From Diplomat to Dumpster Diver – Waste Stream Diversion Part I

Okay, so the title is technically accurate, but I primarily used it for its alliteration and click-bait potential. For two and a half years I carried an official diplomatic passport issued by the U.S. government when I represented my country at an embassy overseas during my stint as a Fascell Fellow with the State Department. After that, I moved to Washington, DC., where I lived for eleven years. It was during this time that I first heard about and went dumpster diving.

One early exposure I had to the topic was watching the 2009 documentary Dive!*, which profiles director Jeremy Seifert and his friends as they dumpster dive at several grocery stores in L.A. highlighting the massive amount of food wasted each year in America. Food waste is a complex problem happening at all levels of the food chain from production, processing, retail, and in our homes. According to the USDA, food waste in this country is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply, with 31 percent of food loss occurring at the retail and consumer levels, which in 2010 corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food.

Knowing that food and so many other items that are still usable are thrown away every minute of every day is infuriating, heartbreaking, disappointing, and baffling to me. All those resources extracted from the earth on the front end to produce these items and then they end up in land-fills or waste incinerators. And what about all of the animals raised in horrible conditions only to sacrifice their lives so we may eat? Sure, many of these stores direct some of the products they deem unsellable to non-profits to distribute to those in need, but there is still a tremendous amount of edible food that gets thrown away.

That first dumpster diving foray in DC took place after I befriended a group of people in a local co-housing community, who were dumpster diving once a week to reduce their house’s food bill. They let me join them late one Sunday night for my first dumpster diving experience showing me the ropes at various Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods locations in DC and northern Virginia. My memories of that first dive almost ten years ago have faded, but I remember that none of the dumpsters were gross inside. Most of the trash was in bags or boxes. There were no rodents, pests, or other animals in or near the dumpsters. While one or two of the people in our group got into the dumpsters, mostly it involved standing on crates and reaching into the dumpster to pull things out. We retrieved bags full of baguettes and other bakery items, prepared deli foods that were unopened and still cool to the touch, cartons of eggs, lots of still usable blemished and slightly wilted produce, and many bouquets of flowers. At a couple of dumpsters we were asked to leave once store employees discovered us, but it never involved a police encounter. We took the stash back to the group house and processed it, wiping containers clean and washing the produce in a vinegar rinse.

Not long after that I left DC and spent two years traveling around the county by car. Looking back now, I’m amazed that I didn’t do any dumpster diving during that period. All I can figure is that the DC outing left me with the impression that dumpster diving was something done late at night after closing and I valued my sleep too much. I wish I had known then about Rob Greenfield, probably the most well-known dumpster diver, and his diving adventures as he traveled around the country.

These days many chain grocery stores have trash compactors, which makes dumpster diving at those stores at best challenging and at worst impossible. Once I settled here in Florida in 2015 my boyfriend and I started peeking our heads into some of the local grocery store dumpsters that we could find. We found dumpsters at two particular stores here frequently contain a tremendous bounty of a variety of food and non-food products. One of those stores is Aldi and the other is a local natural grocery store.

I would guess that 60-70% of the food I eat comes out of the dumpster and most of it is organic. About 10 to 20% more of what I eat comes from my garden, my boyfriend’s garden, a friend’s garden, or is something I foraged locally. Because so much of what I eat is free I’m then able to support our local grass-fed meat vendor at the farmer’s market and buy organic meats at the store along with some of the other staples I use such as organic olive oil and dark chocolate, which I buy from the same stores at which I dive. I tend to shop outside in the dumpster first before heading inside.

My boyfriend and I have friends that raise chickens. Many of the salad greens we find that have started to wilt go to our friends and we get fresh eggs in exchange. We also compost and vermicompost (with worms) so other produce that is already spoiled just gets fed to the worms or our compost piles and will eventually enrich our gardens (and the plants we sell). On a number of occasions I have scored large amounts of pre-packaged European desserts, such as pound cakes or holiday cookies, in Aldi dumpsters, which are nearing or just past their expiration date, but still in very good shape. I will retrieve as many as I can and store them for future pot-lucks, friends in need, and even friends not in need.

Similarly to those dumpsters I encountered during that first diving excursion in DC, the dumpsters here in Florida tend to be much cleaner and rodent free than people expect. Food, especially produce, at least at the natural grocery store, is frequently just put into boxes by store staff and placed on top of or beside the dumpster so we don’t even have to reach inside it. There are certainly bags of trash that are ickier than others, but it’s pretty easy to recognize them and move onto another bag. The overall environment can get grosser here in Florida in the summer when it’s so hot and humid. Food rots faster and can attract an army of flies. And while the smells in the dumpsters generally aren’t bad the rest of the year because they are dumped every 2 – 3 days, this activity sometimes becomes more aromatic in the summer here.

