Talking Trash

OK, let’s clear up a few things at the beginning: Most of my experience has been in grocery store dumpsters; the safety of prepared food from restaurant dumpsters can be a little more difficult to assess, but I’ve never heard of anyone who got sick from eating any kind of food out of a dumpster. Still I prefer to stick with grocery stores. Most dumpster divers I know stay away from meat (many won’t even take vegetables that have been in a dumpster with meat because of the danger of contamination) and many avoid dairy products. A vegetable is either edible or visibly too far gone to be edible. It’s obvious. Our national obsession with perfect appearance extends to the produce section: most of what we find in the dumpster is not rotten, it’s just got a nick or soft spot. You would eat it without a thought if you found it in your own refrigerator. Expiration dates are just the date the store takes a product off the shelf; most expired food is fine, and if it isn’t you’ll be able to tell.

Dumpstering is not stealing; technically it’s trespassing, but it’s rare for a dumpster diver to be given more than a warning or possibly a ticket. In most cities stores pay a disposal fee based on the amount of waste in their dumpster—you’d think they’d thank us for lightening the load, but they don’t. The mildly transgressive nature of dumpster diving actually makes it more fun. It’s very freeing.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 97 billion pounds of edible food goes to waste in the United States—that’s over a quarter of the food produced in this country. Just five percent of that wasted food could feed four million people for a day. It costs a billion dollars a year to dispose of food waste. Rotting food releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2.

I would guess that I save $80 to $100 a month by eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Money is time. I spend the time I save by dumpstering on visiting with friends and my grown daughters, volunteering at Food Not Bombs, riding my bicycle, reading, writing. It feels wealthy.

Dumpstering is fun. It’s fun to put together a group of friends late at night and drive around to the back of the grocery store, drive slowly and quietly and douse the lights. Everyone has a slightly different technique. Stef wears latex gloves like a surgeon. Mark hoists himself up, lifts up the big black lid and jumps inside with both feet. Sometimes someone will put on a headlamp and its swaying beam illuminates the rough and rusty interior of the dumpster. I don’t feel confident of my ability to get out once I get in, so I often take a stepladder and pick out the things I can reach through the side door, or I hold a flashlight for the others. As the boxes fill up I carry them back to the car. We offer a running commentary as we work: “Wait, is that a bag of onions? There—over there under the celery? Yes!” Or “Could you check the expiration date on this one?” Or “Why did they throw these pineapples away? Look, they’re perfect! People are crazy.”

On a good night we can take home what conservatively adds up to hundreds of dollars of food. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars of food. When we get more than our household can use we stop by other collective houses and leave boxes of peppers, zucchinis, grapefruits and apples on their porches. Some mornings I’ll open the door and find a box of food on our back porch left by some other night-dumpstering crew. Sorting through boxes of dumpstered food is one of the pleasantest tasks I undertake. I love washing the produce in the big double kitchen sink and dividing it up: shining mounds of fresh tomatoes, dark luminous eggplants, zucchini and summer squash stacked like cordwood, peppers—red, green, yellow, orange—arranged in a bowl like a painting by Cezanne. Clusters of radishes, boxes of baby greens, sacks of potatoes, giant onions, bunches and bunches of bananas. Often we’ll find multiple bags of apples or oranges–one orange will go soft and the store will throw the whole bag away. Someone in the house once picked up an electric orange juicer, still in its box, that was being discarded by a neighbor. On mornings after a good dumpster run we have fresh orange juice for breakfast, made with dumpstered oranges juiced in the dumpstered juicer.

One night when we were out dumpstering we heard the rumble of a loading dock door lifting–—that night we were collecting food for Food Not Bombs as well as for our own household. A woman stood in the opening, backlit by the fluorescent lights behind her, her blonde hair standing around her head like a fiery nimbus, her hands on her hips. Mark was in the dumpster hoisting full boxes of potatoes and peppers over the rim to Will who was handing them to me.

“What. Are. You. Doing. In. My. Dumpster?” the woman said with an angry little pause between each word. Mark, Will and I sped up the assembly line.

“Put those boxes back!” she said. I began dumping the boxes into the trunk of the car and handing the empties back to Will who tossed them over the edge into the dumpster.

“You’re breaking the law!” the woman said. “That’s illegal. I’ve called the police.” We didn’t believe her, but we weren’t sure.

“We’re collecting food to feed people who don’t have anything to eat,” Mark finally said.

“I don’t care,” she said. “Get out of there right now. You’re breaking the law.”

Mark’s good humor disappears abruptly when he’s angry. He stood up inside the dumpster, riding the mountain of vegetables and cardboard cartons like a ship’s captain, and looked across the parking lot at the furious woman on the loading dock.

“What do you think is more important?” he shouted. “Feeding hungry people, or the law?”

“The LAW!”

