A look at dumpster diving and food waste
By Eric Wilkins, Editor-in-Chief
“I like finding things.”
Dan Guy breaks a wide grin as the evening sun glances off his worn cap and plays through the alley. The Montreal native’s greying beard doing nothing to hide the refreshingly childlike enthusiasm of his words as his arms bear a small basket’s worth of strawberries and oranges. Even after years of sorting through others’ garbage every day, the thrill of coming across something good is alive and well.
“I found over $100 one time,” he continues, before wryly adding, “It’s not just for survival. If you just want to survive there’s other ways.”
It’s the sort of thing most people would turn their noses up at without a second thought. Many have difficulty enough successfully depositing their scraps via a means other than simply tossing them in the direction of a nearby garbage can. Getting their head around sifting through garbage for food and sellable items? Good luck. Welcome to the world of dumpster diving, where one man’s trash is quite literally another man’s treasure.
A real problem
“It’s embarrassing sometimes, y’know?” admits another diver trying to eke a living out of rejected goods. Unable to hold down a job but moving back home to Ontario in two months, his options were limited. Though he was having a good day of it—a paper shredder in excellent condition and some other clean pieces in his bike basket—it’s obvious that not everyone takes as positive an approach as Guy. The real embarrassment, though? The ridiculous amount of waste the world is responsible for to make dumpster diving a worthwhile activity.
Here are some worldwide figures from Foodtank.com: 1.3 billion, 1 trillion, 100 kilograms, and 15 times. In order, they represent how many tons of food get thrown out annually, the dollar amount attached to that annual food waste, how much the average European or North American tosses out each year, and how much more food is wasted by said Europeans or North Americans than the average African. To put some of those figures into context—while acknowledging the logistics prevent waste from actually being used this effectively—the United Nations estimated in 2008 that $30 billion a year for a decade would support viable long-term solutions for hunger in the developing world. That works out to 3 per cent of how much is wasted.
Speaking of figures around $30 billion, according to a report released in 2014 by Value Chain Management International, the combined effort of Canadians across the country managed to needlessly discard over $31 billion worth of perfectly edible goods. To add to that already gross figure, the report recognized its inability to factor waste at federal institutions (e.g., prisons and schools) as well as the various costs along the way (e.g., transport and labour) due to the lack of an accurate means of collecting said data. Estimates put the “true cost” around $100 billion.
That waste isn’t restricted to any specific part of the process, either. While the report notes that approximately 47 per cent ($14.6 billion) is on the shoulders of individuals, the remaining 53 per cent is spread across food manufacturing and processing, on farms prior to getting to market, retailers, restaurants and hotels, and transportation.
As usual, the brass tacks of it all isn’t as black and white as one would hope. Money can’t simply be funnelled from waste into the marked improvement of those less fortunate. Excess goods can’t be whisked away at the drop of a hat to where they’re needed most. However, there is hope. Last year, France passed a law requiring supermarkets to donate all edible goods to local organizations such as food banks and charities. While thousands of signatures and a snowstorm of paperwork away from even achieving something remotely similar, a petition at https://www.change.org/p/government-of-canada-let-s-make-it-illegal-for-supermarkets-to-waste-unsold-food-whatawaste is attempting to do the same in Canada. Every bit counts.
Tossing out perceptions
But since the hunger problem won’t be solved today, there can at least be a focus on erasing the stigma around dumpster diving. The law being of some importance, dumpster diving is legal as long as it’s not done on private property, since garbage is public domain. Moving on, as has already been made painfully clear, the majority of food found in the trash has absolutely nothing wrong with it. I probably saw hundreds of dollars thrown out just during the few hours I spent trawling back alleys for divers: veritable forests of green sitting near the top of some heaps, whole watermelons with their sole damning quality being a few tiny nicks, and an endless stream of produce that simply wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as our privileged souls are accustomed to.
Richard Bridge*, a retired substitute teacher, notes, “It’s not like you don’t wash the fruit you buy from the store. It’s the same thing, really.” The produce one buys from the market is often grown from synthetic fertilizer—a hodgepodge of chemicals most never bother to, nor wish to, look up. The worst thing many fear they’ll find in a dumpster is a steaming pile of poop, which, if you buy organic, is probably what your food came from anyway.
If the fear is that markets won’t be welcoming of divers, then rest easy. “We don’t bother them,” said Julia Wong, an employee at a Vancouver grocer with significant diver traffic. “Why should we?” Bridge, Guy, and a handful of others commented that some places, namely bakeries, will even be friendly about it and put food out in bags.
Dumpster diving neither needs to be an everyday occurrence, nor do you have to be financially wanting. Bridge is an example of that: “How often do I dive? Very seldom. I don’t know if I even count that [spending a moment picking through] as a dive. If I see a good orange or something on top, that’s just a good piece of fruit.”
So there you have dumpster diving 101. Doesn’t matter if you’re homeless or just looking for a snack; if you’re up for the challenge, take the plunge.
*name changed at request of diver
Want to try your hand at dumpster diving? Here’s a few tips:
-Use protection: gloves, boots, and a stick if you’re particularly paranoid. While many don’t wear protective materials, keep in mind that you are taking food from a dumpster. After a good wash, your food will be fine, but by definition, dumpsters are not the cleanest things in the world. If you’re afraid of getting messy, come prepared.
-Bring a flashlight: Regardless of whether you’re diving at night or during the day, be ready with some lumens. The last thing you want to do is to drag out your latest treasure only to discover it’s riddled with mould.
-Don’t divulge others’ favourite haunts: Just because you found a good spot doesn’t mean you should trumpet its existence to the world. Be careful who you share information with, because they can quickly become fiercely competitive.
-Be respectful: Sure, it’s a dumpster, but that doesn’t entitle you to make a mess. Don’t scatter material everywhere (outside the dumpster) without cleaning it up just to get to the bottom.
-Don’t take more than you need: Just because you can carry two watermelons home doesn’t mean you should. Most stuff is likely going to go bad soon anyway, so only take what you’ll be able to actually use. Leave something for other divers, otherwise you’re just contributing to waste as well.
-If you’re afraid of conflict, don’t tempt it; wait until someone leaves or find another dumpster. As Guy says, “It’s not worth it to fight over garbage.”