Yarrow First-Hartling slides back the blue metal door of the dumpster behind a home furnishings store, avoiding noisy clanging. Inside, she spots a ceramic bakeware set, a box of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie-flavored coffee pods, an electronic insect trap and a cordless vacuum cleaner.
Wearing a rainbow face mask with her turquoise hair gathered in a bun, First-Hartling retrieves her finds with gardening glove-clothed hands, or occasionally a grabber tool.
Her SUV loaded, she heads to the next stop on her daily route around Frederick County.
First-Hartling is part of a growing number of Marylanders who have taken the plunge into dumpster diving during the coronavirus pandemic. Some are driven by a desire to get out of their homes and try a no-cost hobby; others are fueled by necessity amid high rates of unemployment and food insecurity.
Interest in dumpster diving grows
A community has blossomed online.
From TikTok tutorials to YouTube vlogs, subreddits to private Facebook groups, dumpster divers share places to visit or avoid, tips for evaluating the freshness of food, and the etiquette of responsibility.
“The algorithms started popping up all these dumpster diving videos and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty COVID safe, and they’re getting free stuff.’ So I just did it on a whim one day,” she said.
First-Hartling traces back her love of free items to when she was a child living on her family’s farm house.
“Growing up, my mom and I, if we were driving somewhere and we saw a toy or something really cool that somebody threw out in their trash, we would pull over and get it,” she said.
First-Hartling has now found that the hobby lets her enjoy some alone time away from her 3-year-old and 6-year-old.
“I love my kids, but I need mommy time,” she said. “I can go out, I can listen to my podcasts, and I have mommy time that doesn’t involve a kid going ‘What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?’”
At first, her husband was “very apprehensive” about the newfound hobby. He still occasionally rolls his eyes, but she said the cakes and pies that she picks up from a bakery dumpster help sweeten the deal.
Harford County married couple Josh and Nicole, who asked to be identified by their first names only, were introduced to dumpster diving through YouTube videos around 2015 and were surprised by the amount that stores were throwing away.
Two years later, the couple decided to start their own YouTube channel chronicling their experiences, called TheDailyDiver, which has amassed more than 215,000 subscribers. Nicole also has her own channel, Stay Home With Natalie Nicole, where she fixes and gives makeovers to items from dumpsters and purchases from Goodwill and Facebook Marketplace.
The couple typically dives at night, after stores have closed.
“We do it for the thrill of it, the fun of it,” Josh said, adding that popularity has “blown up” globally in the past five years, and especially during the pandemic.
At the same time, supply has decreased in the Baltimore area containers where they dive, which Josh attributes to the increased demand as more people take up diving, as well as coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and consumer comfort with shopping. Many items in bins are returns.
“A lot of shopping is being done online, and I think a lot of business is not going into the store,” he said. “So that just boils down to people not returning stuff and stores not throwing stuff away so you’re not finding things.”
Diving in the pandemic era
At the beginning of the pandemic, Nicole and Josh put their hobby on hold until they learned more about COVID-19.
“We did actually stop dumpster diving when the pandemic first started just because it was so new and people were freaking out, including us,” Josh said. “But we’re back to our usual selves.”
Nicole said she and her husband disinfect any item they bring into their house — a step they took before the pandemic, but that they take even more seriously now.
Like Nicole and Josh, First-Hartling uses disinfectant to wipe down anything she finds before bringing it into her house. Clothing and other fabric items go directly into her washing machine, and produce gets a thorough washing in her sink before she considers using them.
Law-abiding while diving
So is the hobby legal? It can be, lawyers say.
Jeremy Eldridge, a Baltimore defense attorney and former city prosecutor who handled trespassing and littering cases, said he would not advise the practice.
Those who do, however, should stay away from dumpsters that are locked, are within a locked fenced area, or have a “no trespassing” sign on the bin itself or nearby.
Other dumpsters may be searched. But if a store employee or law enforcement official tells you to stop, you should follow those directions, Eldridge said.