We heard sirens in the distance. Mark got out of the dumpster. I slammed down the trunk lid and we left.

Which is more important: feeding hungry people or the law? If you ask yourself the question over and over again it becomes like that little place on the wall where the paint has buckled. Curious, you pick at the bubble one day and discover that the plaster underneath is cracked. You follow the line of the crack down to the floorboards. You wonder why the plaster cracked just there and you go down to the basement to investigate. You discover that one of the floor joists has moved. You look more closely and realize that the foundation of the house is tipped and crumbling. You call in an expert and discover that the ground beneath the house is sinking away. Deep below the house an underground cavern is widening, a great stone plate is shifting, a lava flow is making its way to the surface, a column of sand is settling. If you look too long you can no longer look away.

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18 Comments

Filed under collective living

18 responses to “Talking Trash

  1. Zach

    As one of those readers who heard of your website from the post on the Freakonomics blog, I would like to tell you how much I have enjoyed reading your blog. Please do not give too much thought to the negative comments you have received from posters on other blogs, if there is anything that surfing the internet has taught me it is that there are a lot of unhappy, reactionary people out there who take any opportunity to look down on others. My wife and I try to live in as simple a manner as possible, but reading about your choices has made me jealous. I often think about further simplifying my life, much like you have, but am restrained by the fact that I have young children and worry that they would be embarrassed or teased by peers because of my choices. Do you wish you had made a lifestyle change when your children were younger, or are you glad you raised them in a more “normal” manner? Thanks again.

  2. It just so happens that I’ve seen several local restaurant owners dumpster diving behind grocery stores as well. And what did they do with what the found? I can’t say for sure but I watched them all carry their dumpster produce in the back doors of their own restaurants.

    And having spent 28 years in trucking which took me into hundreds of food processing plants… Well, you really don’t want to know what I saw in many of those plants including one local plant where raw meat is cut and packaged on a sheet of cardboard laying on a dirty concrete floor in front of an open loading dock door in a building with no air conditioning. There was so much grease on the floor the forklift had to be pushed up the incline to load my trailer because the tires only spun in the grease.

    I’m lucky now in that my food comes from my own garden where I control every step of the process.

  3. Mani

    While your want to feed the hungry (er, yourselves) is noble, I doubt you’d endorse coerced charity, so to speak. Granted, stealing impersonal trash is pretty much a victimless crime – but the metaquestion may well be what disturbed this lady: Who gets to decide what’s important for whom, again?

  4. Vada Bostian

    Keep diving girl…

    I didn’t know Abigail was your sister, I’m having a “duh” moment…

  5. *We heard sirens in the distance. Mark got out of the dumpster. I slammed down the trunk lid and we left.*

    So you fled like cowards with your tail tucked between your legs, afraid of a ticket for dumpster diving?

    Some revolution this is gonna’ be.

  6. That last paragraph was sheer magic.

  7. jayesh

    See, i can’t see why u should not be allowed to eat what someone else doesnt want to eat… thats entirely acceptable to me. What isn’t is that you dont realize you are using other people’s productivity to support the poor. That’s where it all comes down to…. you are the non-violent Robin Hood, giving what you dont own to charity & feeling proud of it.

  8. “The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 97 billion pounds of edible food goes to waste in the United States—that’s over a quarter of the food produced in this country. Just five percent of that wasted food could feed four million people for a day. It costs a billion dollars a year to dispose of food waste.”

    national embarrassment, i say.

  9. Fist, I love this blog, and these ideas

    second –
    “So you fled like cowards with your tail tucked between your legs, afraid of a ticket for dumpster diving?

    Some revolution this is gonna’ be.”

    I cant help but feel you missing the point.
    Dumpster diving isn’t a revolution because its not sustainable – it relies on he waste the over all revolution is fighting. There is nothing to fight for here. All that would happen is that they would pay a fine to police and if they didn’t they would be arrested. No one learns and nothing happens. There are ways right now to live a more free life, this is one of them. If society ever changes and there is no more waste, then good. I am sure the author of this blog would agree that it would be a high wholy day when resources are so well used that there is no use for dumpsters anymore.

    Third
    “but the metaquestion may well be what disturbed this lady: Who gets to decide what’s important for whom, again?”
    Maybe i’m being assumtuous here, but i doubt someone who is throwing out tons of food and then getting angry at people who are taking the garbege is really asking this metaquestion. If she had wanted to take any step towards being involved in the decision making process of what important to whom, she should/would have donated the food to a local charity she cares about. She is trapped in the silly mindset that law trumps all – specifically that the letter of the law trumps even the spirit of the law. This garbage is important to noone, its a burden on her, its a burden on the trash company, its a burden on our landfills, its a burden on greenspace, on the enviroment, the atmosphere, and society. ontop of all of that its a usable resouce simply going to waste.

    Keep writting, one of these day’s i hope to follow.

