Dumpster divers salvage food, furniture and more as pandemic fuels fondness for free stuff

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Yarrow First-Hartling searches a dumpster behind a makeup store in Frederick County for items that she can salvage. First-Hartling began dumpster diving around Christmas 2020 after seeing TikTok videos about it. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

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.

First-Hartling began around Christmas 2020 after watching TikTok video creators like @dumpsterdivingmama and @jenn_nniffer post their processes for scavenging.

“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.

Surrounded by a bag of colorful plastic Easter eggs, a wireless headset, and other items in trash bags, Yarrow First-Hartling holds a scented oil warmer gift set that she fished out of a dumpster in Frederick County. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

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.

An Easter egg decorating kit, cans of soda, and two jars of bagel seasoning sit atop a step ladder as Yarrow First-Hartling searches a grocery store dumpster in Frederick County. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

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.”

Yarrow First-Hartling holds two boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie-flavored coffee pods that she retrieved from a dumpster behind a home furnishing store in Frederick County. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

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.

Yarrow First-Hartling uses her grabber tool to retrieve some sodas from a grocery store dumpster in Frederick County. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

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.

Safety first

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.”

Yarrow First-Hartling reads the expiration date on a block of Swiss cheese that she retrieved from a grocery store dumpster. She only dumpster dives for dairy and meat products if the weather is cold. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

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.

Yarrow First-Hartling holds up a makeup palette that a store threw away. She wears gardening gloves to protect her hands while dumpster diving. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

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.”

Marcus Dieterle


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11 COMMENTS

  1. My husband and I dive..alot of what we pull out we give away to friends and family..we also donate to our local blessing box. If people could see the stuff we save from the landfills and give to people who need it they would be amazed..my whole reason for starting diving was to help people and save good stuff from hitting our landfill

  2. Yea, another story putting out there about diving. The world of diving has become overrun with wanna be divers that are rude and sloppy. I’ve been bullied, pushed out and had to clean up the mess of wanna be divers. I mean ENTIRE FULL DUMPSTERS EMPTIED ONTO THE GROUND AND LEFT! True divers know DO NOT LEAVE A MESS!.

  3. This was a very good article, but nothing is said about how stores destroy things so no one can benefit from it. Here the earth is suffering from so much trash, and these retail stores contribute to it. They should get a tax break if they donate the stuff instead of throwing it away, but apparently the policy is the other way around, the IRS gives them a tax break for losses that could actually benefit someone. Follow the money. The stores that throw all this good stuff away, including tons of meat and produce, don’t want to lower their prices so people can actually afford the food, they would rather throw it away, and destroy it, to keep the prices up. It is a travesty of justice. I read something not too long ago that grocery stores in France are not allowed to throw away good food, they have to donate it.

  4. Because the dumpsters are ALL ON PRIVATE PROPERTY…shopping centers are private property. Store fronts that lease the parking lot the privately paid for dumpster is sitting on is considered PRIVATE PROPERTY. So, tell me again how this is legal???

  5. There is a lot of destroying going on by store managers instructing their employees to do so, although the employees say that it really upsets them to destroy and throw away so much stuff that is still good. The managers say it’s against company policy to donate that they can’t afford to do the paperwork but yet they can afford to pay an employee to stand there and destroy. Pay them to do the paperwork to donate not to destroy. I’d also like to address the last person I read Deb Wilson. evidently she doesn’t know what it is to be hungry or not have money to buy her children new or even used clothing. She states the dumpsters are on private property that are leased by the store fronts so how is dumpster diving legal. That tells me she doesn’t care whether they’re a children out there starving have no shoes or winter coats or water to drink in the hot summer months where is your compassion do you stand there and cut up the clothing do you stand there and sweep dirt into the good food that’s not expired and then throw it into the dumpsters. I’ve offered my time to do the paperwork and they just tell me to get out to leave so I do but there it’s so much waste that can be donated and not go to our landfills wake up corporate one day you might be hungry or need a new pair of shoes and can’t afford it. Many upper class lost their jobs many upper class in the middle class lost their jobs and now they know what it’s like to have to stand in lines at a food bank but the food banks are needing donations so please corporate hire someone to do the paperwork to donate . Remember COVID it has no preference rich or poor. Have some compassion for your fellow man and remember love and kindness and help feed the children.

  6. Walmart throws away so much food every year they clean stock and its left to rot instead of giving to the homeless or anyone else in need. Things have certainly changed from when I was a child. Dumpster diving can be fun but the cost to get rid of bed bugs and other such hazards can out weigh it . If you will be dumpster diving use caution as dug addicts ect. Will throw used needles in the trash.

  7. Walmart throws away so much food every year they clean stock and its left to rot instead of giving to the homeless or anyone else in need. Things have certainly changed from when I was a child. Dumpster diving can be fun but the cost to get rid of bed bugs and other such hazards can out weigh it . If you will be dumpster diving use caution as dug addicts ect. Will throw used needles in the trash.

  8. I say go for it. To help people in need
    And help the world be a safer place. Have respected place and help clean up our home planet.

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