Dumpster diving

From Academic Kids

Dumpster diving, or trashing, is the practice of rummaging through trash, whether commercial or residential, to find items of use that have been discarded. It takes advantage of the fact that as a whole, people and businesses are very wasteful. The term "Dumpster Diving" comes from the image of someone climbing into large rubbish bins, called "dumpsters", but the practice is actually more like fishing around than diving in. Dumpster diving, often shortened to dumpstering, is often done in order to acquire no-cost items. To those who are unfamiliar with it, the idea of dumpstering often conjures up degrading images of digging through messy, rotting trash like that of a restaurant; however, depending on where one dumpsters this could be quite to the contrary. Offices, factories, department stores, and other commercial establishments often throw out nonperishable items that were returned or have minor damages.


Brief outline

Bakeries and grocery stores are the best places to look for food (most provide excellent findings if you look at the right time). Most supermarkets will have a weekly throw-out schedule that corresponds to the weekly shipments they receive. Look for when the big trucks are backed up to the loading docks—come back that night and you will probably get a nice surprise! Bakeries usually throw out stuff daily. All sorts of good food can be found in dumpsters; slightly old or blemished produce is the most common find, though if you are determined and patient, almost any type of food can be found. Dented cans, slightly crushed boxes (with any type of goodies inside), milk, eggs (with one broken one in the carton), cheese, slightly ripped bags of flour, dry goods, oil, all get thrown away, and you can get it all for free if you just walk up and look inside that dumpster! A lot of food items are discarded even before the expiration date merely because of overstock. Don't let the expiration date fool you though—often the stuff is perfectly fine. If in doubt, smell it...

Dumpstering can be something someone does on the spur of the moment if they see a useful item being thrown away, a conscious life style choice as part of "freeganism", or an acquired skill by those who may not have many other options economically to obtain needed goods or food. An experienced dumpster diver often looks at a dumpster the way a child might look at a wrapped gift, pondering what might be inside. Dumpstering is also associated with "curbing", or rummaging through trash on city sidewalk curbs; items such as discarded furniture, electronics, appliances, lamps, books, and clothing are all common items to be found. Many people hate to see useful things being discarded.

Italy's situation is deeply different. Food is rarely thrown away unless it is rotten, and restaurants, supermarkets and any other source of food discarded because it is close to the expiration date is collected by thousands of charities and redistributed to poor families or cooked for the homeless, etc. It is common to see people diving into garbage looking for antiques, or people collecting wood or metal to recycle. With a growing number of towns having started door-to-door collection, the number of publicly accessible bins has decreased, although a few bins remain along main streets as receptacles for tiny items such as chewing gum, cigarette ends, cans, etc. British television shows have even featured home renovations and decoration using dived materials. Changing Rooms is one such show, broadcast on BBC 1. Recovery of still useful items from discards is probably universal; James Fallows noted it in his book written about his time living in Japan.

As well, the academic specialty of garbology has used dumpster diving to examine the sociology and archeology of trash in modern life. There is a major outpost of academic garbology in Arizona, directed for some decades by William Rathje.

Security and computing

In the security business (including computer security), dumpster diving is used for searches through discarded material looking for otherwise unavailable information. Businesses and individuals frequently discard information, including printouts with passwords, credit card numbers, business planning and so on; some of this can be recovered by determined divers. Dumpster diving is a valuable source of technical information for phone phreakers, and even innocuous-looking information can be utilized in social engineering attacks and in identity theft. It is an important espionage and intelligence technique.

A certain degree of defense is provided by shredding everything potentially confidential, however shredded material often can be reassembled, if enough effort is invested. Some businesses, typically banks, blank parts of sensitive numbers, eg. credit card numbers or SSNs, but there is no standardization, so there is a risk of the adversary reassembling the entire number from several sources with different parts blanked.

Infamous example

A legendary [though true] incident of instruction manual recovery exploitation occurred in Southern California in the 1960s. Jerry Schneider, then a student, happened upon a bin containing a discarded manual for an internal (and extraordinarily poorly designed) Pacific Telephone automated equipment ordering/delivery system. With the information in the manual, he was able to set up a substantial (hundreds of thousands of US dollars in the 1970s) telephone equipment business. He 'ordered' delivery of Pac Tel equipment (e.g., at midnight to a manhole near the La Brea Tar Pits) and was sufficiently successful that he ended up with a warehouse full of equipment, some of which was sold back to Pac Tel. Turned in by a disgruntled employee, he was tried and convicted, but ended up starting a business as a security advisor after a $500 fine and 40 days of jail time.

