Dumpster diving: saving the world one scrap at a time

At 10.30pm on a warm Monday night, Lucien Alperstein grabs his shopping bags and heads out the door to get some groceries. He makes the 15-minute walk to his local shopping centre where he passes the customer entrance and heads straight to the loading dock. In the dark and quiet of the night, Lucien scans the dock until he spots what he’s looking for. He approaches a large and sturdy black garbage bin and flings open the unchained lid. Peering inside, a wide smile spreads over his face and he knows he’s hit the jackpot.

Lucien is a dumpster diver and just one of the many thousands across the world joining this rapidly growing movement. Also known as ‘urban foraging’ or ‘skip dipping’, dumpster diving is the act of reclaiming discarded goods from commercial bins. Dumpster diving first started in the US in the 1990s as part of the broader movement of freeganism, an anti-consumerism movement where followers, known as ‘freegans’, used the practice as a a protest against waste.

Fast forward 20 years and the trend has transformed from a small grassroots movement to a worldwide phenomenon.

Dumpster diving’s booming popularity is illustrated through its powerful presence in the online world. A simple google search brings up 2.63 million results related to dumpster diving, showing the activity has made its mark globally. Countless blogs, forums and groups are dedicated to the eco-friendly activity, providing a wealth of information on dumpster diving and the freeganism movement. These sites exist to educate online visitors about waste in society while providing personal experiences and tips for newcomers.

The Australian food and lifestyle blog Not Quite Nigella offers accounts of dumpster dives, detailing where to go and what to expect, complete with photos of locations and finds, acting as a kind of ‘how-to’ guide for beginners. Oxfam’s Three Things features student-written dumpster diving stories with a focus on the facts about waste in society and the broader environmental implications. Regardless of their approach, pockets of knowledge like these have not only shared the dumpster diving practice across the world but have helped establish it as a popular cultural practice.

Dumpster diving’s rising fame has been further propelled by the world of social media with Facebook groups, Tumblr pages and Instagram hashtags devoted to the activity. With over 12, 000 Instagram posts featuring the #dumpsterdiving hashtag, it’s clear the activity is on trend. Sites like Tumblr and Instagram offer an outlet where people can share images of personal dumpster diving expeditions and finds, while Facebook groups like Dumpster Diving Sydney offer a forum where the curious and inexperienced can connect with accomplished divers in their local area and seek tips or even request to go diving with other members. In this way, social media has also managed to make the activity cool, connecting with the younger demographic and promoting diving as a trendy urban practice.

Internet sites and social media are a clear indicator of the rising popularity of the dumpster diving trend. Andrew Glover from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney said that the Internet was a huge platform for dumpster diving. “The Internet has been vital to dumpster diving. It offers good strategies and allows people to come together and share information,” he said. “It’s already achieved so much for dumpster diving and if it keeps going at this rate, we can only guess how much bigger the movement will be in the future.”

The powerful tools of technology have extended the dumpster diving practice beyond its original freegan devotees to the wider public. Although popular across a wide range of demographics, from the young and the old, from the poor to the upper middle class, the activity has perhaps been most proudly embraced by university students.

Andrew Glover finds it is a combination of students’ technological capability, lack of funds and thirst for new and exciting experiences that has made dumpster diving so appealing to them. “The reality is food costs have gone up and people are looking for ways to get their food outside the channels of the supermarket,” Mr Glover said. “Students are strapped for cash and are constantly looking for ways to challenge power structures. Dumpster diving satisfies both of these things.”

Lucien Alperstein, a former university student, has been dumpster diving for over three years and sources the majority of the food he eats from bins.

Since dumpster diving, Lucien finds he’s eating better than he ever has. “I always have a constant supply of seasonal fruit and vegetables and usually an abundance of relishes and dips, chocolate mousse, fresh pasta, homemade tomato sauce and organic yoghurt. I eat several income brackets fancier than what I could otherwise afford.”

The quality of the food Lucien finds is always of a high standard.  Most of the time the products are clean, safe, useable and in near perfect condition. “Most of the food is as good as you would get in a deli or supermarket aisle [just] some might look a little weird or have damaged packaging,” Lucien said.

With the level of waste in society today, it is easy to understand why dumpster diving emerged. According to the 2010 National Waste Report, over 4 million tonnes of food is thrown out in Australia each year, equal to around AUD 8 billion worth of waste. In addition, an estimated 20-40 per cent of fruit and vegetables don’t make it to the shops because they don’t match consumers’ expectations of what food looks like, according to food site Foodwise. Considering these facts, it makes sense to be reclaiming some of the food found in bins.

But there are a few things to be wary of when dumpster diving. Although dumpster diving is a legal activity, there is the danger of getting caught. “Technically, if you are on private property you’re trespassing,” Lucien warns, “but that said, the worst that’s happened to me is being told to leave. No one’s even asked me not to take the food I’ve already collected.”

There is also the risk of getting sick from contaminated or expired food. Lucien recommends to always check the quality of the food you’ve found. “I wouldn’t take any fresh produce that doesn’t look, smell or feel fresh,” he says. “Using your common sense is crucial. To date, dumpster diving regularly for the past three years, I have not been sick from eating dumpster dived food.”

Despite these dangers, dumpster diving is still taking the world by storm, and has even managed to break into the world of television. In Austria, dumpster diving has inspired a reality television program, Waste Cooking, in which impressive culinary feats are performed with food salvaged from bins, according to the program’s website. Director David Gross said he was shocked by the level of food waste he found on his first dive in January 2012 and was inspired to make a program that educated and encouraged people to make a stand on consumerism and waste.