  10. Jon

    “Which is more important: feeding hungry people or the law? If you ask yourself the question over and over again it becomes like that little place on the wall where the paint has buckled. Curious, you pick at the bubble one day and discover that the plaster underneath is cracked.”

    Wow. Well said. I hope you put all this stuff into a book sometime.

  11. Pingback: Wasted Food » Blog Archive » Friday Buffet

  12. Mani

    Joshua Rothaas-
    “[..] i doubt someone who is throwing out tons of food and then getting angry at people who are taking the garbege is really asking this metaquestion. If she had wanted to take any step towards being involved in the decision making process of what important to whom, she should/would have donated the food to a local charity she cares about. She is trapped in the silly mindset that law trumps all […]”

    You’ve both missed and illustrated my point simultaneously. One could just as easily say that your mindset is silly, and hers isn’t. The metaquestion was “When in conflict, who gets to impose their mindset upon whom, and to what degree?” Your answer was, “I doubt she’d care – she’s so clearly silly!”

    On top of that, you presumed that her sincerity should only manifest itself in ways you consider valid, by presuming that if she cared about what transgressions are committed against her person, she would have donated to charity (though I fail to see the connection).

    You also seem to be implicitly denying her the benefit of the doubt of being an intelligent, reasoning person because you condemn her apparent mindset.

    All of this attitude seems diametrically opposed to one of the core principles of collectivism/anarchism I see touted so frequently here: the fair consideration of the ideas and feelings of others, in a representative fashion.

    (Unless that only applies to the ideas of the people in your group, or ideas that you believe are valid – but I give you and the blog’s author & commentators the benefit of the doubt that they are sincere and intelligent in their beliefs.)

    Again, in this example, the crime – and it is a crime – being committed is essentially victimless, with only the storeowner’s sense of security/ego at minimal risk (not enough harm to claim damage, so although she is a victim, it is in an insignificant way). But the fact that she may not have consciously considered the metaquestion does not mean that on a less-conscious level, it did not disturb her – she was angry, and it was her store; the conclusion isn’t that she simply valued the law over your actions (as both you and the author oversimplify), but that she is witnessing a (perceived) wrong against her, and you/the looters ignored her, and her considerations, entirely – on the presumption that your opinions were valid, hers were not, and that was sufficient to exercise your will over hers.

    Of course, Liz’s philosophy may not be that – it may be that she only exercises this when the “common good” (feeding several people) is the benefit, and the cost is insignificant (“victimless”). But I don’t know Liz’s principles that well, which is why I’m asking. I’m neither condemning nor encouraging her actions and opinions, just inquiring: I’m pathologically curious, and this subject is fascinating…

    …as if you couldn’t tell by this tiresome tirade 🙂

  13. robotronik

    Very well said, Liz. Makes me miss you all so much!

  14. Zack

    I’d like to hear more about the logistics of it. Will you get messy? What’s a typical haul?

    I’d appreciate it if you could point me to a more explicit “how-to” guide.

  15. dingus

    mani-
    you’re question is pointless intellectual masturbation that just goes in circles. if i say that i feel violated or attacked by your posting on this blog, and tell you to stop, are you going to stop? if not, does that mean you refuse to “consider” my perspective “representatively”? no, it means you did consider it, and will continue to post anyway because you consider the demand invalid.

    they obviously considered the owners demands…. they considered them to be invalid and therefore ignored them. it’s called disagreeing. it happens.

    anarchists have these ideas, see, one of them is that my freedom to do as i please extends to the point where it infringes upon your freedom to do as you please. private property (different from *personal* property) violates this innate freedom, therefore her demands that the divers respect the tenet of private property (and get out of the dumpster and leave the accumulated food to rot), even when it impedes the exercise of their freedom, is not valid. if would be a different story if she planned to use the food for something for herself.

  16. Mani

    Dingus-

    I appreciate the response.

    “if i say that i feel violated or attacked by your posting on this blog, and tell you to stop, are you going to stop?”
    My posting here is neither illegal nor harassing, ergo no risk of slippery-slope, nor any transgression. As opposed to illegal activities committed against your person.

    “they obviously considered the owners demands…. they considered them to be invalid and therefore ignored them.”
    You’d agree there are some demands that shouldn’t be ignored. Where is the line drawn, and who gets to draw it?

  17. Beautifully written blog. Many who find fault or criticize, is because of the guilt they feel from not being able to “dive” into freeganism.

    It takes a special personality type. One who doesn’t care about acceptance in society.. It is easier for most people to accept high prices, world hunger and the rapid depletion of natural resources than to see their daughter or sister foraging thru trash. So yeah it ISN’T for everyone, but I love the lifestyle and sleep with a clear concious. Thanks for sharing..

  18. Pingback: Wasted Food » Blog Archive » Tray(less) Day

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