Confessions of a successful Madison Dumpster diver | Local News

Travis Flannery has found headphones, cans of soup, salad fixings, grapes and a perfectly new, unopened coffeemaker. Once he said he found a Dumpster halfway full with party supplies. Another time he had a harrowing encounter with a raccoon.

“He was right there, and he was big, staring right at me, munching on some food and I slammed the lid down. I ran,” he said. “You never know what you will get.”

Flannery, 28, thought he knew about Dumpster diving, but figured people did it mainly to find food. Then he began watching videos on YouTube and was amazed at what people found.

“It was just so shocking and exciting to me,” Flannery said.

Two months into his new hobby, Flannery said he finds tremendous amounts of waste in Dumpsters, most of it from big box stores.

Part of the appeal is the thrill of what he might find, but Flannery also wants to keep perfectly good items out of landfills. He uses some of the things himself, gives them to friends and relatives, and sells some on Facebook and eBay.

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Travis Flannery views the contents of a retail dumpster while searching for items to collect on the Far West Side of Madison.



State law doesn’t prohibit Dumpster diving, but municipalities have varying ordinances and enforcement mechanisms.

Madison police spokesperson Stephanie Fryer said “rubbish scavenging” is prohibited by city ordinance. It carries a $124 fine for adults, but none for juveniles, she said.

Over the past five years, the city has issued only one citation for the activity, in 2018, police records custodian Julie Laundrie said.

A company that rents Dumpsters in six Wisconsin cities, but not in Madison, has a page on its website devoted to Dumpster diving, which states it’s not illegal in Wisconsin.

It advises people to read the signs around the Dumpster, and warns that if there’s a “no trespassing” sign or if the Dumpster is enclosed by a gate or fence on private property, not to go diving.

Madison municipal code says it’s “unlawful for any person to enter or remain on any property of another or to enter or remain in any building of another after having been notified by the owner or occupant not to enter or remain on such premises.” The fine is $500.

In Dane County, Flannery said he has found that Middleton is the one place where there are lots of “no trespassing” signs. In the Madison area, he said, it’s just a few businesses, including many Walgreens.

The benefits outweigh the risks, Flannery said, as he pulled a new dog crate from his storage unit in the basement of his Cross Plains apartment building. He estimated it retails for $100.



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New, in-the-box items retrieved by Travis Flannery from retail Dumpsters are stored in the basement of his apartment building in Cross Plains.



He also recently found an aquarium and filters still wrapped in plastic. “I used to be in the fish hobby,” he said. “This is a rimless, glass fish tank, brand new. If I can’t sell it, I’ll use it. Fish tank filters new are $40 apiece.”

Also in his locker were bottles of soda, collectibles for children, tote bags, strings of lights, throw pillows, blankets, seasonal decorations, artwork, dog food, cat litter, pet toys, dozens of picture frames with the glass still intact and the unopened coffeemaker, which is sold online for $40.

Flannery said he learns the return policies of some stores from their online posts. There are stores, he said, that will get a case of something and if one of the products has broken open, the whole case is thrown away instead of just the open one.

“Here’s a case of bleach,” he said. “Why throw this away? It’s bleach.”

He said the box of six came from a Dollar Tree store and one was smashed in, but not leaking. He fixed it and salvaged all of them.



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An unused coffee maker retrieved by Travis Flannery from an area retail Dumpster is among the items stored in the basement of his apartment building in Cross Plains.



‘Have a wonderful night’

Flannery, who works as an overnight manager at the Kwik Trip on Century Avenue in Middleton, and works a second job at the Pick ‘n Save grocery store in Middleton, said he goes Dumpster diving two to four times a week.

He said his favorite spots are outside pet stores, party stores and dollar stores, but he also visits most of the big-name retail stores. He even visits thrift stores, and said he was surprised at what some of them throw away.

Flannery said he usually avoids stores that have trash compactors, like Walmart and Walgreens, and also stays away from stores that are open 24 hours a day.



