.

He doesn’t have the experience yet to know when certain stores put out their trash. He’s learning the hard way which stores will kick him out, and which will call the cops.

The legality of dumpster diving is murky. State College police say if a Dumpster is on private property, a diver could be charged with trespassing, but a warning is more likely if everyone’s cooperative. If it’s on public property, like many in downtown State College are, a Dumpster is fair game.

And a 1988 Supreme Court case, California v. Greenwood, held that “there is no expectation of privacy for discarded materials.” In layman’s terms, these means you can’t steal someone’s trash.

Presented with this information Weidenhof didn’t flinch.

After his fruitless search at the Creamery, he sneaks behind a local grocery store for his next dive. He chooses Weis Markets, because it’s one of the few supermarkets that isn’t open all night long. There were a few cars in the front parking lot as he biked to the back of the store, a fact that he shrugged off because he had such great success that last time he visited this particular store.

“I found a watermelon,” he says. “A nice one, too. But I couldn’t carry it home.”

Still, as he slipped through a crack in a 1- foot gate guarding the Dumpsters, it was clear that this one was on private property.

Minutes later, with his headlamp trained inside the dumpster, Weidenhof hears a shout.

“Hey!” An employee has spotted him and appears startled by the sight of a man in ratty clothes and dirty gloves. There aren’t too many homeless people in State College, after all.

The man regains his composure. “If you’re not out of here in two minutes, I’m calling the cops.”

Weidenhof shrugs, apologizes and ambles over to his bike which is hidden around the corner.

As he bikes away, Weidenhof is uncharacteristically quiet for a minute. Maybe he was startled to be caught, just like the man was shocked to have caught him.

A few minutes later, he’s weaving across the road again. It’s 2 a.m. and there are no cars in sight. He starts to imitate the man who yelled at him.

“Get out of here,” he says with a laugh. “That’s my trash, and you can’t have it.”

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