Fighting wastefulness, one dumpster at a time


Victoria Bick

With the world of extreme sports taking things to new heights regularly, people’s minds misinterpret things quickly when they hear the words “dumpster diving”.

While some people might get a thrill out of jumping into a metal container full of who-knows-what, dumpster diving has other, less dangerous meanings. Also known as “curb shopping”, “aggressive recycling”, “trash picking” or “urban foraging”, dumpster diving is a technique used by people who are reclaiming the casualties of a throwaway culture.

The term “dumpster-diving” loosely encompasses a variety of actions. Some people collect usable items on garbage day, taking the perfectly good chairs, tables, electronics, etc that others put out on the curb. Others, like the renovation team from The Discovery Channel’s Junk Raiders more actively pursue their trash by setting up junk hotlines and approaching other contractors for their unneeded materials.

Some search through personal household garbage for reusable items, or look for jackpots in dumpsters behind specific stores that carry the items they are interested in, such as bookstores, grocery stores, or wholesalers.

People do it for a variety of reasons, whether to take advantage of all the goodies students leave behind at the end of the year, to feeding themselves and friends from found items, or because of economic necessity. Some of these people label themselves as freegans, a combination of “free” and “vegan”.

Freeganism is a very diverse set of practices which focus on reducing one’s negative impact on the world, for environmental, humanitarian or political purposes.

While I do not label myself as a freegan, I do enjoy learning new ways to refrain from killing the planet or the people on it. While living in Amsterdam I visited an apartment where a Dutch man was playing host to couch-surfing freegan individuals who were hitchhiking and biking around Europe.

They went dumpster diving at closing time in the many markets scattered around Amsterdam and prepared gourmet meals (one of them was a former chef) for up to 30 people. With some encouragement, I furnished my bare apartment with posters, chairs, tables, dishes, plus random decorations and some clothes, all thanks to the wastefulness of others.

Back in Waterloo, I didn’t know where to start. Where do you start looking, which dumpsters were worth the trouble, what was the etiquette and rules here?

Help came in the form of fourth-year Political Science and Global Studies student Adam Lewis, who agreed to be the guide for myself and Julia in the wonderful world of K-W dumpster diving.

By bikes, one night after dark, we went to a store known (by those who care) for throwing out loaves of gourmet bread, among other things. What we found exceeded my market-leftover expectations tremendously: gourmet popcorn, cookie dough mix, gourmet bread, and soup broth.

With the price tags still on them, we got over $50 worth of free groceries. All the food had been thrown out by the store, either to clear the shelves for more products or because the best-before dates were coming up.

You might not be surprised to hear that there is some stigma against dumpster diving. To many people it seems gross, dirty, and extreme.

They are right on the last one: dumpster diving is a reaction to an extreme problem of waste. Why is there no backlash against the people and businesses that think that it is ok to throw out perfectly good food and products? Why is someone who reclaims these things looked down upon?
People seemed more concerned about if the food is safe (it is) and if you get dirty (sometimes).

It’s time we started asking more important questions about how disposable our resources really are.

Julia Bowen

Dumpster diving is not a name that correctly reflects the nature of the activity that it represents.
It is more than just a way of getting free food; it is a way of life for those who fourth-year Political Science and Global Studies student Adam Lewis describes as wanting to “break the mode of really over-capitalist consumption”. I was skeptical at first, as I’m probably one of the last people that would think of jumping into a dumpster for food, but after a short conversation with Lewis, I was convinced.

Now, I don’t think I would spend my Saturday nights gathering food from dumpsters, but the experience provided me with a new frame of mind that could help people in reducing the waste of our capitalist society.

The act of dumpster diving is actually just a part of a more broad movement called freeganism, which involves employing alternative ways of living that decrease the amount of consumption in all facets of your life. Not everyone who dumpster dives is freegan, and as Lewis pointed out, “it can be getting free food from anywhere”.

There is also a social aspect to dumpster diving. It’s not just one person jumping into a dumpster by themselves, it can be a group activity among a household or group of friends. The food found can be shared among many people too, and because it is free, no one seems to mind sharing, especially when there is an abundance of it.

The adventure of actually jumping into dumpsters was almost like winning the lottery in an odd way. I am a sucker for anything free, and I was amazed and, at the same time, appalled at how much is thrown out in our society.

Bread that we found had not even expired yet, and some cookie mix resting in the trash won’t expire until next year. This was good for us, since this is the kind of stuff we were looking for, but at the same time there was nothing wrong with this food and disposing of it was just a blatant waste.

One of the first things Lewis said to us was “I think dumpster diving ends up being a statement against the food waste in society” and, trust me, the amount of waste in that one dumpster was staggering.

There was just one reservation I had about the whole dumpster diving process: the cleanliness. Jumping into a dumpster and taking food out to eat was slightly worrisome to me but, as Lewis mentioned, “It’s not always pristine, but usually the stuff that you find that’s good is bagged…sometimes it’s in another plastic bag”.

A lot of the time there is no need to really search through the garbage either. In our case, the food was sitting almost right on top, with minimal need to dig. The bread was bagged twice; the soup was sealed, and so was the popcorn we found.

I think I gained a lot of important knowledge from my dumpster diving experience. It allowed me to understand and appreciate the value of food. In an age where everything is seemingly disposable, it is nice to know that people are doing something to counter the sheer waste.

I doubt I’ll go dumpster diving myself, but the experience has inspired me to look for alternative ways of gathering food, like farmers markets, and I encourage others to do the same.

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