My Run-In With Dumpster Divers: another way to take back the food system and save the world

Being in the sustainable food world and a lover of counter-cultural diets, I’ve heard the rumblings of dumpster divers and freegans, a community of people who take advantage of the industry trash and sometimes even host potlucks with their findings. Me, a friend, and a professor studied freeganism last semester during an independent study on extreme diets. We had big plans to dumpster dive but scheduling conflicts and continually bad weather prevented us from getting out. Whisperings of the trash at Trader Joes in Chelsea, Amy’s Bread, and Le Pain Quotidian were abuzz all semester.

Yesterday, I had a chance sighting of some real-life divers down the street from my apartment! After stocking up on 2-for-1 toothpaste and some other necessities, I walked out of a Walgreens cradling my purchases (yup, I actually HAND CARRY my purchases back to my apartment sans bag). This Walgreens always leaves their garbage in these clear plastic bags just outside the store on the sidewalk. Living in New York City, I’ve become immune to seeing piles of trash, but this time I took notice as four people were filtering through the bags. They weren’t the archetypal degenerates you’d expect to see digging through garbage, they were younger, about my age, and dressed as if ready to go to class.

I was so excited to actually see people diving. I stopped to asked if they were in fact divers and if they were associated with any particular diving organization. They were just as excited that I recognized they were diving; they were not part of any organization, just a group of friends looking to save some of the perfectly good trash from ending up in landfills. They offered me some of their finds which included cashews and double crème cookies, a box of Q-Tips, and an unopened dog bone (I refused the dog bone, although I wish I had a reason to keep it).

I looked like a madwoman carrying so much stuff home, but I felt the glee of one of Roald Dahl’s characters in Willy Wonka. Noah was similarly as pleased and we decided to take advantage of the resource in the future. But my glee was quickly stifled by the reaction of one my roommates. He was so disgusted that I would eat anything that came out of the trash, regardless of whether or not the packaging was intact.

For good reason, the act of taking something out of a “garbage” bag that’s been left on the sidewalk causes the average consumer some discomfort. We take what we do in our own homes as the universal – typically we throw away things that are rotted, things that are beyond reasonable use. But garbage in the commercial sphere is a bit different. It’s based more on a cost/benefit/profit analysis than on its value or potential for use. Having worked in the service and retail industries for 6 years (Dunkin Donuts, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Forever 21, and a golf club restaurant) I’ve witnessed this renegotiation of the definition of trash. Perfectly edible bread discarded at the end of every night, products deemed “unfit for sale” based on trivial “damage.”

We trust the physical space of our stores, both grocery and drug: florescent lighting, product uniformity, predictability, and structure all imply a scientific, industrialized cleanliness and trusted sterility. However, it’s important to question what part of the story isn’t being told, what is unseen. It’s exactly these stories and the trust that we instill within them that provided us with half a million eggs recalled due to salmonella last summer. And it’s this trust that we instill into places like McDonalds that allows them to wash your meat with ammonia during processing. Really, the issue isn’t which system is actually more disgusting or poisonous, (dumpster diving or industrialized food) but rather it’s a question of which system we give preference and trust.

The products that the divers offered me were damaged: the cashew can was heavily dented, the double crème cookies packaging was slightly dirty, and the Q-Tips were popped open from what looked like normal shipping wear-and-tear. But in a non-commercial context, these products were perfectly fit for consumption: the sell-by dates are far in the future. Even still, “sell-by” and “use-by” dates are highly contested in the food world; they’re put in place more to protect distributors and processors than they are to protect consumers.

In any event, it was really freakin’ awesome to see people taking advantage of the “trash” outside of the Walgreens. Noah and I enjoyed our double crème cookies (that weren’t even stale!) as we sat down to watch Gasland. Perfecto.

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