Are tramps tracking your trash online?

By Rob Price

You may not know this, but the homeless and the down-on-their-luck have long employed a cryptic set of hieroglyphs drawn on street corners to communicate the likelihood of food, shelter or danger: a square with a line-through signifying good food being thrown away, a square with a circle in representing an empty building, a zigzag meaning guard dogs. Now, these symbols are fast becoming obsolete. Why? They’re all just using Google Maps.

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Pictured: Traditional American hobo symbols. There’s also evidence of regional variation in the hieroglyphs. Image via.

The practice of dumpster-diving has been revolutionised by the internet. It was born out of the ethos that one man’s trash is another’s treasure, and capitalises on the fact that businesses throw out huge quantities of food every day (Tesco recently admitted to wasting more than 30,000 tonnes of food in six months, though they claim the reason for this is down to “fussy” consumers refusing imperfect-looking food).

“Divers” prowl the streets, searching skips, bins and dumpsters to salvage these remains. Whereas previously dumpster devotees relied on unreliable word-of-mouth, varying symbols or just blind luck to ensure a good haul, there are now dozens of constantly-updated, collaboratively edited online maps at their disposal. Is your home or workplace among them?

The Mother of Invention…

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A French “diver” shows off his haul. Image via.

Some non-homeless people embrace dumpster-diving as part of a “freegan” lifestyle, whereby one rejects mainstream consumerist values and relies on recycling, bartering and other alternative methods to supply goods and sustenance, but for others it is a sad necessity.

The number of food banks in the UK have tripled in the last year (though some allege that many of these were established for political purposes and remain underused), but the use of Google Maps to pinpoint free discarded food predates the recent economic downturn. There will always be those who simply cannot make ends meet, and are faced with a choice: fall at the mercy of the state, starve, of find food some other way.

And, as ever, desperation breeds ingenuity.

Dozens of customs maps created using Google Maps exist: search for just about any major city along with “dumpster diving” and regional results are likely to come up. There also exists, a global collaborative effort to produce a record of both dumpsters and divers worldwide. A custom map of the Canadian east coast, created in 2008 and last updated less than a month ago, has been viewed more than 160,000 times. Another, focused on Brno in the Czech Republic, is nearly 2 years old and has been viewed almost 40,000 times.

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Pittsburgh is a paradise.

These maps often include detailed instructions on how to access the stashes and what one might find inside. One marker, for a whole-foods market near The Kernel’s London office, reads: “Closing time Mon-Sun 21:00 Friendly staff, good food, be prepared to share the skip with fellow divers”. “Cakes, sandwhiches, pizza slices and other posh bakery stuff. Bags come out between 22:00 and 23:00” reads another for a bakery.

I used to raid the college dumpsters… Best find were a bag of quarters, cold beer, an awesome sterio, and a brand new ipod. In terms of normal dumpster findings hundreds of avocados, 30lbs of fish still on ice, and beer.

A dumpster-diver speaks. Quote via.


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Spoils of war. Apparently he still wears the shoes.

The internet breeds collaboration. Whether it’s Wikpedia’s noble pursuit of knowledge, the peer-to-peer mechanism that underpins file-sharing or the entire open source community, it has allowed for new modes of mass productive engagement, often with no obvious profit motivator. It comes as no surprise then that it is also being utilised for less esoteric, more immediate needs: finding something to eat.

So what’s the risk of finding your home online? There’s probably no need to worry. If you have a skip outside your house an opportunist might take a rummage, but unless you run a business, the chance of finding your property is basically zero.

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“Grope them (respectfully)”

When scavenging, divers will almost always go for things that, if not still prepackaged, are in excellent condition. One commenter we found online remarked that they “couldn’t imagine going through individuals’ dumpsters/trashcans”. No matter how highly you rate your home-made spinach ravioli, it’s unlikely that some enterprising homeless person or stingy student is going to want your binned scraps.

So if do you find your house online, if anything, treat it as a warning. If you’re wasting so much that entire street communities are sustaining themselves on your garbage, then it’s probably time to radically rethink what you’re throwing away.