Activist dives in dumpsters across the U.S. to highlight food waste

Activist Rob Greenfield inspects the contents of a dumpster near Cleveland, looking for food to put on display for the pubilc in an attempt to raise awareness about how much food is wasted every day.
(Alana Semuels / Los Angeles Times)

Rob Greenfield is standing barefoot and shirtless in a dumpster when he finds the strawberries.

He’s ravenous after bicycling more than 60 miles, so he stops rummaging through bags and boxes to open the container of strawberries and pop one into his mouth. He seems not to notice the stench of rotten food wafting up into the Ohio night, or the grime lining the rim of the dumpster. But then again, it’s nighttime and he’s hungry.

“Oh, gosh, there’s not even a moldy one in this box,” he says, gleefully downing another strawberry, a little damp but red and juicy. “If there’s a moldy one, you toss it.”


This is the 14th week of Greenfield’s journey across the country on a bicycle made of bamboo, eating nothing but food he finds in dumpsters. Greenfield, 28, of San Diego, aims to raise awareness about the $48.3 billion worth of food wasted in America every year, and he’s trying to get grocery stores and pharmacies to donate the food they would otherwise throw away.

“I’m still blown away by the quality and the quantity of the foods in here,” Greenfield says, hoisting a large watermelon out of the dumpster and handing it to Sean Nally, an affable guy whom he’s enlisted to drive him around Cleveland. “It’s mind-boggling.”

This is not Greenfield’s first peculiar campaign. He spent a year without showering to encourage people to conserve water (he bathed in rivers and at leaky fire hydrants), cycled through California planting vegetables in random spots and got a vasectomy at 25 because he doesn’t support the pharmaceutical industry and doesn’t want women subjected to the hormones of birth control.

He and Nally are planning to gather as much food as they can and then arrange it in a Cleveland public park the next day to showcase how much good food gets tossed as trash. Greenfield has held these “food fiascoes,” as he calls them, in Madison, Wis., and Detroit.

So far, he and Nally have collected bunches of bananas, three jugs of iced tea, a bag of oranges, a few packages of lettuce, bags of potatoes and two more watermelons.

“You guys throw away a lot of food, don’t you?” he asks a middle-aged CVS employee named Lisa who is standing in back of a store.


“Unfortunately, yes,” she says, seemingly unfazed by Greenfield or his bare feet (he didn’t bring any shoes on this trip). “It makes me sick.”

Sensing a potential convert, Greenfield gently corrects her belief that stores can get sued if they give away expired food. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, he explains, protects those who donate to nonprofit organizations, absolving them from liability if the food causes illness. He climbs into Nally’s car after securing her pledge to email her bosses the next morning to encourage them to donate food.

It’s not always that easy. He’s had the police called on him a few times — but hasn’t been arrested — and some store owners have told him to put the food he’s taken back in the dumpster.

Greenfield stumbled across dumpster diving while biking across the country in a tour he called “Off the Grid Across America,” during which he used no electricity or running water and ate only locally sourced foods. When he couldn’t find those, he tried dumpsters.

His website sums him up in this way: “Making the World a Happier, Healthier Place with a Smile on His Face.”

All this might be too nauseatingly sappy if Greenfield weren’t so completely earnest. His good looks and affability don’t hurt either; people seem to want to agree with him, and when they don’t seem to care, he patiently repeats his talking points again and again.

Greenfield has a method to his dumpster diving. He climbs in, usually wearing just shorts. Standing amid bags of garbage, he starts sorting, tearing open plastic bags and narrating his finds.

“Here’s what I’m talking about,” he says, outside a CVS, emerging with a handful of 16-ounce boxes of Club crackers.

Some of his finds are less desirable: facial cream, condoms, vaginal cream, bird seed and opened bags of kitty litter. But then he roots around a little more and finds jugs of iced tea, a still-cold bottle of Chardonnay, bags of Life Savers and bags of jumbo marshmallows.

“These are all perfectly good perishable foods that should never end up in a dumpster,” he says, and hands them down to one of three twentysomething girls who have joined Nally in this strange hunt.

Greenfield, who once worked in marketing, lives in a closet he’s turned into a bedroom and rents out the real bedroom; he doesn’t have credit cards or a retirement account, doesn’t own a car and hasn’t used a shower since April 2013. But the activist doesn’t come across as unhinged — just different.

“What really allowed all of this for me was giving up the desire to have lots of money — I’ve found my greatest freedom in not needing a lot of money,” he says. It started a few years ago when he got rid of his car. The rest gradually followed.

It doesn’t hurt that Greenfield has gotten a fair amount of attention for his acts. A production company contacted Greenfield about sending a chef around the country with him to make gourmet meals out of dumpster finds. He has other ideas for shows: In one he starts out naked in an alley near a clothing dumpster and must clothe, shelter and feed himself with dumpster items.

“If it spreads my message, it would be incredible for the cause,” he says, bright white teeth shining in a way that seems made for TV.

Later, before the “food fiasco,” Greenfield heads to a beach on Lake Erie to go for a swim. It’s around 90 degrees, and some of the dumpsters he’s hit have been putrid, buzzing with flies.

That afternoon Greenfield and Nally unload the pickup in Cleveland’s Public Square, and begin organizing their discoveries, lining up 12-packs of soda, watermelons, potatoes, carrots, crackers, candy bars, heads of cauliflower and more, until the food fans out in a colorful expanse 20 feet wide.

This is supposed to draw attention to waste. Instead, it creates a crowd of onlookers who don’t want to lose out on something free.

“Hey man, can I have that ginger ale?” one man asks.

Greenfield explains the food will be free at 7 p.m. Until then, he’s using it to make a point.

“This all came from dumpsters,” Greenfield says. The man seems nonplused.

“But can I have that soda? It’s for the kids,” he says. “I can’t wait till 7, I gotta go.”

When Greenfield finally relents, at 5:15 p.m., there’s a stampede of sorts as dozens of people descend on the food, taking away as much as they can carry. Almost none of them ask Greenfield why he’s laid out food in the middle of a public park, or where it came from.

When they’re done, all that remains is a few bunches of bananas, some jalapeno peppers and an opened bag of M&Ms.

But as always, Greenfield does not seem flustered. The next day he will bike to another city. For now, he begins to pick up the leftovers, which he will throw into a nearby dumpster.