One by one, a steady stream of people stop by the Essential Baking Company in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood to get some of the cafe's specialty loaves. Rather than follow other customers into the entrance, these patrons head around back to the dumpsters.
The majority of Seattle's dumpster divers are twenty or thirty-somethings, well-dressed and driving newer model vehicles. They visit several stores in the city, including the Grand Central Bakery headquarters, Trader Joe's, Theo Chocolate, and Pioneer Organics.
"I haven't bought bread in a year at a store," said Travis, a frequent Essential Baking Company dumpster visitor who didn't want us to use his last name. He estimates he's saved hundreds of dollars and has his diving down to an art. "It's hit or miss, so it takes a little bit of time because you have to go different days," he explains.
Bethany and Kaley drove up to the Wallingford bakery in a new Mazda Protege. They fit the description of most dumpster clients, they're professionals or students. "We normally get four or five loaves," they smiled. "We eat what we can and when it gets bad, we throw it out."
The two women said that dumpster diving for food was almost becoming the "in" thing to do. "There's so many people who do it and rave about it," they said.
A few miles south, a woman crawls inside a dumpster at Pioneer Organics. She's looking for vegetables. They will eventually land on her kitchen table, dinner for her and her husband. She finds some celery and starts snapping off sticks to get to the middle, but ultimately offers the vegetable to someone else. "It's a little too shrively," she said. "I think I can find better."
Taking free, too far?
The so-called "freegans" pride themselves on bringing home gourmet goods. They say on any given night, they can get ciabatta bread, pastries, tortillas, chips, chocolate bars, plus loads of fruits and vegetables.
Some stores have decided on padlocks to secure the dumpsters. Most visitors simply walk away when they see them. "We'll have to come back," said Edward, 36, a working professional standing outside of Trader Joe's in Queen Anne.
Others see opportunity. Companies say under the cover of darnkess, people pry the lids off dumpsters or cut locks. "When we started finally locking the dumpsters, within days all of the locks were either stolen or destroyed," said Adam Holt, a facilities manager who works the late night shift at Grand Central Bakery's headquarters. He has tried to explain what the company does with the rolls and dough, to no avail. "I've seen people crashing on the lids. We've had to replace them. Regardless of me explaining what this bread is intended for, it becomes a philosophical debate with these people. They just don't want to hear it."
The most egregious acts occur quite a distance from the dumpsters. "The bread going into the bread waste containers is so low, people are wondering where the bread is. The bolder ones are now starting to come into the bakery and take the bread," said Holt.
Employees baking bread overnight are shocked when intruders walk through the garage and end up inside the kitchen. "Someone turns around and all of a sudden there is some stranger standing there. For me, it's an issue of security, said Holt. "These guys aren't satisfied with whatever is left in those bread dumpsters, so they walk inside and take the bread ready to be donated."
Garbage classified as useable waste
Dumpster diving draws a range of emotions from the local corporations targeted. "We don't like people going into our dumpsters, just because it's not actually garbage! I think that's where people are getting confused," explained Gabriel Moorhead, sales and marketing manager at Grand Central Baking Company. "The reality is, our dumpsters are feed commodities. The bread, the floor sweepings, the dough that is in there, is actually going to pigs and chickens to eat, said Moorhead. "Not only that, we get paid for it."
Dana Kemmerling, the events manager at Theo Chocolate has a different take. "In some respects, I suppose you could take it as a great compliment," she laughs. "It's not the safest thing for people to be hopping into your dumpster. All sorts of things can happen. I don't even want to think about it."
Kemmerling wants dumpster divers to remember one thing: "The chocolate that is edible and useable is donated. The chocolate that actually makes it way to the compost bin is not something I would encourage anyone to eat, that is why it's in there."
The dumpsters, located in the back of Theo Chocolate, draw a regular crowd. While the lids on top are sealed shut, "freegans" can pop open the plastic lids with ease. "The lids have been broken and that's a problem, said Kemmerline. "It's a little disconcerting, you walk out the back door and someone comes popping out of the dumpster. It's alarming."
Over several weeks of monitoring Seattle's dumpsters, our reporter didn't see anyone who appeared homeless. "The type of people are coming through with cars. A woman was driving her Mercedes and she had four bags of bread that she was going to cart into her car. We told her it was stealing," deadpanned Moorhead, with Grand Central Baking Company. "The typical people who come to our dumpsters don't seem to be needing the bread to make ends meet."