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Items salvaged from retail Dumpsters by Travis Flannery are categorized and labelled in a storage locker of his apartment building in Cross Plains.



So far, he’s been caught twice, first by a Madison police officer. Flannery said he was with a friend and the officer asked what they were doing.

“We explained to him that we were Dumpster diving and just looking for some stuff that retail stores throw away,” Flannery said. “He asked us if we were illegally dumping or anything of the sort. We said, ‘No, we are actually taking things.’ And he told us to have a wonderful night.”

The only other time he was discovered was by a store manager at one of his favorite spots, a store where he estimates he’s probably taken a thousand dollars’ worth of goods from its Dumpster.

“She was very angry with me,” he said. “But I remained levelheaded and told her that it wasn’t illegal for me to do this because there’s nothing wrong with it. They have relinquished rights to everything that they throw away.”

The manager said she was going to start locking the Dumpsters and told him what he was doing was “kind of gross.” Flannery said he packed up what he had scavenged and left.

He said he went back a week later and the Dumpster wasn’t locked, so he took about $100 worth of stuff, including a new fan worth $25.

Flannery said he’s also found full, sealed bags of dog food and cat food still good for a year according to the expiration dates.



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Travis Flannery said his favorite places to go Dumpster diving are pet stores, party stores and dollar stores, but he also visits most of the big-name retail stores.



He said he thinks there are a few reasons large companies throw out so much inventory. Often it’s holiday stuff, and when the holiday passes they don’t have the space to keep it until the next year. Same with seasonal items.

“And we just live in a society where we have everything available to us on demand, but that comes with a price of overproduction and just having too much,” he said.

Flannery said now that he has stocked up most everyone he knows, he intends to start donating to shelters.

He said he’s come across perfectly good salad kits, lettuce, celery, tomatoes and grapes, perishable food that he has been able to take and eat when the weather was colder.

Feeding America, the largest food rescue organization in the United States, says that each year, nearly 40% of all food in America is wasted. It says that more than $408 billion in food is thrown away each year.

Food goes to waste at every stage of food production and distribution with commercial food waste making up about 61% of it, according to the organization.

Last year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said that organic waste, such as food and yard waste, was the largest category of waste found in landfills statewide.

Wasted food, which is formerly edible food that was spoiled or discarded without being eaten, was the largest component at 14.5%, according to a DNR report. Inedible food scraps, like banana peels, was the third largest at 6%. Combined, this food waste was double the percentage found in a 2009 Wisconsin landfill study.

Smithsonian Magazine reported that at least 85 percent of U.S. plastic waste went to landfills in 2021.

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Unlimited toilet paper

Some nights Flannery said he’s out Dumpster diving for up to seven hours, hitting as many as 200 Dumpsters. He said the number of stores that lock their Dumpsters is about 15%.

“I actually was just out last night into the early hours of this morning and came home with probably a couple thousand dollars’ worth of stuff,” he said in early May.

Flannery said he doesn’t know if there’s a community for Dumpster diving in Madison, but he has encountered a couple of others doing it.

A private Wisconsin Dumpster-diving group on Facebook had just 197 members as of Wednesday. “Dumpster Diving Tips and Finds,” a private national group on the site, has 69,000 members. 

One member asked in a recent post, “What do you have an unlimited supply of from diving? Me, toilet paper and body wash.”

Some of the responses mentioned vacuums, body lotion, candles, condoms, cotton balls, dish detergent, razors, socks, DVDs, cosmetics, hair care products and meat.

“Dumpster Diving LIVES, SALES, TRADES AND CHATS,” another national Facebook group, encourages its 6,700 members to “enjoy the overpriced products that stores toss away for less.”

Not everyone has a philosophical reason to go Dumpster diving, but some do. The anti-consumerist Freeganism movement combats unnecessary waste by salvaging what others throw away and buying new as little as possible.

Freegan.info, founded in New York City in 2003, is designed to “create models of living that allow us to limit the control that corporations and money have over our lives, reduce our financial support for the destructive practices of mass producers, and act as a living challenge to waste and over-consumption.”

