Tag Archives: dumpster diving

How to turn a bagel into a tomato

It started, fittingly enough, with a walk for hunger—one of those community walk-a-thons that raises money for local food banks and overseas charities. It was a nice autumn day, clear and bright, the red and green leaves of the dogwood tree glowing 2bagels5.jpglike stained glass and the sloping bank out front foaming with autumn clematis. Skye and I sat on the steps and waved to the hundreds of people in their matching t-shirts as they walked past the house, laughing and talking and waving back to us.

Someone must have arranged for bagels to feed the walkers as they assembled for the opening speeches in the ballpark. In any case when it was all done there were a lot of2bagels14.jpg bagels—a lot of bagels—left over, and somehow the bagels ended up in our kitchen as a donation to Food Not Bombs.

Bagels. I don’t know if modern childhoods are still haunted by “The Dog of Pompeii”, but my 1950s childhood certainly was. It’s the story of a blind orphan boy living with his dog Bimbo on the streets of 2bagels10.jpgPompeii. On the day Vesuvius erupts the two are separated; in the terror and confusion of the moment the boy is swept into a boat, but the dog runs back to the market to get his young master a raisin bun, is trapped in the falling ash, and loyal to the end and struggling to return, dies. Centuries later archeologists make a plaster cast of the dog, preserved forever with a plaster bun in its mouth. For a nine- or ten-year-old reader it’s a first powerful introduction to heartbreak.

The boy and the dog and the plaster bun come back to me every time I see a big of bagels. Bagels inevitably and rapidly go from less-than-fresh to stale to hard as plaster; when they’ve gotten to the plaster stage there’s nothing to be done with them but throw them away. That’s exactly what we thought we were going to have to do with the walk-a-thon bagels, until Mark came up with a different idea.

“Look, we’ve been talking about taking the half the driveway and turning it into a garden anyway,” he said. The two-car driveway was concrete on one side but just gravel and dirt on the other; the gravel side sat2bagels6.jpg next to a garden that supported nothing much more than some elderly rose bushes and a few dispirited tomato plants. “Why couldn’t we put down a layer of bagels and build up the soil from there?”

Carrot, who was living in the house at the time, made some phone calls. Yes, her gardening friends said, bagels should make fine mulch. I was surprised to hear that—in my limited composting research I had read that baked goods shouldn’t go into the compost pile. 2bagels8.jpg“That’s just because they can attract rats and mice,” Carrot said. “But if you make bread soggy and mix it with other things it’s not a problem.” Bread, it turns out, is actually good for the soil—it’s high in nitrogen (so are some other unexpectedly compostable things like tea bags, coffee grounds, egg shells, human hair, and vacuum cleaner dust). Nitrogen is one of the three essential “macronutrients” that make up commercial fertilizers (the other two are potassium and phosphorus). Plants need nitrogen to make amino acids, protein and DNA; they can’t grow without it. Cool.2bagels15.jpg

The first step was to clear the gravel out of the driveway and pick-axe out the half-dead rose bushes. The next step was to put down cardboard—cardboard not only discourages weeds, but as it breaks down it actually attracts earthworms who like its biodegradable glues and sugar. Lapped over each other, the variously sized pieces of corrugated cardboard  looked like a giant abstract painting.2bagels18.jpg

The bagel-mulching day was rainy. Every trash can and plastic bucket in the yard brimmed with bagels and water that dripped down from the gutters; the bagels looked like giant Cheerios sogging in a bowl. When they had begun to soften and fall apart Mark, Carrot and Naman sloshed them out onto the cardboard and spread them around. Next came a layer of green stuff—weeds and leaves pulled up from around the property—followed by a layer of composted soil, forked up from the old compost pile behind the garage. We had all but abandoned the compost pile a couple of years before because of a sudden invasion of rats—but that’s another story. The pile’s remnants supplied us with good rich dirt.12truck.jpg

After that came a second layer of cardboard. A friend had told us about a landscaping company that had moved, leaving behind giant piles of wood mulch. Mark filled his truck up several times with the well-composted mulch and spread it over the garden, which now rose a good foot above the original layer of bagels and cardboard. The final layer was leaves, salvaged from the bags our neighbors had left out by the curb for pick up.

fnb.jpgAll winter we continued to add leaves; every time the compost bucket in the kitchen filled up we took the scraps out, scatter them in the garden and cover them with more leaves.

And it worked. The tomatoes we planted the next summer could not have been more different from the droopy, anemic plants of my previous gardening experience. Suddenly the garden was filled with big muscular plants that looked like forerunners of a new backyard Paleozoic age. On late summer afternoons we would stand around in the garden eating beans and tomatoes straight off the vine.

We never went back to traditional composting. I don’t think we ever will. The fall after the bagel mulching experiment Mark put in two more garden beds in the back yard, piled and repiled with leaves. 2mark.jpg“Sometimes I’ll turn over a piece of soil writhing with so many worms it takes my breath away,” Mark says.

We’ve extended the technique to include the far back yard; the buckets of scraps I bring home from Food Not Bombs go under the leaves and disappear within days into the dark rich soil. Last fall I began on the front yard: cardboard and newspapers, scraps, leaves, more scraps, more leaves. I’m not even sure what’s going to get planted there. I just like mulching.

