I‘m a dumpster diver. So is my girlfriend, along with the occasional curious friend.
We’re not “freegans”—vegans who only eat tossed-away food as an anti-consumerist strategy to cripple capitalism. Nay, we dumpster dive because it provides us with a steady diet of healthy food. It just happens to be gloriously free—and we use the money saved on groceries to buy delicious, local food at Edmonton farmers markets.
Things we have eaten from dumpsters include: fair-trade organic bananas, gnocchi, tomatoes (both plum and on the vine), organic potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn meal, spinach, pineapple, canned artichoke hearts, pasta, breakfast crackers, organic yogurt, gourmet bread, kale, apples, mushrooms (portobello, button and shiitake), oranges, eggplant, broccoli, asparagus, almond cookies, peppers, avocados, pears, coffee, okra and pomegranates.
For something as gnarly as digging through trash, it has many moments of beauty: washing a whole bathtub’s worth of kale and spinach, or jumping up and down with excitement upon discovering boxes of organic apples. And, of course, the moment you tuck into an amazing dinner that would’ve otherwise rotted in the dump.
Value Chain Management, an independent Canadian think tank, has been publishing reports on food waste since 2010. Their December 10, release “Food Waste In Canada—$27 Billion Revisited” states that Canadians toss $31-billion worth of groceries every year, a $4-billion increase from four years ago. Put in perspective, $31 billion is more than the combined GDP of the world’s poorest 29 countries.
It’s also 40 percent of all the food Canada produces. Using a formula for a more holistic cost—factoring energy, water, land labour, capital investment, transport and so on—the report states that annual food waste costs Canada more than $100 billion annually.
Attitude plays a big part in the equation. Consumers don’t want a lumpy pepper; they want a perfect pepper, so the lumpy pepper rots. The long supply chain—field to truck to processing plant to another truck to grocery store—is a continuous beauty pageant that eliminates staggering amounts of perfectly good food at every stage.
And then there are “best before” dates. This is the date by which manufacturers guarantee the quality of their product—not the safety of it. “Use by” dates on chicken, meat and fish should be respected—but almost anything, if it has been properly stored, can be safely eaten well past a best before date. But retailers and consumers are scared of food—especially if the calendar has rolled past those magic numbers.
This attitude is why there are dumpsters in Edmonton literally overflowing with good, healthy food. We check our urban trap line at least once a week, foraging for calories. Small and medium-sized grocers are ideal, as bigger chains tend to lock their dumpsters behind fences or indoors, preferring their waste to rot safely in a landfill or as compost. Stores often claim they donate food or repurpose it into soup, but the dumpsters don’t lie: a ridiculous amount of good food is thrown away.
Essential dumpster-diving equipment includes a headlamp, good gloves and thick-soled boots. Dumpsters can contain rusty nails and broken glass—not stuff you want to encounter when wearing flip-flops. I also wouldn’t recommended literally diving into a dumpster head first.
We’ve never gotten sick eating dumpster food. But, obviously, common sense dictates that a good washing is essential. A splash of vinegar in a sink of water is a great way to sanitize produce.
There’s an old saying that if you save someone’s life, you become responsible for them. The same goes for salvaged food: only take as much as you can practically eat, store or share. It can be overwhelming to look at a kitchen overflowing with food that needs to be eaten or stored immediately, if not yesterday. Be picky in your diving: it should go without saying that mouldy and rotten things should be left in the dumpster.
Dumpster diving is legal in Canada, as trash is considered public domain—so long as you don’t trespass or break and enter. I cannot stress this enough: be respectful. Do not make a mess. Leave the dumpster area as clean—or cleaner—than it was before you got there.
Dumpster diving is a total DIY experience: choose your own dumpster adventure. But whatever shall you do with those 10 bunches of asparagus or crates of tomatoes demanding your attention? Fear not! In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing food storage tips and recipes to help you keep and eat your trashy scores.
In the meantime: get diving, Edmonton!