Jessica Hay, 39, of Clanton, Alabama, said she has been Dumpster diving for about 20 years, but her reasons for doing it are more practical. After the death of her husband almost 11 years ago she said she had to be frugal, and it helped her survive.

It’s still one of the main ways she supports her family. She also gives food from her dives to some members of her extended family. “None of them have jobs, don’t even ask,” she said.



Jessica Hay

Jessica Hay



Hay said she goes diving four or five times a month and often sells non-food items at an outdoor flea market. 

She’s in multiple Dumpster diving Facebook groups and said newbies are always asking the best times to go and the best places to go. No one can answer those questions, she said. “What you have to do is put in the work.”

$10,000 worth of party supplies

Flannery said his biggest haul came about a month ago when he found a Dumpster half full with party supplies, including foil balloons and movie-themed posters from “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo.”

“Probably $10,000 worth of stuff in that one find,” he said.



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Travis Flannery sorts through a storage locker of items in the basement of his apartment building in Cross Plains. Most of the items there were things he’s found while Dumpster diving.



Flannery recently had a garage sale that netted about $250, and set up a seller’s page on eBay where he’s made $400 to $500.

While scavenging, Flannery checks the recycling for boxes and bubble wrap and then doesn’t have to spend money on shipping materials.

He goes mostly at night with a headlamp or early mornings because he works the overnight shift. He plans to get a step stool, but for now he said he puts his foot into a hole where the arm of the garbage truck goes and hikes himself up and in. Some Dumpsters aren’t as tall.

Wearing older clothes and a worn out pair of tennis shoes, he stays fully covered, exposing no skin.

Sometimes he can’t fit everything into his midsized car, a Chrysler 200, but one of the friends he often goes with has a Jeep Cherokee and they can fold the seats down. The value of what he finds helps pay for $4-a-gallon gas, he said.

He said he’s begun posting videos of his finds on Facebook and Snapchat to show people how it works and gets lots of people messaging him with questions. “They like to see the things I find. They like to see the adventure part of it. They’re intrigued by the amount of waste.”

Art of the Everyday: A recap of April in photos from Wisconsin State Journal photographers

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Dancers perform during the 2022 Madison College Spring Pow Wow presented by the college’s Native American Student Association on the campus in Madison, Wis. Saturday, April 23, 2022. This year’s event recognized the 30th anniversary of the association and honored the heritage and cultures of the Ho Chunk, Menominee, Munsee, Ojibwe, Oneida and Potawatomi nations. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL



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Mary Frantz, third from right, who turns 99 on Sunday, is serenaded with “Happy Birthday” by friends she walks with weekly — from left, Kathy Converse, Barbara Chatterton Frye, Mary Somers, Deesa Pence and Nancy Schraufnagel — at Vilas Park in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The group, all members of the Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society who started walking during the pandemic as a way to be together, had homemade blueberry muffins and a gift for Frantz before hitting the trail. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL



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As high winds roil the waters of Lake Mendota, members of the Wisconsin Sailing Team and other participants in a Midwest Collegiate Sailing Association qualifier event prepare their crafts for competition on the campus of UW-Madison in Madison, Wis., Friday, April 8, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL



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Visitors to the MacKenzie Center take a horse drawn wagon ride during the Maple Syrup Festival in Poynette, Wis., Saturday, April 2, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL



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Madison Police Mounted Patrol Academy members Rebecca Holmquest, right, gets Dr. B, a 12-year-old Shire, to smile, with Liz Erickson, riding Torres, a 16-year-old Friesian, during a break from training at The Horse First Farm in Brooklyn, Wis., Thursday, April 14, 2022. The five new part-time riders with the Madison Police Mounted Patrol, who are finishing up a four week training course, will join two part-time and two full-time members of the unit. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL



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Cecilia Ford of 360 Wisconsin uses a viewing scope to survey an Earth Day rally and march on Library Mall in Madison, Wis. Friday, April 22, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL



