About eight years ago, I went dumpster diving for the first time. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this means raiding the bins of supermarkets or other shops and taking out the edible food or other useful waste they throw out. I had read about it before, and more recently had met people who did it. So one night I got on my bike and went to check out the bin of the local supermarket. Fortunately I had some reserves of persistence, because it wasn’t until the third supermarket I checked that I found any good food. But when I opened the lid to that bin full of vegies and bread, I can honestly say it changed my life in many ways.
One of the more minor ways is that fairly regularly I am contacted by people wanting to interview someone about dumpster diving. Sometimes these are people in the media, sometimes university students. The most recent was an ABC journalist this week. Mostly though (the most recent being no exception), I feel like these people come with the story they want to write and try to shoehorn me (a real life dumpster diver) into it. So I figured if I wanted an article that accurately represented my thoughts on dumpster diving, I’d have to write it myself.
So back to that first night. Something clicked in my mind when I saw that bin full of good food. Never one for half measures, I decided that night that I wasn’t going to be buying groceries any more, and I pretty much haven’t since then. But it opened up new possibilities beyond that – I got involved in a weekly community meal that fed anyone who came along (carting dumpstered food to share on the train from Sydney’s southern suburbs to the inner west). Most significantly, I coupled dumpstering with the knowledge there were loads of buildings sitting unused and figured that by utilising this excess I could be free of this whole money business. Within a year I was living with no income, travelling around Australia and having all kinds of amazing adventures. But that’s another story.
In the ensuing years, I’ve eaten out of bins in cities and towns all around the country (plus a few in other countries). If I’m going past a bin I often check just out of curiousity even if I don’t especially need food. I’ve blessed/cursed (it’s all a matter of perspective) various houses where I’ve been a guest with piles of food. I’ve consistently cooked for free public meals on a weekly basis (currently at Food Not Bombs in Brisbane’s West End every Friday). I’ve fed whatever household I’ve lived in (which for most of that time has been at least half a dozen people, often many more); catered for meetings, parties and events; given mountains of food away to others who are more reticent to jump into bins.
I can claim to be one of the few people who has actually been arrested for dumpster diving, and have a few other interesting interactions with cops and workers, though to be honest these are pretty rare occurrences in what is usually an uneventful pastime. I’ve found working electronics, new clothes, bouquets of flowers and so much besides. Plus all the food and the recyclable packaging I have saved from landfill. I’ve taken countless people dumpstering for their first time (the look of absolute shock on the face of a Chinese friend being one memorable example), and walked arm in arm to the bin on romantic outings.
Dumpstering introduces you to foods you would never otherwise try. I remember chatting with my mum on the phone after the first time I ever found a daikon and trying to see if she knew what it was from my description. It also gives the gift of creativity in the kitchen when you learn to make tasty meals out of whatever random ingredients you get. I find supermarket shelves boring and overwhelming compared with the bins which always offer the element of surprise when you open the lid.
After all this time I’m pretty jaded, and nothing found in a bin can really surprise me. I still get a little rush of excitement when I find a block of chocolate or a bottle of chilli sauce; but on the other hand I have to be the bearer of bad news for all those people who put effort into keeping their soft plastic packaging and putting it in the supermarket recycle bins – I know from experience that most of the time those bins are emptied into the dumpster and sent to landfill. When people exclaim things like “but why do they throw this out? There’s nothing wrong with it!”, I just shrug.
I shrug because I’ve become very familiar with what gets thrown out, but also because I don’t see supermarkets throwing out edible food as a shock. These are institutions that exist to make a profit; so they throw out anything that, for whatever reason, is not useful to that end. But I also don’t see food waste as an anomaly in an otherwise perfectly rational society. Look around us. We are the experts of waste.
We knowingly destroy our natural environment; drive whole species to extinction. Churn through natural resources as fast as we can. We design products with inbuilt obsolescence; manufacture trends to keep everyone buying and throwing out more. Governments spend vast amounts of money making and buying deadly weapons but are too stingy to pay foreign aid that will keep people alive.
We waste people too – letting millions die of disease, hunger and war or languish in poverty and displacement. Who knows what those people could contribute to the world if allowed to live up to their potential. We treat the elderly and disabled as burdens rather than assets. We waste people’s talents by forcing them to spend their time doing what will make a profit rather than what their skills or the world’s true needs dictate. We take people who could be useful members of society and turn them into insurance salesmen, advertising executives, or journalists writing about royal births.
Living in this reality, why would anybody be surprised when a bit of food ends up in the trash? Yet media reports on dumpster diving often treat it as a novelty. Which leads me to the other thing I want to emphasise: that the act of dumpster diving is not merely an ingenious way to save a bit of money on groceries removed from the rest of our lives and our broader society.
Dumpster diving, for some of us at least, is looking the society I’ve described above square in the eyes and rejecting it as the only way of doing things. And it’s seeing the seedling of a different way in the cracks of the present one. By exploiting the wastefulness of our world, we can start to develop new possibilities.
Living off the waste we find takes us out of the cycle of consumerism. We are no longer manipulated by the false seduction of advertising; no longer feel the need to define our identity by the products we buy. Once you find yourself regularly fishing through the rubbish, the status games of our society start to seem obsolete – time to give up pretending we are more rich and successful than our neighbours. We can take the burden of this expectation of our shoulders. My own life is proof that dumpstering can be part of a lifestyle that rejects the money-driven imperatives of paid work. That in turn frees up time to experiment with what ways to spend our time we really find useful and meaningful.
It changes how we think about food too. Once you realise you can get virtually unlimited food for free it becomes a resource to share rather than to hoard. When you run into someone else at the bin, food is always shared out freely. You can give away food, throw extravagant dinner parties. Facebook pages are set up where people offer up to strangers excess food they have found. Every week me and my friends plonk a table of food down on the street and sit down to eat with whoever comes along. My hope is that impacts everyone we meet there and they take a little bit of that spirit away with them.
Dumpstering breeds a resourcefulness and creativity that we take into other parts of our life. It teaches us that just because something has been deemed worthless by our system does not mean it is. Constantly being confronted with our excess reminds us that “food insecurity” is a myth – there is enough for everybody if we share resources around equally.
Wise people have told us for centuries that we live in an interconnected ecosystem where the waste of one species is vital to the survival of another; that the decomposing remnants of one meal are the nutrients that enable the growth of the next. The dumpsters of the 21st century hold their own lessons about the possibilities of new life if we are willing to dive in and seek them out.