Why Dumpster Diving Isn’t the Solution (but we do it anyway)

Dumpster diving has become a pretty trendy thing. So trendy, that the hipster-mocking TV show Portlandia even did a sketch about it.

After moving to Victoria last fall John and I decided to attempt our first dumpster dive. We aren’t freegans and we don’t wear your grandpa’s clothes but we sure were excited about having a way to save on grocery money.

We may not dress like Macklemore and his crew, but we sure do love a thrifty alternative.

We drove around to several chain grocery stores, but quickly realized that the majority of them used compactors to ensure none of their throw-away goods could be reclaimed. Eventually we found a few smaller markets that still left their dumpsters unlocked. The amount of food we’ve found since then has been astounding. Some of our best finds include the time we found 4 large boxes of bananas (since they were just beginning to turn brown we dehydrated them all and ended up with several bags of banana chips) and the time we brought home 27 Greek yogurts (see photo below). But even on a less successful night we usually bring home a box of relatively fresh fruit and veggies.


There are of course some general precautions that ought to be taken. Wash everything well, don’t take meat unless it’s cured and sealed, avoid taking anything with punctured skin, peel, or seal (if packaged). But to be honest, most places we visit actually put still consumable goods in a box beside their dumpster for easier access. One market told me that leaving their consumable leftovers open to the public has actually cut down on their waste bill considerably. Products unsuitable for sale (usually due to an aesthetic flaw) are intentionally put by/in the dumpsters for starving students to pick up, or for farmers to feed to their animals.

In his TED Talk on food waste [embedded below] Tristram Stuart explains how his battle against food waste began when he was farming pigs and began collecting restaurant and grocery store leftovers to feed his animals. He goes on to explain how he quickly realized that the majority of the food waste he was collecting for his animals was still completely safe for human consumption, but was being disposed of for aesthetic reasons.

Here in Victoria the Anarchist group Food Not Bombs has a project similar to Tristam Stuart’s “feeding the 5000” event. Though they probably haven’t fed as many individuals in one go, they do makes meals using salvaged food and serve a meal downtown once a week.

But as much as I love dumpster diving, I have a problem with it becoming a new big trend. You see, DDers are (quite literally) feeding off  thsymptom of a bigger problem. 

You probably already know from my post on the evils of plastic that I really hate waste, and dumpster diving has always felt like one more way to battle that waste in my own town.

Unfortunately for me, and dumpster divers like me, rescuing food at the end of the cycle does nothing to actually break down the system causing this massive amount of waste in the first place. Yes, it’s awfully fun to shock people by telling them the tasty meal they are eating originated in a market dumpster, but that isn’t going to actually reduce the amount of waste being produced.

Food waste around the world. As you can see Europe and N.A. take the cake [and then thrown half of it away. -Evan].

Don’t get me wrong, I love getting free food. Plus sneaking around dumpsters late at night makes an activity that is legal most places here in Canada feel like some sort of dangerous adventure. I also do believe that participating in activities like dumpster diving makes individuals more aware and careful about their waste. But getting caught up in a subculture like dumpster Diving can sometimes fool people (myself included) into thinking that this activity is actually making up for the massive amount of food being lost to compactors and locked garbage cans every night.

The change needs to come earlier in the cycle. Food needs to be rescued before it hits the garbage. Here in Victoria businesses like COBS bread donate their day-old goods to The Mustard Seed food bank and, as I’ve already mentioned, there are several markets who keep the rest of their goods open to the public as well. But almost every other grocery corporation locks away their leftover goods. Friends of mine who work in various grocery stores have told me they are often required to open seals and pour out the contents of a container in order to ensure that the disposed of food cannot be salvaged.

I mentioned in Gordon and my discussion about regulation (particularly in the food industry) that here in Canada we actually have an Act that protects donors from being sued if for some reason their goods end up causing sickness. So why isn’t this food being donated? Or even sold at a reduced price?

Gordon would probably insist that it’s because of capitalism, and in this case I would most certainly have to agree. The only possible reason I could see for this vast amount of waste is to ensure no profit is lost by donating it, thereby allowing people to get it for free somewhere else.

Because we know how corporations feel about losing money.

Part of the problem is probably also globalization and the McDonaldization of industry. If all corporate supermarkets are required to look the same then it makes it impossible for one branch to begin donating without being faced with the gargantuan task of changing the entire system.

So what do we do about it? Quite frankly, I just don’t know. But for now I will just keep on diving. You should give it a try sometime. You may be surprised at what you find.


9 responses to “Why Dumpster Diving Isn’t the Solution (but we do it anyway)

  1. the accidental capitalist

    Great blog! I appreciate that you didn’t blame throw all over the “Elites” who are keeping “the rest of us” in conditioned poverty, because I agree that the problem is a bit more systematic (and as such, potentially repairable). I agree that some systems of Capitalism are certainly to blame.
    Many grocery stores mark down soon-to-be-out-of-date meats and milks, while composting old produce. A good start, but why not donate it? Think publicity. Does it look better for the store to donate bruised up old fruit, or to say they’d rather give the needy their best, and quotient off a portion of “good” groceries for the foodbank.
    Another problem: although there may be legal protection for donors of questionable food (Something I was unaware of and am welcome to learn), We are faced with more checks and balances at the actual registered soup kitchens which will be monitored by Vancouver Island Health Authority in Victoria. You might be disturbed to know that for the sake of public health food ends up in dumpsters even behind these resource centers.
    With an increasing awareness of waste, however, more people are looking for ways to re-regulate system inefficiencies, With a 2015 mandate to stop food waste filing up our local landfill the city of Victoria will have to come to grips with “excess”, and though its slow in coming, there is a trend that is resurfacing after a 60 year reign of the supermarket: Victoria is fortunate to have one such local farmer’s market economy. Although the grocery store is efficient for imports and year-round convenience, farmers markets are by far more efficient when it comes to food waste. Capitalism is working here in its more stripped-down form, and I love it. Yes, this trend is small in comparison to the continent, but I’m glad its around.
    I’m also glad for those dumpsters which stay unlocked.

    • It’s good for me to be reminded that the logistics of donating food can be trickier than it initially appears. I realize it’s idealistic to just say “why don’t they just donate it”, but when I hear stories from friends working at various grocery stores about the lengths that are required to ensure nothing is able to be saved from the garbage, that’s when I start getting frustrated.
      I think you really hit the nail on your head with your comment about markets. It’s such a great movement to see growing everywhere.

    • I’m also super excited about the Victoria waste crack-down. Especially after living with a landlord that forbid any of us having a compost. Glad to know he will be forced to change his ways. Haha.

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  3. Pingback: Why Dumpster Diving Isn't the Solution (but we do it anyway ... - Food Waste News

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  5. As more people dumpster dive, less food will be bought. When less food is bought there will be even more waste at first. At that point grocers will begin to decrease the amount of food they purchase.

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