© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dispatch: How I learned to stop worrying and love dumpster diving

On this year's Winter Solstice, the dumpsters gave to me: 6 pounds of meat, 5 bags of potatoes, 4 key limes, 3 croissant buns, 2 shrimp cocktails, and a jar of maraschino cherries.
Kelly Kenoyer
On this year's Winter Solstice, the dumpsters gave to me: 6 pounds of meat, 5 bags of potatoes, 4 key limes, 3 croissant buns, 2 shrimp cocktails, and a jar of maraschino cherries.

Who goes to the grocery store three days a week, but hasn’t been inside one in more than a year? A dumpster diver, of course! WHQR's Kelly Kenoyer rode along with one to see what it's like.

I started becoming friendly with my neighbor when he kept giving me free plants. Turns out, he got them from the dumpster at a local home improvement store. And that’s how he gets almost all his stuff these days.

“You can record, just as long as you don't use my name," he told me as I hopped into his truck. I agreed: I know dumpster diving has a negative reputation, and he doesn't want to lose his job, or lose clients.

"Tonight might be a good night," he told me. "It's hit and miss. Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's not. It's Wednesday, so, yeah, that's a good night.”

It was a cold night: the solstice. What better way to celebrate a pagan holiday than with a counter-cultural activity rooted in fighting waste? My neighbor has been doing this for years at this point. It all started with a documentary called Dive: Living off America's Waste.

“I just watched the movie. And then I was just really kind of excited to do it," my neighbor recounted. "I have a house out in the country. And there was a chain store right down the street. And it was about and it must have been about 10 o'clock at night. And I thought, You know what, they're close, let me go check it out. And I opened the dumpster. And it was immaculate, but there were these huge clear bags in there. And I could see inside, it was just pounds of Hershey bars and Starbucks coffee, and, you know, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and all of this stuff. So I grabbed it all and brought it home. And I was just blown away that there was actually in my town, this waste going on.”

That first haul wasn't unusual. We drove around the back of the first store- equipped with hand sanitizer, gloves, and headlamps. It's also good to wear heavy boots in case you plan to actually jump in. The dumpsters have sliding doors on the side, making it easy for employees to throw bags in — and for us to take a look and see what’s worth taking.

Right there on top of some sealed garbage bags was a package of flank steaks. My guide used a log grabber to pick up packs of chicken thighs, short ribs, and steaks. They were still cold from the fridge, with sale tags on them. We also found six jars full of maraschino cherries- only one or two of them broken.

“It looks like a case of them possibly broke," he said. The cans were sticky, but most of them were still sealed. "So I have no shame. I will take these all and we can wash them.”

The cold meat tossed when it didn't sell on sale isn't the only meat that gets thrown out in Wilmington dumpsters. My neighbor has found bags full of grade A beef, fresh from the butcher.

"What I think is going on is that the high end steak, the New York strip, and the ribeyes, they come in whole. And that's the only steaks that this particular grocery store cuts," he explained. "So when they cut it, you might have the end that is too thick or cut crooked. And so they tossed that and so it's a grocery store so he's got to toss a lot of them because he's cutting a lot of steaks. So you can easily get 10 pounds of ribeye or New York Strip, you know As I sometimes call them ugly steaks, and those are the freshest steaks in the whole whole store.”

108 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States every year: 40% of all the food produced. That’s tracking waste from the farm to the table, but a whole lot of it happens in grocery store dumpsters every day.

“What I think about is just how kind of disgusting it is for all of this waste,” my neighbor says. He's a "freegan," in that he doesn't eat meat or dairy that's purchased — just the stuff he finds wasted in the dumpster.

He gives away the extra food he finds to friends, to family, to neighbors, and to homeless shelters. To me, the waste of meat is especially egregious — beef is some of the most carbon-intensive food to produce, and we pulled 5 pounds of it out of one dumpster in one night. My neighbor told me it's safe to eat, and I haven't gotten sick from any of the stuff he's shared with me.

Editor's note: Not all food in dumpsters is safe to consume. If you decide to participate, use your best judgement.

There’s veggies too, of course. I got a bag of limes, a bag of potatoes that were just starting to sprout — plus dozens of zucchinis. It’s different every night- and my neighbor goes often, even though he doesn't need to. "I don't have a mortgage, I don't have car payment. I do it more just because I enjoy it," he said. "It's kind of like Christmas every day, you don't know what you're gonna find. Plus, it's just so much waste and why not do it?”

We also pulled bags and bags of day-old baked goods from a corporate bakery’s dumpster (I'm omitting the name of the chain, but you can probably guess). I gave them to the homeless the next day.

To cap off the night, we took a peek at the dumpster behind a thrift store. My neighbor got some Halloween decorations for his coworker, and I pulled out a couple pairs of shoes in good condition. Last time I went, it was packed with Christmas decorations, and I pulled out several garlands and other things that would get taken to the landfill otherwise.

The thrift stores are where you see the consumerism element of America's waste: like-new clothing, flat screen TVs, picture frames, books. “A lot of times they just have too much that they can't process so unfortunately they have to trash it," my neighbor said. "Or there might electronics — they don't they won't resell electronics so they'll trash the electronics.”

We ran into two others at that dumpster, and traded information about what we had found there in the past. The previous day's rain had limited their success. My neighbor said these meetings are usually polite, but it’s always smart to go with a buddy. And go after hours, so you don’t frighten any employees.

These dives covered my Christmas dinner: I cooked an 8-pound ham, mashed potatoes, and brussels sprouts, all for free. All the better, sincefood waste plays a role in climate change.

Editor's note: In many places dumpster diving is legal — but trespassing is not. Be sure to obey local laws.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.