Stores that catch a trash trawler may ask the individual sign a document agreeing not to return, Eldridge said. And if they break that agreement, they can be arrested for trespassing, which carries potential penalties of 90 days of jail time, a fine of up to $500, or both, under Maryland law for a first violation. Penalties grow with subsequent violations.
In a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, California v. Greenwood, the court held that police officers did not need a warrant to search and seize trash left at the curb.
Writing for the majority, Justice Byron White explained that trash left in a public area to be collected by sanitation workers was available to others, including the police.
“It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left along a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public,” White wrote.
Eldridge said the Greenwood case, and some Maryland case law, could be used to argue in defense of dumpster diving, as long as trespassing is not involved.
Eldridge noted that in Baltimore City, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in 2020 announced that her office would stop prosecuting criminal charges related to trespassing and certain other nonviolent crimes.
Josh and Nicole said they feel safer dumpster diving together and encourage others to partner with a diving buddy.
Nicole cited a 2020 incident when North Carolina woman Stephanie Cox’s body was found in a landfill after she had been diving alone.
“It’s safer to have someone with you just in case of that, because when they do have the trash pickup it’s at night or very, very early in the morning,” Nicole said.
First-Hartling carries a step ladder to access taller bins. But she said she does not get into any dumpster unless she knows she will be able to get out.
On her second ever visit to a dumpster, First-Hartling reached into a discarded blender and cut her finger. Now, she wears gloves whenever she goes dumpster diving.
“You have to be prepared,” she said. “You have to bring the right tools or else you’re going to get hurt like I did.”
Josh said he and Nicole do not seek out food, although they do sometimes take candies and other packaged items. First-Hartling said she will only take dairy and meat products from dumpsters if outside temperatures are as cold as a refrigerator. She does not take chicken and pork, but she will take steaks for her and her husband if they pass her “look, date, touch” test.
“Does it look okay? If it looks green or gray, I throw it back. But if it looks okay, then I check the date. If it’s within date, then I check to see if it’s cold. And if it’s cold, then I’ll take it,” she said, explaining her process for inspecting steaks.
Eldridge warned that when people dumpster dive, they are taking on the associated risks.
“Oscar the Grouch is not the only thing in a trashcan,” he said. “There could be needles. There could be broken glass. You are assuming the risk by going into a dumpster.”
Clean and courteous
While the boom of dumpster diving videos on social media has sparked interest, First-Hartling said it has also attracted casual divers who do not clean up after themselves, or are rude to others.
“If you see an employee, just be like ‘Oh, I’m sorry’ and just sort of gather your stuff and go along the way,” she said. “If they say ‘Hey, get out of here,’ don’t talk back to them. Just be nice.”
Josh urged divers to return to the dumpster anything that they remove and do not plan on taking.
“Stop leaving messes,” he said. “That leads to store employees getting mad, and then they start locking the dumpster,” Nicole added.
To set a good example for the diving community, First-Hartling even cleans up after other divers who leave trash outside of the bin.
“I always go with the ‘leave no trace’ principle,” she said.
If First-Hartling encounters another dumpster diver, often single moms trying to provide for children, she will offer items she has found.
“I’m always of the mentality ‘If I put good into the world I’ll get good back.’” she said.
Wasted but not unneeded
When she began diving, First-Hartling was shocked to see how much goes to waste.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the United States wastes up to 40% of its food supply.
Food manufacturers, farms, grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses create 72 billion pounds of food waste per year, according to national hunger-relief organization Feeding America. Another 54 billion pounds of annual food waste comes from homes.
Feeding America estimates that 42 million people in the United States will be food insecure in 2021. The organization partners with businesses to reroute their surplus food to food banks instead of landfills.
Nicole and Josh, who have furnished and decorated much of their home with dumpster finds, say that they give away anything they do not use personally.
After being exposed to such massive commercial waste, First-Hartling started a nonprofit, Directed Donations, that can work with stores to divert potential waste to local charities that help people in need.
“There’s a lot of waste in the world,” she said, “and anything we can do to make it a better place, I think we should.”
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