Dumpster divers know thereís a lot in garbage cans that isnít garbage

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Greg Zanis has been "looking for gold" since 1955. Of course, "gold" is a very loose term. The treasure may appear in the form of a television set, mannequin or moped, but Zanis doesnít discriminate. If the find has value, he is satisfied. After all, not everyone has such luck looking inside a dumpster.

A carpenter by day and scavenger by night, Zanis, 64, spends a lot of his free time searching area dumpsters and garbage routes for neglected items he can pluck and sell to junkyards or individuals. He learned the skills of scrapping from his father and passed down the family trade to his children. The unofficial business is not only exciting, but also profitable ó Zanis said he earns $20,000 to $40,000 a year selling other peopleís trash.


"You canít believe the treasures you get," said Zanis, an Aurora, Ill., resident. He posts videos of his excursions to his YouTube channel, TheDreamCar. "Itís not just about garbage. ... (People are) making a living of this."

The diving world is a sort of underground, dark-of-night kind of culture. Itís secretive, potentially dangerous and not for germophobes or the easily frightened. Outsiders rarely know the world exists, but those who join it ó usually alone or with a partner ó know to follow the fragmented communityís list of unwritten rules, publicized by Jeremy Seifertís film "Dive!"

Among them:

ó The first one to the dumpster that day gets first dibs. Never encroach on another diverís territory.

ó Leave the dumpster cleaner than you found it. The worst thing you can do is make a mess.

ó Never take more than you need. Itís just common courtesy.

Zanis lives by these rules, especially the first: If he sees another scavenger en route, heíll ask where the seeker plans to dive and avoid those spots. He doesnít want to step on anyoneís toes.

What many donít realize is that diving is legal everywhere in the United States except where explicitly prohibited. As long as a person does not trespass on private property to reach a dumpster, diving is a welcome sport. There are, however, certain communities that are less accepting than others. Ordinances in Chicago and Naperville, Ill., for example, state that commercial scavengers must obtain a license before rummaging through trash.


Zanis finds everything from bicycles to dinette sets. He even found a full set of patio furniture once. Typically he will scout the Aurora area three or four times a week with his two sons. When the pick is good, they may even fill their truck a fifth time. On weekdays, they stick to garbage routes and look for the goodies people leave out on the curb. On weekends, however, they go for a dive and dig around store dumpsters in search of hidden treasure. This is when Zanis usually hits the jackpot.

"My life might seem overwhelmed by this, but I keep a spotless shop," said Zanis, who piles his metallic finds into his garage and waits to sell them in bulk. He often rips apart products and recycles their scraps ó gold from VCRs and computers, copper from TVs ó to bring the metal to different junkyards. Zanis said he watches the market closely and only sells his scraps at the most profitable of times.

"We are like squirrels," he said. "We hang on to our stuff until the price is right."

Dumpster diving is a hobby for some, a lifestyle for others. For Zanis, itís a mixture of both. Not only does the pastime provide him with extra income, it also gives him an adrenaline rush ó the element of surprise and suspense, the challenge of rushing to claim his turf. And itís all close to home.

Unlike Zanis, Chana Zakroff, 21, never saw herself as anything more than a self-described "casual picker-upper or receiver." The West Ridge resident went on her first Chicago dumpster-diving excursion with a friend about two years ago. She was fascinated by the amount of food her friend obtained from the dumpster and decided to join the game after tasting a salad made with freshly picked produce from a local grocery storeís trash bins.

During her first trip, Zakroff said she was stunned to see the amount of food in the dumpster. Boxes of lettuce just past their expiration dates, bags of freshly baked bread that wonít sell the next morning, cans of tomato sauce too dented to be marketable. She said some stores donate food to shelters. But even so, the surplus of leftover food is overwhelming, and some things are bound to be thrown away. (Divers are obviously willing to risk eating spoiled food if it means they might save something edible in the process.)

There are several reasons someone may dive for food, Zakroff said. Some enjoy the hunt, others want to save money and some, of course, canít afford to eat any other way. A select few ó freegans, who minimally participate in the conventional economy and consumption of resources ó feel a moral obligation to reduce and recover the amount of food wasted in this profit-driven economy.

Approximately 40 percent, or the equivalent of $165 billion worth, of edible and available food goes uneaten in the United States each year, according to a 2012 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Zakroff doesnít consider herself a freegan, but dumpster diving for food has helped her understand their beliefs, to minimize the impact of wastefulness. She said her main motivation comes from the convenience and price tag. "I thought it was fun," she said. "It felt like we were shopping, but instead of going to the front, we went to the back, and everything was free."


Both Zakroff and Zanis have had to defend their diving. Zakroff said she uses discretion before telling people she occasionally dumpster dives.

"Not everyone is cool about it," she said.

Zanis said he received similar reactions when he has mentioned diving.

"There is a connotation that people look down at us," he said. However, instead of getting offended, Zanis said he just smiles and tells people how much money he makes a year from his hobby. After that, judgment subsides, and everyone laughs.

"Anybody can do it; you just have to swallow your pride," Zanis said. "A lot of people donít have the nerve to do what Iím doing. ... Dumpster diving is a free-for-all. Ninety percent of the people think its illegal or are scared to do it."


Of course, there are opportunities to collect peopleís junk without sticking a hand in a dumpster. Zanis frequently goes on house cleanups and scans Craigslist for free offers. And although Zakroffís hobby is scoring food, she occasionally searches for giveaways (the nonedible kind) on the Freecycle website (a nonprofit movement to encourage reuse and recycling).

Zakroff said she enjoys using the site because it allows her to get free goodies without the worry of stumbling across, say, furry animals. In addition, she appreciates the fact that she can ask about the quality of an item before she goes to pick it up. With dumpster diving, everything is a gamble.

Zanis also likes the digital diving world, but he still prefers tangible dumpsters and garbage routes. Not only is it more exciting and suspenseful, but it is also more convenient. With Craigslist, Zanis must follow another personís schedule.

Old-fashioned scavenging enables him to hunt whenever he wants. All he has to do, he said, is "dress in some smelly clothes, go out and get accustomed to (the) territory."