It’s a cold December day when Celeste Holcomb discovers she has run out of bread. She waits until evening to visit Allison Hall, where her boyfriend Nathan Savig lives and works as a resident assistant.
The two wrap themselves in winter gear and leave. Cruising past the supermarkets, they arrive at a large turquoise canister, tucked behind a shopping plaza. Savig raises the lid and pulls out a large garbage bag. With a peek inside, their faces light up.
“There’s so many!” Holcomb says, pulling back the plastic to reveal a hundred or so bagels. The two sort through their find carefully, inspecting for mold.
“Those are probably a day old,” Savig says, gesturing to the garbage bag. He pulls out another one, excitement in his voice: “These were probably made today.”
The dumpster bagels come in many colors and textures: plain, blueberry, rye, raisin oat, spinach parmesan. The best among them are wrapped separately in clear plastic.
“This is one of our best finds ever,” Savig says, hoisting a stack of chocolate chip bagels. “We usually never find these.”
Next is the bakery dumpster, from which Holcomb comes with several bread loaves, fully sliced.
Later, behind the organic foods grocer, they find unspoiled fruit and an unopened jug of protein powder — a perfect joke gift for one of Savig’s residents.
Approaching another one behind a large retail outlet, Holcomb admits she likes the dumpster smell. She’s been around it long enough; the two have been dumpster diving in Fort Collins for about a year now.
They’ve found unopened bags of chips, cheese, vegetables, picture frames, art supplies, tube sweaters, shoes, boots, blankets, lamps, humidifiers, walkie talkies, a bike rack, a sleeping bag and a tent. The pickings, needless to say, have been good.
Savig, a mechanical engineering education sophomore, and Holcomb, an agricultural sciences sophomore, were acquaintances while attending Poudre High School in Fort Collins, graduating together in the spring of 2007. Holcomb started classes at CSU that fall, while Savig postponed enrollment for a year to become an AmeriCorps volunteer.
Shortly after the start of his first semester at CSU, Savig ran into Holcomb. The former acquaintances became friends.
In the course of that same semester, Savig found himself struggling to come up with a topic for his speech class assignment. A friend suggested dumpster diving, introducing Savig to the very bagel dumpster he now frequents.
“Everything was still pre-packaged,” he says. “I was just instantly sold.”
Holcomb was inspired to take a trip of her own after hearing Savig boast about his discovery: “A couple of people had said things about dumpster diving, so I figured it was just a ‘thing to do.’”
She and a friend scoured through locations along College Avenue one evening, piling up their own bounty.
“Later that weekend, we had a big party and made like 20 loaves of garlic bread,” she said. “It was a potluck with dumpster food.”
Within the year, the friends had become a couple, bonding over their love for nature and their newfound hobby. They contend they’re more dedicated than most anyone they know, the exception being a few so-called freegans — a play off the term vegan that describes individuals who abstain for paying for the food they eat.
They’re not that hardcore, but they know the basics. It’s kept them from getting sick.
“We’re a lot more cautious with canned goods,” Savig says. “If it’s dented in, that means they just dropped it, but if it’s dented out, that means there’s bacteria.”
Winter is the best season as the cold acts as a natural refrigerator. But the dumpsters set outside of dormitories during the final week of the spring semester often contain the best stuff. Meat is out of the question, but since the two consider themselves “95 percent vegetarians,” it’s not a big deal.
“Bakeries are good. Trash compactors are bad,” Savig says. “Grocery stores are pretty good. Restaurants are bad.”
Holcomb says she often uses dumpster bread for breakfast or sandwiches, and claims to be able to discern the edibility of dumpster cheese as well. Savig will eat dumpster bread, but dumpster cheese is where he draws the line. As an RA, he gets most of his food from the dining halls.
With that in mind, it’s a wonder why he’d eat anything that comes from a dumpster. Holcomb too; she gets produce from her job at the co-op. They might be college students, but they don’t consider themselves poor. They can afford a healthy diet, so why do they turn to the dirtiest plate conceivable?
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” Holcomb says. “The novelty was what made us start. It was like, ‘Holy cow, we can find all this cool stuff.’ But then later, you’re wondering why they throw away so much good stuff.
“If you can feed me for like a year on this bread, there’s something wrong with the fact that it’s being thrown away.”
Dumpster diving is not considered an illegal activity in Fort Collins unless there’s evidence of malice, the most cases of which involve identity theft. Holcomb and Savig say they steer clear of residential areas to avoid confusion.
That’s not to say all commercial dumpsters are free game. If a business posts a “No Trespassing” sign on a dumpster or within the vicinity, disobeying divers can be arrested and charged with trespassing.
Holcomb and Savig say several businesses around town are fairly protective of their dumpsters, among them Whole Foods Market. They no longer bother diving there, saying they are always shooed away by security guards.
Casey Morton, team leader of Whole Foods’ Fort Collins location, said fending off dumpster divers is not a priority for his store’s security detail, but the fenced-in area is off-limits to the public.
“It’s not safe,” Morton said of dumpster diving. “We sell the highest quality food, and we wouldn’t want anyone getting sick on product that is past due.”
Morton added that his store donates most of its leftover food to the Larimer County Food Bank. The LCFB’s Web site lists Whole Foods among its top food donors in 2008. Morton says food not taken by the bank is processed into a large composting system, located alongside its dumpsters.
Wasted goods are of large concern to Laura Pritchett, a CSU graduate and editor of “Going Green: True Tales From Gleaners, Scavengers and Dumpster Divers.” She cited a figure from a 2004 University of Arizona study, which estimates that nearly 40 to 50 percent of all food produced in the United States is never actually eaten.
“That’s an enormous amount of food we could be feeding people,” Pritchett said. “Either let them glean stuff from the fields, or give it away.”
She’s also concerned about the discarding of material goods. Pritchett, a dumpster diver herself, said one retail store in Fort Collins slashes the cushions of office chairs it doesn’t sell. Holcomb and Savig have experienced this too. Perfectly good items are made nearly unusable or completely destroyed by store employees before being trashed.
“I try to understand that bigger economic picture,” Pritchett said, acknowledging the argument that such practices are a matter of business. “But at the same time, I think ‘Why can’t that pizzeria that has four extra pizzas, instead of dumping them out, why they can’t they go down to the Civic Center Park and just hand it out?’”
The thin brown line
There’s a faint brown circling the midsection of Holcomb’s jacket, a streak of accrued grime. Digging through the garbage as much as she does is bound to have its consequences, but it’s gotten neither of the duo hurt — just a little slimy.
“I jumped into a dumpster once and got milk up to my ankles,” she says.
As they dig deeper into the diving culture, the two are still trying to understand the implications of their finds.
Seeing a recent talk by Pritchett got them thinking — and acting.
Lately, they’re more inclined to giving out large portions of their finds to friends, strangers and places in need. They’ve turned their friends on to it, so they’re never going out on dumpster quests all alone. They’re talking to people about it, spreading awareness. If they are creating competition by doing so, they’re not worried; there’s plenty to go around.
“We think of all the days we don’t go dumpster diving,” Holcomb says. “There are still things being thrown away.”
Staff writer Erik Myers can be reached at email@example.com.