You can’t fight waste by eating it

Spoiled eggs. Rusty apple cores. Bags of dog crap. Not the archetypal items found in the aisles of your local grocery store. Unless of course, your local grocery store happens to be a dumpster.

Like Instagram, sushi and Buddy Holly glasses, the dumpster diving fad has taken the world by, er, garbage. When I asked my cousin – a budding garbage gorger – to explain the appeal of digging through people’s bagged unwanteds, he launched into a diatribe about consumers, capitalists and any other right-wingers “responsible” for the mounting piles of wasted food across the globe.

He was right about one thing. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, worldwide we waste “1.3 billion tons of food produced for human consumption per year.”

A staggering statistic? Yes. But is rooting through dumpsters to save best-before buns, battered boxes of cereal and still-sealed yogurt cups the best way to address global food crises?

Aside from perpetuating the rejection of consumerism, dumpster diving does have its perks. “Freegans” – quite simply, vegans who eat for free – get no line, no cover at your neighbourhood dumpster. Anomalous artists can salvage creativity from what others have bagged and tossed. It’s a cash-free alternative for poverty-stricken families.

One “innovative” father from North Carolina told NBC News that he dumpster dives strictly to put groceries on the table for his three children. Regarding his 14-year-old son, he said: “I don’t like getting all the way into dumpsters unless there’s something really valuable in there, but my son doesn’t mind as much. He’ll jump right in.”

“When the money runs short,” what kind of provider watches clean-handed as their child does all the digging for them? Are you also teaching them that trespassing is just a myth, and that health hazards are only in fairytales?

Dangerous Divers

Something fanciful fathers like Mr. North Carolina may not have taken into account are public health regulations. Alberta Housing and Health Standards states that inside a home, “rooms that are used for food preparation and cooking shall have walls and floors constructed of materials which do not provide harbourage to dirt, grease, vermin and bacteria.” Maybe you don’t cook in a dumpster, but you’re eating from a pantry that’s the ultimate harbourer of filth.

Not only do divers have to navigate around needles, broken glass or other equally pointy culprits, less overt dangers, such as contaminants and chemicals, can remain furtive all the way up to an inevitable ride to the hospital.

According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, these brave scrap scroungers are in danger of ingesting pesticides, fecal matter and other bacteria-ridden refuse. Even washing food after it’s been “saved” from the garbage “does not guarantee contaminants or chemicals will be eliminated.”

Financial Freedom

Divers also face legal implications. Since many receptacles reside on private property, digging through them is considered trespassing.

As the amount of food produced and wasted per year grows, so does the number of dumpster divers

Photo by Rexy SecraraAn article published in Reuters Magazine reported that “a Manhattan law firm left sixty-one dumpsters worth of confidential case files on city streets” in May 2009. The law firm may be at fault for not disposing of its records appropriately, but if a garbage bin is not a suitable place to throw things out, what is?

Identity theft has also been an issue. The Government of Canada states: “shredding or destroying sensitive personal documents before tossing them into the garbage will help defeat dumpster divers looking for transaction records, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, cheques, financial statements and old income tax returns.”

Dumpster divers complain about waste; now we have to waste more energy shredding all our scraps before they can be safely disposed of?

What Are We Diving For?

The last dive I will take at the dumpsterly-inclined, is your “contribution” to eradicating food waste is more accurately a hindrance. For dumpster diving to be a viable solution to the economic crisis, everyone worldwide would need to be bum-up or knee-deep in trash, not just a select few.

Not enough divers have considered farming or agriculture as an option; small operations are cost saving, and are ways to produce and consume what one wishes rather than scowling at corporate waste. This is partly what makes me believe that dumpster diving is not a solution, but a statement. Like picketers who think a handcrafted sign is a more noble form of feckless bitching, if divers really care, they need to enact change, not just dig through it.

The Urban Foods Initiative – a nonprofit retail store operating out of Boston – is doing just that, working specifically on a business plan to provide “expired, but otherwise edible food to low-income people.” A sustainable, taxable venture that is contributable to the economy while working against waste.

If people took more significant dives, I would be writing a much different article.

abrooks@cjournal.ca