Broken glass can be a concern, but I tend to dive cautiously with slower, methodical, mindful movements. Once I see broken glass I simply steer clear of that area. Another potential issue is recalled items that get thrown out. When I find large amounts of a product still within date in a dumpster I check to see if the item has been recalled. One time I found multiples of an organic chocolate chip cookie mix that had been recalled because the label said it didn’t contain dairy when it did. I still used them since while I don’t eat much dairy the low level that product contained wouldn’t bother me.

I know some dumpster divers wear gloves, but I don’t. I regularly handle rotting produce for my compost pile so the textures don’t bother me too much. I keep bottled water in my car to rinse my hands off and sometimes I’ll use hand sanitizer (but I have misgivings about that stuff). Because I am strategic and smart in what I choose to rescue from dumpsters I can report that after diving regularly for two years I have not gotten sick eating anything I retrieved from a dumpster.

I started out here in Florida diving at night about 45 minutes after the stores closed, but that was still keeping me up later than I like. Over time, I got braver. I saw other people at the dumpsters during the day. When they did see me at the dumpster after closing time the staff at the natural grocery store didn’t shoo me away. Now, I tend to dive more during the day, other than a standing date I have on Sunday evenings with some friends. It’s really hit or miss. There’s no one time when there is always stuff in the dumpster worth retrieving. There are days and times when you’re more likely to score, but it’s never consistent. So whenever I’m driving or riding my bike near one of the stores I’ll check the dumpster. I’ve never discussed it with the manager of the natural grocery store, but I have to imagine that they tolerate divers because they don’t like to see all that food go to waste either and we help reduce the store’s tipping fees since my understanding is that commercial entities in my area pay by the pound to have their trash removed. I’m always very friendly and courteous. Plus, I make sure to be very tidy and try to keep the dumpster area cleaner than I found it.

Friends and other people in my social networks asked me to teach them how to dive, so I did. In some cases these were people from my local Buy Nothing Project group, others were members of our local time bank so I got time bank credits for those outings. It’s less that I taught them how to dive. It doesn’t involve any special skill. It’s more that I accompanied them, (figuratively) holding their hand making them comfortable as they approached a dumpster for the first time and being a buffer if an employee saw us. Sure I was able to offer suggestions for which trash bags were likely to be gross inside and which were likely to yield the scratch and dent cans, etc. But mostly people seem to just want someone to go with them that first time.

As for the legality, to my understanding dumpster diving is somewhat of a gray area. It varies from state to state and city to city. I believe that in many areas diving in public dumpsters in public alley ways is legal since once those items are tossed in a public dumpster they no longer belong to the business that placed them there. I would have to imagine most readers of this blog will, like me, find it pretty messed up that in many places it’s illegal for people to rescue perfectly good food from a dumpster and legal for businesses to throw it all away in the first place.

What makes it even worse in the county in which I live is that our county’s solid waste department operates one of the largest waste to energy programs in the nation. That means we burn much of our trash and it is transformed into energy that powers close to 45,000 homes daily. Adding wet foods from grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, universities, private residences, etc. only slows down this burn and makes the process less efficient. Fortunately, the local solid waste department piloted a composting program at their facility last year and I believe the longterm vision is to enact something like San Francisco’s Composting Ordinance, which requires San Francisco residents and businesses to properly separate compostables and keep them out of the landfill. These compostables are then composted and the final product is sold to farmers to use in building healthy soils.

Broken citronella candles from Aldi that I shared with members of my Buy Nothing group. Bananas and avocados for me….

As I mentioned earlier, the staff of the natural grocery store here are very tolerant of my diving, even during store hours. That tolerance level has varied at the numerous Aldi’s I’ve targeted. Most of the time I’m so quick at Aldi I don’t encounter any employees. Best case scenario they ignore me. Sometimes they’ll politely say they aren’t allowed to let me dive. One time a store manager yelled at my boyfriend and me and threatened to call the police if we didn’t put back what we’d retrieved and leave. We later learned from another staff person that others had been retrieving some of the non-food items from the dumpster and taking them into the store to get a refund so I think store staff were under heightened alert at that time.

I can understand business owner’s concerns about people trying to return items they didn’t purchase, liability if someone gets hurt while dumpster diving, someone making a mess, or people throwing their personal trash in their dumpsters. My hope though is that we’ll be able to engage these businesses in conversations about what factors lead them to dispose of still usable items and develop solutions to stop it from happening. We need more organizations like Food Shift in Oakland, CA working to reduce food waste and creating green jobs along the way as well as educating businesses and other organizations about the Good Samaritan Act. Passed in 1996 by President Clinton this act encourages food donation by limiting liability of businesses, nonprofits, and individuals that donate or distribute food to those in need.

* Two other documentaries that have been released on this topic include Just Eat It (2014) and Wasted! (2017) with Anthony Bourdain.

Now It’s Your Turn!

Do any of you dumpster dive for food? For other things?

Do any of you work for grocery stores that throw still edible food away, who can shed some light on the grocery industry’s perspective on this?

Do you want to do it, but find yourself hesitant to try it?

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