Alberta is the most wasteful province in Canada. But, even though rummaging through a back-alley dumpster can be seen as dirty or a last resort, some Calgarians are trying to solve that waste problem by finding something of value among those scraps.
According to Statistics Canada, Alberta produced over 4.2 million tonnes of waste in 2016, more than half of which came from non-residential sources. This places the province as the highest generator of waste per capita in Canada.
Jeff Ferrell, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University and author of Empire of Scrounge, a book which recounts his eight- month experience living off of dumpsters, says a major source of waste can be traced to large commercial stores.
“The larger the corporation you have and the less local the production, the more waste you get,” says Ferrell. “They’re inherently going to generate waste because it’s going out in such mass quantities.”
While diving at retail dumpsters, Ferrell was shocked to find the amount of brand new products and clothing items with tags still on them. In a consumer society where
people are constantly encouraged to buy more, he says, it’s often usable goods that are thrown away simply because they’re out of style or out of fashion. Dumpster diving, though, offers a different approach.
“Through dumpster diving, you learn to value what you have and learn how to reuse it and recycle it and remake it,” says Ferrell. “It will satisfy your needs, but not immediately … If you just slow down and accept what you find, you’ll learn that you can find pretty much everything you need.”
For his own part, Ferrell says he’s actually “quite proud” of his own attempts at finding everything he needs in dumpsters.
“I think I’m doing something that matters, and I’m not particularly concerned at all about the sort of middle class delicacy. I think if you’re going to dumpster dive, you have to get past the stigma and embrace it as a positive activity.”
Adopting that attitude can be difficult, especially in places outside Canada where dumpster diving is illegal. But some Calgarians have chosen to do so, redu ing their consumption while also serving others in need.
Meet Your Local Dumpster Divers
Jeannette Hall lives in a tiny house in Chestermere. Alta. made entriely from upcycled materials that include tiled floors, cabinet shelves and walls made from an old cedar fence. Photo: Andrea Wong
From the cedar walls of her 120-square-foot tiny house to the spent grains that feed her 1,500 goats, almost everything Jeannette Hall owns comes from diverted waste.
Hall’s resourcefulness, combined with a commitment to sustainability, also applies to her work as the owner of an environmental consulting firm. And that resourcefulness seems to run in the family. Her father was very handy with reusable materials, which is where Hall says she got her ability to see the value in discarded things.
Years ago though, dumpster diving was not so much a choice as a reluctant means of survival. Working three jobs in Canmore and still living under the poverty line, Hall resorted to picking out food from the garbage.
“I remember crying, being like,‘I’m so poor, I actually have to eat out of the dumpster right now,’” says Hall. “Now I’m proud that I’m a dumpster diver but, at the time, it was really shameful.”
Hall was able to challenge her way of thinking with the growing popularity of Freeganism, a movement that believes in reducing consumerism by reusing discarded goods.
Stores had also become more open to giving away unsaleable products, which helped to combat the stigma of recovering discarded products.
Though Hall no longer needs to dumpster dive out of necessity, she proudly continues to reuse what she finds as a way to reduce her carbon footprint by minimizing her consumption.
While dumpster diving adds an extra step in a product’s life cycle, Hall says it’s important for consumers to understand that waste also intersects with where products come from, how they’re manufactured and how they’re distributed and sold.
“It’s too easy to forget about our garbage, and I think it’s really unfortunate to see us throw away as much as we do.”
Hall’s experiences also provide helpful tips for those who are looking to give dumpster diving a try. Hall recommends reaching out to businesses to arrange waste pick-ups rather than covertly digging through their garbage. In many cases, smaller stores, especially in strip malls, are happy to cooperate since they benefit from the alleviated costs of waste disposal.
Waste recovery groups that choose this collaborative route play a large role in redistributing food to those who need it. Loop, for example, is one of the programs Hall participates in to share unsaleable produce that is still good for consumption.
“My car’s always loaded with clothes or food and so there are a lot of times I’m exchanging and giving people stuff just because they are in need of it,” says Hall. “It’s really hard to be starving and it’s really hard to barely pay your bills. The more kindness we can give those people, I think that that’s going to have more impact on the state of the world than anything.”
