A Shameless Person’s Guide to Dumpster Diving in Chicago

Call me Ishmael. Several summers ago (never mind how many) having been quite broke and finding the city’s establishments to be prohibitively expensive, I set out to explore the detritus-filled thoroughfares of Chicago. Indeed, its alleys are ripe with spoils, provided one knows how to properly seek out and gather the treasure scattered about. Behold, then, this here guide to dumpster diving in Chicago, to be enjoyed by adventurers, unusualists, and connoisseurs of peculiarity.

Surely, you jest

Quite the opposite. The simple truth is that no matter how fresh a crate of bananas is or how functional a Japanese-made electronic device is, stuff like this gets thrown out constantly. And there are a bunch of people who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves for a chance at a big score. Many people who dumpster dive are not the neediest folks around. They just like free stuff, and find nothing wrong with reusing things that are going to go to waste anyways.


It’s repugnant, no?

It can be? Aren’t sex and politics kind of gross? Yes, yes they are. But we partake anyways. Most of the time hopping into a dumpster is a lot less gross than you’d think. An electronics store really doesn’t have much gross stuff to throw out. Even in a grocery store dumpster, the grossest thing you’ll usually find is overripe produce. The rest is boxes, plastic, and packaged foods. The key is to dress properly -- long sleeves, boots, and gloves are a smart way to go -- and to watch out for anything sharp.

How will my friends and loved ones feel about this?

Not sure. Clearly, not everyone is excited about the prospect of digging through trash. Best not to dwell on it, for pride is as scarce as hen’s teeth in this business. Remember the soothing effects of alcohol.

Flickr/Bart Heird

What treasure lies beneath the depths?

You’ll find lots of produce behind a grocery store, junk food and trinkets behind a dollar store, and piles of fresh, sequential bills behind a bank (obviously). Oftentimes the haul is predictable, but there’s always room for a surprise. It’s a mystery why pharmacies throw out perfectly good medicines, bandages, shampoos, soaps, etc., but they do. Bakeries throw out good breads and bagels every day. We’ve seen hauls that included a 55gal garbage bag that was half-full with unopened Halloween candy, 30 bottles of Sunny Delight, and a beautiful wooden armoire. Such claims may seem incredible; but, however wondrous, they are true.

Everything that once was comes to an end

A 2008 study performed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that in North America, 12% of vegetable and fruit crops are lost in the distribution stage. Oftentimes, stores throw out perishable foods because there’s simply no room on the shelves. Additionally, you’ll find that most foods are not labeled with an “expiration date,” because the FDA does not require them (baby food is one exception). Instead, they’ll be tagged with a “sell by” or “best by” date, which many believe are meant to scare consumers into prematurely tossing out food. In the winter, the dumpster can keep things as fresh as a refrigerator. Generally, as with most things in life, it’s best to use common sense. Mold is bad. If something smells bad, that’s not a good sign. A bulging bag means that something may be fermenting inside. Produce can always be cleaned, pared, and boiled. Overripe tomatoes may not taste great but you can throw them at prisoners who are occupying the stocks in the town square. You know, basic stuff.

Time and tide wait for no man

The key to a successful dumpster dive usually comes down to timing. Looking for furniture? It’s actually quite easy to furnish most of your apartment for free if you scour the alleys on the last weekends of the month from June to August, which are the busiest moving months. May can also offer a bountiful haul because many households do their annual spring cleaning and throw out a lot of “junk.” Do you see a weekend yard sale on your block? Check the household’s dumpster the next day and get the unsold items for free. Perhaps the biggest goldmine is college move-out dates. You can check the schedules for Loyola, DePaul, UIC, etc., and show up when most of the campus is emptying out before summer. Many students live out of state and leave behind a treasure trove of microwaves, lamps, and Fight Club posters.

Flickr/Ace Armstrong

Break free from the invisible chains

A most important question: will you get arrested for dumpster diving? Well, probably not. According to a 1988 Supreme Court ruling (California v. Greenwood), an item becomes public domain when a person throws it out. However, you’ll have to be careful that you’re not trespassing on private property, because our corporate overlords do hate trespassers. Usually you’ll see a “no trespassing” sign, and you’ll want to avoid breaking any locks, because that would be destruction of property. Employees tend to actually feel bad about throwing this stuff out, and police officers have better things to do. Bring a buddy to spot for you if you have one, and just be honest with whomever you cross paths with. If you actually do get a ticket for dumpster diving, this guy promises to pay for it.

Flickr/Airle Dovas

Oh, and couches btw

This is your white whale. Perhaps you too can stumble upon a near-new Crate & Barrel sectional couch that will make everything in life seem right. But beware pee stains, bed bugs, and countless other dangers, for the venture is fraught with peril.

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Raf is a self-proclaimed alley enthusiast who writes about them at www.alleyconnoisseur.com. Follow him: @RafFoSho.