Supposedly, dumpster diving was common in the 1980s due to lax security; when businesses became aware of the need for increased security (in the early 1990s), sensitive documents were shredded before being placed in dumpsters. This may be insufficient security as a million-dollar secret may be worth spending a few hundred thousand dollars of jigsaw puzzle time on putting together shredfetti retrieved from a dumpster. In any case, there is still considerable Internet activity on the subject of dumpster diving, so it is unlikely to have stopped with the widespread introduction of document shredding. Security mythology has it that curious hackers or malicious crackers commonly use this technique, but this may be an urban legend as social engineering is often easier.

The Castle Infinity game, after its shutdown, was brought back from the dead by rescuing their servers from trash.


Organizations with high security concerns (e.g., the NSA) do not use dumpsters for their discards; there are special procedures adapted for the individual characteristics of paper, computer hardware (especially disk drives and other storage media), other sensitive or top-secret equipment, etc. For example, it is said that the procedure for disposal of hard disk drives consists of physical shredding (think tree chipper or rock crusher here), incineration or melting. Thermite-based destruction is used in emergencies. See: Data remanence.

Those with concerns but fewer resources can make do with sledge hammers and crosscut paper shredders. Other kinds of specialty shredders exist for optical (CDs and DVDs) or harder (plastic cards, etc.) media. Removing even shredded discards to a distant location may even be sensible—unless you are followed there. As a middle ground, there is a rapidly growing industry providing secure confidential-material destruction to those who can afford it but don't have the time to do it themselves.

Virtual use

In analytic discussions of security risks, the term is often used as a somewhat humorous metasyntactic variable standing in for any scheme used (or usable) by an attacker to turn information embedded in some physical item into a security vulnerability or actual leak. Thus, "If we allow printouts of that report, we're leaving ourselves open to a dumpster-diving attack. Better disable printing from that screen to block it." In this instance, it is not only scruffy types climbing into trash bins at night that are meant, but any loss of the information from the envisioned printed version of that report.

Legal status

Dumpster diving is illegal in some parts of the United States, though in many places the relevant laws do not seem to be very vigorously enforced. Court cases in the U.S. have held that there is no common law expectation of privacy for discarded materials. Police (and possibly other) searches of dumpsters and like discards are not violations; evidence seized in this way has been permitted in many criminal trials. The doctrine is less well established in regard to civil litigation. Similarly in the UK, though diving is, in theory, theft, there is very little enforcement in practice. Private investigators have written books on 'PI technique' in which dumpster diving, or its moral equivalent 'wastebasket recovery', figure prominently. In Italy a recent law, issued at the beginning of the new century, declared dumpster diving perfectly legal.


  • Art and Science of Dumpster Diving by John Hoffman; ISBN 1559500883
  • Travels with Lizbeth by Lars Eighner (contains a chapter on the topic); ISBN 0449909433
  • Dumpster Diving: The Advanced Course by John Hoffman (brings dumpster diving into the computer era) Paladin Press 2002; ISBN 158160369X
  • The Simple Life, Berkeley Press (contains a chapter by Hoffman on dumpster diving)
  • Steal This Book!, by Abbie Hoffman (speaks briefly on dumpster diving in the Free Food chapter)
  • Evasion, Crimethinc Far East, available at www.crimethinc.com

External links



Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Art)
    • Architecture (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Architecture)
    • Cultures (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Cultures)
    • Music (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Music)
    • Musical Instruments (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/List_of_musical_instruments)
  • Biographies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Biographies)
  • Clipart (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Clipart)
  • Geography (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Geography)
    • Countries of the World (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Countries)
    • Maps (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Maps)
    • Flags (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Flags)
    • Continents (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Continents)
  • History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History)
    • Ancient Civilizations (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Ancient_Civilizations)
    • Industrial Revolution (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Industrial_Revolution)
    • Middle Ages (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Middle_Ages)
    • Prehistory (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Prehistory)
    • Renaissance (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Renaissance)
    • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
    • United States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/United_States)
    • Wars (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Wars)
    • World History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History_of_the_world)
  • Human Body (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Human_Body)
  • Mathematics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Mathematics)
  • Reference (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Reference)
  • Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Science)
    • Animals (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Animals)
    • Aviation (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Aviation)
    • Dinosaurs (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Dinosaurs)
    • Earth (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Earth)
    • Inventions (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Inventions)
    • Physical Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Physical_Science)
    • Plants (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Plants)
    • Scientists (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Scientists)
  • Social Studies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Social_Studies)
    • Anthropology (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Anthropology)
    • Economics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Economics)
    • Government (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Government)
    • Religion (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Religion)
    • Holidays (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Holidays)
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Solar_System)
    • Planets (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Planets)
  • Sports (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Sports)
  • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
  • Weather (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Weather)
  • US States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/US_States)


  • Home Page (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php)
  • Contact Us (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Contactus)

  • Clip Art (http://classroomclipart.com)
Personal tools