Tanya and her husband often find toys while dumpster diving at retail stores. If the toys are still in good condition, they give them to the children’s hospital or other local charities. Photo: Andrea Wong
Since January, Tanya has gone from a skeptic to an usiastic regular in the dumpster diving community.
Init he was not overly pleased when her husband began bringing “junk” home but, after looking up dumpster diving online, Tanya’s thought changed to “I gotta try that!”
On her first dive at a Jysk dumpster, Tanya was surprised to discover a scratching post for their cat and three throw pillows, all perfectly new.
“There was nothing wrong with them,” says Tanya. “They didn’t even look used. No damage or anything.”
Since then, Tanya’s living room has collected lamps, speakers, candles, packaged chocolate, a paper shredder and even 35 baking pans. Tanya recalls an instance where she found a sewing machine still in its box and the only thing wrong with it, according to the accompanying note, was that the needle threader was broken.
“I find myself saying every single time we go, ‘Why would they throw this out?’I just don’t get it.”
Prior to dumpster diving, Tanya says she had a general idea of how wasteful society is. She couldn’t imagine just how much was being thrown away, though, until seeing it firsthand.
“We just don’t see it. You know, out of sight out of mind. But you start doing this, you get your eyes open real quick.”
Dumpster diving has also helped Tanya deal with her agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder linked to a fear of leaving one’s home or being in spaces that feel difficult to escape from. “The only way to get over agoraphobia is to face your fear and go and get out there,” says Tanya. “I’ve been able to go most of the times that I wanted to go. Every time I leave the
Kateri follows a zero-waste lifestyle and supplements her grocery bills by foraging for food in dumpsters. Kateri hopes dumpster diving will bring about change by holding stores accountable.
Kateri hasn’t purchased food in over three months. But doesn’t mean her plate is empty. Rather than browse trough grocery aisles, she opts for what she finds in the bins out back.
“I have places I go that I can literally make a shopping list and just pick everything I’ll need for any recipe because that’s how much waste there is,” says Kateri.
Prior to moving to Calgary six years ago, Kateri lived in Montreal where a friend first introduced her to dumpster diving. It was only this past year though that she began incorporating dumpster diving into her zero waste lifestyle
—- in part, because a lot of products that claim to be sustainable aren’t.
“I think that the entire zero waste movement is kind of ridiculous if you don’t look at the underlying structures behind our waste management system,” says Kateri.
“It seems that people get caught up in what little gadgets or devices they need in order to be zero waste, while not holding the stores [accountable] that are hugely responsible for massive amounts of goods, foods going to landfills.”
Kateri has advocated for waste reduction through platforms such as her Facebook group Calgary Urban Foragers, where dumpster divers can share stories and photos of what they’re finding.
Documenting waste is also beneficial as more big-box stores start using closed compactors which conceal the garbage crushed inside. Although there is legislation to regulate the proper disposal of organics and recyclables, Kateri says a compactor allows stores to “indiscriminately throw out what they want” because “no one really sees it.”
In addition to keeping stores accountable for what they throw away, Kateri believes there needs to be better regulation for stores to donate unwanted goods to those who need it.
“Why should people not have enough food to eat especially when there’s tons of it going into the bin?” says Kateri.
Aside from foraging for food in dumpsters, Kateri has also come across things such as the AirPods she carries with her.
The AirPods, along with four other pairs, were found in good condition. But they had been coated with paint. Painting or slashing is something many stores do to returned products in order to deter people from taking them out of the dumpster. Kateri has even seen some stores go as far as bleaching products or putting broken glass in dumpsters.
“That’s something that stores are getting away with doing, and, in addition to the slashing of perfectly usable goods that could be sent to people in need, that’s pretty upsetting to see.”
Kateri predicts there will always be people going in and pulling things out of dumpsters.
However, as more conversations continue to take place, she hopes people will not only look at their individual impact but also push for change and think about waste in the bigger picture.
“As you start looking into the systems that are in place with waste management and where stuff goes, you naturally want to figure out what your part is in that story.”