dumpster diving

Lorien and I did our first dumpster dive last night with Ross, Ash and Barry, and it was an amazing, potentially life-changing experience.

First, to what happened: We had been meeting to catch up on post-G20 stuff, and decided to just go on the spur of the moment. We drove up the street to a supermarket one suburb over around 7:30pm. We split up, Ross and Barry going to one supermarket, Lorien, Ash and I to another.

Straightaway when we got to the dumpster, Ash was pulling out chocolates, tins of biscuits, packets of chips, tins of tomatoes, boxes of washing powder, fruit and vegetables. Everything was still in its original packaging. The guys only take stuff that’s packaged (except for fruit and stuff, which is washable anyway). Most things are packaged two or three times (plastic inside plastic inside plastic) so there’s no need to fear contamination.

Obviously it’s not just food either, it’s whatever is sold at the store the dumpster belongs to. These guys got a huge gazebo from the back of Aldi, heaps of books, a generator, and just that day, a Christmas toy that appeared not to be working. We suspected the batteries had just run out, but when we got it home, we realised the tab on the battery just hadn’t been pulled out. Seriously, that simple and it works fine.

So in less than half an hour we had more food than we could all carry, every bit of it perfectly good. From one randomly chosen dumpster. And this, they said, was not a particularly good day. Saturday or Sunday is best. And after Christmas it’s like…well, Christmas.

It should be noted that there is no diving actually necessary in dumpster diving. In fact, you don’t actually need to get in the bin at all: mostly you pick out what’s on top, although there’s often good stuff underneath, it’s usually not worth getting because either it’s been there longer, or is too much effort. When you consider that there’s usually too much on top to even bother digging deeper, you realise how much stuff is actually being wasted.

So I know there will be many questions running through your mind, and they were running through mine too, so I asked them:

Me: How long have you been doing this?
Barry: Five years now, all over the world.

Me: Have you ever been sick from eating this stuff?
Barry: This stuff? No. I’ve been sick from eating bought stuff though.

Me: So you grab it out of the bins, then take it back and clean it and stuff?
Barry: Yeah, just give it a good wash off and it’s fine.

Me: Do you ever find meat?
Ash: Yeah, a lot.
Me: How can you tell if it’s off or not?
Ash: How can you tell if it’s off or not when it’s in the fridge? You smell it, look at the colour, etc. You can always tell.
Me: I suppose you have a point.

And this, I was to learn, is a pretty big point…how can we ever really tell? We just trust that if it’s on the shelf, it’s perfectly fine. Or we look at it, and we say it’s not fine. If we can tell when it’s in the store, why can’t we tell when it’s outside? So you might get home and get a surprise that it’s no good, but it’s no more likely to happen to them, especially with stuff that’s well and truly in date.

The waste is just staggering. If you have a bag of oranges, and one of them has even a little bit of mold on it, the whole bag is thrown out in some strange kind of economic guilt-by-association. If there’s a box of a dozen eggs, and one of them is cracked, the whole lot is thrown out. It’s craziness.

I mean really, what is it that makes this stuff rubbish, or at least expendable? It’s an economic system that puts value on certain items in relation to other items as commodities. So a dented can of diced tomatoes is often thrown out simply because its sale value has been slightly decreased, thereby decreasing the value of the other cans on the shelf. Because if they simply write them off as a loss instead of decreasing their value, they maintain an undented can’s high cash value. Some things are just absolutely inexplicable as to why they were thrown out: perfectly good food and drinks and everything, not even scratched or dented or anything.

Any other questions?

Yes: is dumpster diving illegal?
Apparently the only time it could be considered illegal is if you’re trespassing; and if you’re asked to leave, and you do, you can’t be charged with it. Most issues with the legality of it revolve around privacy and identity issues when intelligence agencies or rival companies do it to obtain information on others. But we’re talking about stuff they don’t want: so who cares if you take it? In fact, you’re doing the stores a favour: you’re reducing their waste bill by making it a longer period between having their bins emptied.

But additionally, one has to ask the question: what is worse – that people throw out this amount of perfectly good food, or that some people are willing to take it? If there were laws to protect it, what kind of law protects this kind of rampant greed, and rampant waste? Is this a law we should obey as Christians, when our loyalty is to a different empire? Shouldn’t the laws rather be against this kind of waste? We should be prosecuting shops for filling rubbish tips with perfectly good items.

Think of what this is doing to the earth. In the US (and you can bet it’s little different here), it’s estimated 40-50% of all food is wasted. That’s another entire United States that could be fed. So the only efficacious food is about half of what is produced. In a world that is running out of resources, that’s an inefficiency that should not be tolerated. If you take the case of meat alone, think of all the resources being poured into these animals, bred for people to eat, only to be thrown out again and completely wasted. That’s an animal’s life that was taken, literally for nothing. Even just on a pragmatic, utilitarian view, it’s insane – pour a massive amount of food down the animal’s throat, spend years of time and effort growing it and caring for it, and then just kill it and throw it in the rubbish. Is that not blasphemous in a world where people are dying for lack of food?

The thing is though, that our economy is actually based on this kind of waste. So long as things are still being bought, in greater and greater numbers (whether by stores or individuals from the stores) the economy keeps ticking over. Our whole society is geared towards us buying more, and if that means throwing out perfectly good things, then so be it.

Of course, the argument is always advanced that stores can’t sell this stuff because they’re afraid of being sued. Interestingly, it’s actually not the case, and is largely the result of massive, irrational scaremongering. The law protects them to an enormous degree, to the point where unless there is compelling evidence of intentional, deliberate negligence, they are not liable.

There’s a really strong ethic amongst dumpster divers of leaving things as you found it too: no mess, no throwing stuff everywhere, everything must be tidy.

I must say it wasn’t easy to get over the mental barrier of taking things from the rubbish. Just approaching it felt quite strange. Walking away though, it felt amazing, and not just at the relief of not being confronted by security. It was that a whole bunch of food was now not going to go to waste. It had been rescued – maybe even redeemed? – from the greed and irrationality of our society.

As difficult as it is to get over the mental barrier that this is stuff that’s been in the bin, what I found really surprising was the feeling I had finding a couple of things that I had literally bought at the shop earlier in the day. The very
same items. I literally felt like a chump, a total dupe. Here was I paying out my hard earned for stuff that the shop considered worthless. I seriously wonder how we’d feel if we knew every time we turned up at the register that the very stuff we’re paying full price for is probably sitting out the back, not just able to be gleaned for nothing, but considered worthless by the store.

I’m not saying I’ll be doing this every weekend, but it sure made me think about my consumer habits. How much perfectly good food is going to waste every day, and I don’t know about it, let alone care? How much am I being ripped off because perfectly good stuff is being wasted? Who is really the dirty crook – the one in the dumpster or the one in the suit telling us to buy more?

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