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Stormy Gaylord is fitted for the Priestess Cassandra costume, designed by David Quinn, by artistic director Lisa Thurrell at Kanopy Dance in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, April 13, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL



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Felix Harmon rollerblades down the sidewalk with his mom Jocelyn Harmon, not pictured, along East Dayton Street in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, April 19, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL



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Cheyenne Peloquin, center, with Chippewa Valley Technical College, uses a mannequin head to create a short razor haircut during a cosmetology competition at SkillsUSA Wisconsin at Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, April 6, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL



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Ingrid Andersson takes the blood pressure of Naomi Takahashi during an appointment at Andersson’s home office in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, April 19, 2022. Ruby Takahashi, 3, and Christopher Olson sit in on the appointment. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL



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Therapist Frances Violante, left, works with Brody Koslowski, center, while he plays with his brother Colton at the Koslowski’s home in DeForest, Wis., Tuesday, April 12, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL



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Rod McLean, 81, has bibs from 368 races he’s run since 1992 displayed on the wall in a bedroom at his home in Monona, Wis., Friday, April 29, 2022. McLean, who will participate in his 26th Crazylegs Run, needs 1.5-miles to reach 24,901.4 miles, which happens to be the circumference of the earth. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL



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Band director Will Janssen conducts John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” during rehearsal at Mount Horeb High School in Mount Horeb, Wis., Tuesday, April 26, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL



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UW-Madison students with Pitches and Notes, a treble-voiced a cappella group, including Leah Terry, front, Ellie Fricker, right, and Alyssa Bruckert, left, use random props as microphones as they rehearse at the UW Student Activities Center on East Campus Mall in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, April 12, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL



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Mount Horeb Choir director Diane Dangerfield leads rehearsal at Mount Horeb High School in Mount Horeb, Wis., Tuesday, April 26, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL



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UW-Madison students Maitreyee Marathe, front, a PhD student in electrical engineering, and, from left, Brittany Bondi, a second-year graduate student in environment and resources, Stephanie Bradshaw, a PhD student in atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and Savannah Ahnen, a sophomore in computer science and electrical engineering, install an electric Little Free Library that functions as a solar-powered phone charging kiosk at Lisa Link Peace Park on State Street in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, April 6, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL



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Allen Centennial Garden horticulturalist Ryan Dostal clears unwanted vegetation from from a bed beneath a magnolia tree as he assists volunteers with a clean-up effort to the conservancy on the campus of UW-Madison in Madison, Wis. Tuesday, April 26, 2022. Workers at the garden are preparing the grounds for this season’s new displays of plants and flowers, which will be on display as part of the gardens’ “Abundant Harvest” theme featuring edible ornamentals. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL



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A cyclist rides past a pair of sandhill cranes at the UW Arboretum in Madison, Wis., Thursday, April 28, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL



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While sunny skies and slightly warmer temperatures offer a hint toward spring, a pair of snowmen created from the previous day’s snowfall add a wintry touch to Amy Utzig and Jen Schutz’s run along the shoreline of Monona Bay near Brittingham Park in Madison, Wis., Friday, April 1, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL



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Tom Sarbacker carries a bucket of feed to his young cows at his farm, Fischerdale Holsteins, in Paoli, Wis., Monday, April 18, 2022. KAYLA WOLF, STATE JOURNAL



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Chris Ayers of Madison Window Cleaning improves the view of the Wisconsin State Capitol during a seasonal cleaning effort of the panes of the AC Hotel in Madison, Wis., Monday, April 11, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL



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With spring temperatures starting to take hold in the area, Chris Wiesneski and his English shepherd, Patrick, are reflected in the waters of a former hockey rink during a walk through Vilas Park in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, April 5, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL



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Volunteers and staff from the Ice Age Trail Alliance’s Lodi Valley and Dane County Chapters build a 371-foot boardwalk over an area of the Lodi Marsh segment of the Ice Age Trail in Lodi, Wis., Friday, April 8, 2022. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL



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UW Band director Corey Pompey leads his musicians during the Varsity Band Concert at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis. Friday, April 22, 2022. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL



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