​​​​Codes to Dive By

How some Seattle residents always eat for free
By Kristy Hamilton
May, 2011

Brady Ryan and his friends “eat like kings” but never pay a cent for their meals.

What’s their secret? They are members of Seattle’s growing freegan community, people who reduce their consumption of resources by farming, foraging, and salvaging discarded and unspoiled food from local dumpsters in an act known as dumpster diving. The term is a play on the words “free” and “vegan” and while not all freegans are vegan, they all eat for free.

Brady, a middle-class Seattle resident, considers it a “badge of honor” to sift through garbage to find “perfectly good food.”

“I think it’s just damn fun. You’re going around at night and you’re diving in dumpsters,” says Brady. “Once you do it, you get hooked on it and you don’t want to pay for food anymore.”

In the Life of a Freegan from Aaron Gordon on Vimeo.

While his nights spent digging through dumpsters may hearken back to our ancestral past of foraging for food, his actions could just as well represent a growing “green” community. Many freegans view themselves as scrap scavengers who are globally conscious citizens, rather than thieves. The fluidity of the term “garbage” is what makes waste a contentious topic, particularly in Seattle neighborhoods where dumpster diving thrives.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, food deemed “not recoverable for human consumption” includes “spoiled perishable food” and “plate waste from food-service establishments.” However, a smorgasbord of people from various walks of life decide to spend nights scavenging through dumpsters instead of buying from local grocery stores; participants range from Mercedes Benz owners to cash-strapped students with college logo tees, to people in business suits.

“Anything that is sold in the store, you can dumpster dive,” says Brady. “That’s the law of the land. Some things are definitely harder but, in terms of food, if you’re willing to work for it you can find any food item you want.”

Jane Austin, a senior at the University of Washington and participant in Food Not Bombs, is also an avid proponent of the freegan lifestyle: “Dumpster salsa is the best because stores will throw out produce just when they become ripe so they don’t get rotten when people buy them. Flashlight in hand, I dive in, emerging with chilies, onions, pineapples, mangoes, tomatoes, avocados, sweet potatoes — anything and everything you could imagine. And then I return home and eat!”

Do not be mistaken; there are ethics that govern this alternative lifestyle. As Brady explains, “You don’t want to take everything if you find a nice stash of eggs. You wouldn’t take every egg because you realize other dumpster divers are relying on that same dumpster. So it’s like any shared community resource: You have to have some kind of restraint.”

Another important code to dive by, according to Brady, is to not “leave the dumpster a mess because you realize that most property owners don’t want you doing that. So the happier we can keep them, the happier our lives will be.”
In a country known for excess and consumerism, freegans shatter the American culture in their own lives by drastically reducing their own spending. The reasons that govern this lifestyle are just as varied as the people who do it; some dumpster dive for the adrenaline rush, others for the sense of community or the money it saves, and still others sift through garbage to minimize their consumer spending and carbon footprint.

“I dumpster dive to render the excessive waste of our society visible and to reclaim ‘wasted’ food for myself, my community, and people who are hungry,” says Jane. “I believe food is a right and not a privilege.”

“There’s a very communal atmosphere to it,” says Brady. “If you’re in a dumpster and somebody else comes up when you’re already in there, you ask, ‘Hey you want some apples?’ and you just toss it out.”

However civil the freegan community may be, freegans still have to combat the array of misconceptions that abound about their chosen way of life.

“People think that the food that goes in the garbage is bad. And that is just a wrong conception,” says Brady. “Large quantities of food that get thrown in the garbage can are good to eat.”

Some Seattle corporations feel differently about dumpster diving because they get paid for the refuse by selling it as feed commodity for pigs and chickens. Their disapproval lies less in the reasons that govern the lifestyle and more with the health risks associated with it. Many restaurant owners are worried about the possibility of someone becoming sick from an item carrying their label.

There are also laws in Seattle that make dumpster diving an illegal act because the waste divers take home for dinner is still technically city property. Enforcement varies, however, depending on the location. Jane has never been in trouble for rummaging through store waste, and Brady says when police officers do approach him, they only ask him to leave the premise.

  CommunityWalk Map – Freegan Dumpster Diving in Seattle
Map and photos by Janelle Wetzstein

The dumpster behind Sunrise Produce Stand, in the University District, is brimming with unexpired lettuce. Photo: Janelle Wetzstein

Packaged lettuce found in a dumpster behind Sunrise Produce, stating the unreached expiration date. Photo: Kristy Hamilton

These squashes were deemed unfit to sell at Sunrise Produce because of bruising. Photo: Janelle Wetzstein

A shelf of dumpstered herbs and spices at Second Breakfast House, a freegan collective in Wallingford. Photo: Kristy Hamilton

Yet, as Brady notes, “There are also times when employees are completely supportive. I mean you go to a place and they will be coming out with their garbage and they will say ‘Oh we’ve got some good stuff in here tonight’ and they will hand it straight to you.”

Erin Wilkus, who works for Sunrise Produce, does not mind the dumpster divers who frequent the store. “It doesn’t make sense to say no to people who are willing to eat it,” she said. “They choose to take that risk.”

As an employee, she knows first hand how much food goes to waste: “I have a really hard time throwing out all the bad food, that when we go through it, there’s dents in apples, you know.”

According to the USDA, “over-stocking, over-trimming, improper stock rotation, and post-holiday discard of seasonal items” are some of the most common reasons for food waste.

There are many preferred locations in Seattle to dumpster dive for food. Brady dives at Sunrise Produce, QFC, Trader Joe’s and Top Pot Doughnuts, among others.

“Some of my friends are much more creative; they will go to places that test out outdoor gear and throw it away,” says Brady. “Anything you could want for a house or a home, you can dumpster dive.”

This story was produced for Next Door Media by students in the University of Washington’s Entrepreneurial Journalism course. Photo captions by Callie Turner.