In Waste Cooking, episodes begin with a group of bike-riding divers going off in search of trash cans marked for organic waste. (In Austria they separate their waste into organic and non-organic). They later present their findings to food blogger and cooking instructor, Tobias Judmaier, who whips them up into tempting dishes in a kitchen set up in a pedestrian area.

This program has not only responded to the initial popularity of dumpster diving but has accelerated the anti-consumerism movement, educating and encouraging more people to get involved.

Dumpster diving has also featured on Gordon Ramsay’s television program The F Word, where elite food critic Giles Coren fashioned himself a meal from a dumpster. Oprah has devoted several episodes to dumpster diving with ideas about living on less and reducing unnecessary consumption. With this presence in popular culture, it is undeniable that dumpster diving and freeganism have made their mark in society and are continuing to gain momentum.

And it doesn’t stop there. Phone apps dedicated to dumpster diving and other freegansim activities are appearing on the market, allowing people to be involved in these activities wherever they go. Left Over Swap is a new app for smart phones that allows people to post any left-over food they may have that’s up for grabs. The system works on an exchange basis where people can offer any unwanted goods they have in return for others.  This app has made dumpster diving easier, allowing people to get the food before it hits the dumpster.

The clear popularity of dumpster diving has taken the trend to the next level, spurring the development of organisations dedicated to reclaiming food. OzHarvest is an Australian non-denominational charity that rescues excess food that would otherwise be discarded. This excess food is distributed to charities supporting the vulnerable in Sydney, Newcastle, Adelaide and Brisbane. According to the organisation’s website, OzHarvest currently delivers more than 320,000 meals per month in Sydney alone and over 441,500 meals nationwide. That’s 147 tonnes of rescued food each month saved from becoming landfill.

OzHarvest is a kind of formalised dumpster diving, collecting produce from restaurants and cafes across Australia before it hits their bins.  This organisation not only turns excess food into a resource, saving thousands of kilograms of food from being dumped each year, but distributes it to those in need, helping to combat poverty.

And OzHarvest is not the first food-reclaiming group of its kind. In the 1960s an anarchist guerilla street theatre group in San Francisco, known as ‘the diggers’, set up free stores in parks distributing free food to whoever wanted it. The food they cooked, served, ate and gave away was often pillaged from the trash, harvested from their gardens or stolen from local stores. Warren Belasco found that the Diggers made a critical contribution to the growing movement of political activism, writing, “They put food at the centre of an activist program based on an emerging ecological consciousness”.

This connection of food and activism was displayed again in the 1990s with the emergence of political activist group Food Not Bombs, an all-volunteer global group that shared free vegan meals as a protest to war and poverty. In this worldwide group which is still operating, each local branch collects surplus food that would otherwise go to waste from grocery stores, bakeries and markets, as well as donations from local farmers, and then prepares community meals that are served for free to the hungry, according to the organisation’s website.

Despite the success of these anti-consumerist groups, the overall effectiveness of the freeganism movement in reducing waste is the subject of debate. Anthropology Professor Bob Pokrant from Curtin University said he did not believe that freeganism would have any planetary benefits in the short term. “Being anti-consumption is only part of the story,” he said. “You have to be for something and there is an absence of a clear program of change associated with anti-consumerism.”

Lucien Alperstein agrees, saying the social and environmental benefits of dumpster diving are probably quite minimal. “Raising awareness about food waste is probably the best thing dumpster diving can do, and I think trying to change the way food is grown, what we expect our food to look like and how it is distributed is far more important,” he said.

But despite questions of effectiveness, Andrew Glover believes dumpster diving does have the power to affect the actions of supermarkets. “One of the more important roles dumpster diving plays is it forces supermarkets to actually consider their waste more,” Mr Glover said. “Divers are the people that could potentially be their customers and they’re relying on the supermarkets to be inherently wasteful to capture that waste. Ultimately, it impacts how supermarkets will sell their food.”

If dumpster diving can influence supermarkets, who knows what else it can achieve.

Inspired by my research, I decided to give dumpster diving a go.  Living in Newtown (Sydney), a well-known dumpster diving area, I ventured out at 9pm on a Monday night with a green bag and housemate in tow. We wandered the back streets parallel to King Street, looking for commercial bins filled with abundant food.

After reading about other people’s success, I thought it would be easy to find food. But after an hour of searching, my housemate Charlie and I returned home with nothing more than free frozen yoghurt samples from the newly-opened Yogurberry.

I decided I needed some help to get me going. Later that night, I joined a dumpster diving group on Facebook, Dumpster Diving Sydney, and appealed to the experienced members to take me on a dive.

One willing volunteer, Jack (not his real name) accepted my proposal and we met in Marrickville at 8pm on a Friday night. We started at the bins of Bourke St Bakery, where I was shocked to see countless garbage bags overflowing with bread rolls and pastries. I wanted to take it all but Jack recommended to take only what I could eat, leaving with a single loaf of bread and a few pastries. It’s devastating to see so much good quality food simply waiting to be collected by garbage trucks the next morning.

We then headed to Marrickville Metro which, with an Aldi, K-mart and Woolworths along with dozens of small food shops, promised plenty of bin potential.  That night, we found a mix of yoghurt, cheese and bread from Woolworths, mixed in with fishing poles, skateboards and sleeping bags. I was surprised to find these activity products in seemingly perfect condition: it shows just how much is casually discarded in commercial bins and the sheer variety of products you can find for free in Sydney.

Dumpster diving is on a roll and there’s no signs of it slowing down.  But what is the future for this bin rummaging? Andrew Glover believes dumpster diving will continue to be popular for years to come. “As long as there are supermarkets around and they’re leaving out food, people will try to capture that waste.”

With online sites, social media, television programs and organisations dedicated to the activity, it’s hard to predict what’s next for dumpster diving. Only time will tell. It seems all that’s left is for it to become a competitive sport.




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