Sunday, July 16, 2006

Dumpsted Diving Etiquette

To many people, those giant green bins behind supermarkets and apartment buildings are merely architectural appendages akin to air conditioners and heating ducts.

Yet the demands of our consumerism -- for blemish-free fruit and the latest fashions in clothing -- mean that our garbage cans are overflowing with still-edible foods and usable merchandise.

Enter the dumpster diver.

A species of urban dweller that often passes as an ordinary citizen, the dumpster diver loots through dumpsters and back alleys for food and sundry cast-offs of all varieties.

Jason More, a 26-year-old photographer and poverty activist, was in fourth grade when he had his first experience with dumpster diving.

"There was this giant, mysterious green box overflowing with computer parts. From a child's perspective, I wondered what this thing was, what was it for, this giant mysterious box. I saw all these things in there that were somewhat useful, and I just started rummaging through," he says.

"I took some computer parts home -- a keyboard, and those sorts of things -- even though I didn't even have a computer. I was so shocked that there would be these things thrown out that would usually be in a store."

Brenna Knapman, a twentysomething spoken-word poet, traveller, and occasional restaurant server is also a dedicated "urban forager."

"Families dumpster. I've seen both women and men dumpster. Friends who live together dumpster," she says. "Students, young people, old people, and professionals dumpster. People in Old Strathcona dumpster because there's so much nice stuff tossed out around here. It cuts across all classes and all ages."

Ceridwen Joy is a mother in her 20s who dumpsters food for herself and her daughter, Arrowynd Ganga InJoyBorn, who is almost two. Like most, she started dumpstering three years ago when she realized that grocery stores were throwing out food that she couldn't afford to buy.

"Some friends showed me how. It was exciting," she says.

Her daughter, she says, loves dumpster diving -- though mom makes sure to bring someone else along, since the little girl gets upset when mom disappears into the giant steel box.

"I've never had a negative response at all," Joy says of dumpster diving with a young child, "maybe a weird look from someone, but they probably would have looked at me weirdly had they seen me without a kid."

Like Joy, Knapman dumpsters because she doesn't like waste and wishes to avoid the problems of our capitalist economy. "I think shopping is a way to acknowledge things people have made, at a fair price that sustains people's lives. But that's not what's happening most of the time" with the predominance of sweatshop labour and environmentally dubious business practices.

"Plus," she says, "it's a social activity."

Knapman's friend, Casey Henderson, concurs. The two women have frequently dumpstered together.

"We go to three or four different places and then redistribute what we find throughout (our) community," says Henderson, who, unlike her friend, owns a car. "We can feed three or four households going once a week.

"Because we think it's fun, we go whenever we want a night out. It's a cheap date."

Henderson, who is a community worker active around environmental issues, also volunteers with Food Not Bombs, an anarchist soup-kitchen that uses food that grocery stores such as Safeway and Organic Roots cannot sell. "I like the idea of making use of society's waste. Because (grocery stores) throw out such phenomenal amounts of food that is perfectly good, helping to reduce the waste of our society and using it to feed people... well, there's something really beautiful about that."

Nonetheless, some negative associations sometimes stick to dumpster diving. Dumpster divers are often seen as part of a dirty, criminal underclass.

More says he has seen the manager of an unnamed second-hand shop "throw chunks of glass at a native couple who were (caught) dumpster diving but not leaving. I've seen people be insulted."

On one hand, it's not a surprising attitude. Our society remains obsessed with cleanliness.

We have anti-bacterial hand cleansers, washroom disinfectants allowing for shockingly pure toilet bowl water, and Febreze to keep residual stenches at bay.

Dumpster diving actively confronts this obsession with cleanliness, as well as the idea that one's trash remains one's property until the moment the garbage truck comes to take it away.

"Dumpster diving is illegal in that it can be considered trespassing," More says.

"You're going up to someone else's property and they can charge you if they don't want you there."

Many businesses, especially grocery stores, go to great lengths to prevent people from accessing their dumpsters, building fences around them and locking them up.

But More says the relationship between crime and dumpstering "is like anything else. I mean, what's the relationship between crime and hockey players? Just because something is marginalized doesn't make (those that do it) criminals."

Besides, "Eating is something that people do pretty regularly," says More. It's no surprise that some seek their food from the cornucopia found within those mysterious green boxes.


Ceridwen Joy shares some tips on how to dumpster:

- 1. Wear clothes that you're willing to get dirty in and be willing to dig through stuff. Sometimes the best stuff isn't on the top.

- 2. Don't leave stuff outside the dumpster. Store owners are much more accepting of people who dumpster if they don't make a mess.

- 3. Wash food really well or cook it, if possible, if it's not in a wrapper.

I don't take things that aren't clean. So vegetables in a box that are nice and clean are good, but unwrapped loaves of bread are not.

She also encourages would-be dumpster divers to explore the back alleys and dumpsters in their own neighbourhoods.

Jason More reflects on the "etiquette" of dumpster diving:

"Myself, I take what I need, and what I can carry.

I try not to take too much, because I know that sometimes (people who may dumpster dive in the same dumpster afterwards) are very capable of going and buying food, but there are other folks who aren't ... I'm capable of going and buying food, but there's so much wasted."