2yard.jpgMark says it’s the same for him. He and I sat at the kitchen table the other morning reminiscing about the bagel day and talking mulch in general. “It’s fairly magic,” he said “The way we roll here I can put ten or fifteen gallons of food scraps in the garden every week. I spread it, put a foot of leaves over it, and two weeks later that foot thick is six inches thick, and except for some orange peels and a sweet potato or two it’s gone.”

Now that the nice spring weather is bringing people out in their yards to rake and trim, Mark pulls into the driveway a couple of times a week with the bed of his little red pickup truck filled with more bags of leaves. “I can’t stop,” he said. “I see these bags of leaves and I have to pick them up. You know, it feels sometimes as though our whole world is stuck in this import/export economy: people’s trees and plants are fixing a huge amount of sunlight, but as soon as the leaves fall they’re treated at trash, then people export the leaves and import fertilizers and topsoil. It’s the same with lawns: you’re farming a crop, but you throw the harvest away—or it goes to my house.”

Who knows if we’ll ever have to depend more heavily on our yard for food; who knows where the world is headed. But whether we do or not, there’s a primitive satisfaction in knowing that little by little, bagel by bagel, we are making deposits in an account that will pay dividends for a very long time.

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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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Eew!

What is it about dumpster diving that excites such extreme disgust and disapproval? Sometimes I think it’s not just a visceral, illogical reaction to the thought of eating food that was—however briefly—considered trash. I think for some people caught in the earning and spending cycle the thought of anyone getting something for nothing makes them mad.

It’s been a strange couple of weeks. On Tuesday my old friend Stephen Dubner wrote about me and my life in his blog, and my own blog went from 40 or 50 views a day to over 3000. A few weeks ago when I began this blog Ed Cone was also kind enough to post something in his blog about mine too, exciting a little flurry of discussion. The people who posted comments here have, for the most part, been approving of the choices I’ve made in my life. Not so the people who have posted elsewhere! Of all the things I do and believe, dumpster diving seems to bring up the strongest emotion. I’m going to try to answer some of the comments here. As always, everyone—dumpster diver or dumpster diver-hater—is invited to chime in.

dd: “I went dumpster diving for food with mom and daughter; hung out as they cooked up dinner for their Food Not Bombs charity;” Is anyone else bothered by the juxtaposition of those two events? Shudder.

Liz: Well dd, as anyone who has ever worked in any kind of food service will probably tell you, paying for food is no guarantee of sanitation, but that aside obviously we inspect and wash everything before we cook it. Often the food we get out of the dumpster is still cold; why is something safe while it’s in a grocery store and suddenly dangerous half an hour later when it’s in a dumpster? One correction to Stephen’s post: Food Not Bombs is not a charity. Anyone who wants to can cook, anyone who wants to can eat—it is structured to work as effectively as possible against the “us” and “them” dynamic of a typical charity.

Justin James (excerpt): I had the occasion to meet some of my local neighborhood anarchists a few years ago. I was baffled at how they could be claiming to live “off of the grid” and with “no dependency on the government” considering their lifestyle: Eating food disposed of by a for-profit food store. Sounds to me like a pretty parasitic way to live off of the institutions you claim to despise…. Everyone I have met who claims to be an “anarchist” and tries to live that lifestyle was living no differently in function (albeit a bit differently in form) than the welfare cheats I have met and the criminals I have met. None of them could exist if everyone followed that lifestyle…Any system in which the world would stink if we all followed it, and is completely unsustainable if we all followed it? No way.

Liz: You sound very angry Justin! I wonder why? It seems almost as though you feel that anarchists are forcing you to be a kind of galley slave while they lounge around on the deck living off your labor. I’d be interested to understand what you find parasitic about eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Surely it’s not as parasitic as making a profit off of minimum wage workers, using up the world’s resources and leaving it to our children to pick up the tab, and contributing an outsized amount to climate change. For the record I have never claimed to be off the grid; I’m not even quite sure what “the grid” is. I do try to live responsibly and sensibly, but I’m no backwoods survivalist. We do agree on one thing though: I also say “no way” to any system in which the world would stink if we all followed it, and is completely unsustainable if we all followed it. It actually sounds a lot like the world we live in right now, doesn’t it?

The CA: People who willingly eat out of the trash can when they don’t have to and brag about it are worthy of some ridicule because that is just plain stupid for a number of reasons, health being at the top. Ridiculous actions deserve mocking responses. I could go on- for example, how do you live in an “anarchy” within your own home? Such foolishness seem calculated to draw attention. Sorry folks, but some things when done by educated adults are just plain silly.

Liz: I certainly agree with you, CA, that some things done by educated adults are just plain silly, but I think I’ll forgo the mocking response. I would guess that my housemates and I eat much more healthily than the average American. Dumpstered fruits and vegetables vs. McDonald’s? Tough call.

overeddie: I’m glad my mom isn’t doing any dumpster diving.

Liz: That is, of course, between you and your mom, overeddie, but you might be surprised. In my experience middle-aged women are up for a lot more adventure than most people give them credit for. It’s a big exciting world out there!

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Dumpster Diving Nuts & Bolts

All Things Frugal
Brave New Traveler
dumpsterdiving.net
freegan.info
How to Dumpster Dive
My Dumpster Diving Adventures!
The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving
Wasted Food
How to Dumpster Dive by Bike
The Chronicles of the Dumpzter Diver

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