Mention dumpster diving and it’s likely that the first image people envision is a male in tattered clothing, a wool hat, torn black jeans, boots that have no laces and a red-cheeked, drunken face jumping head first into a big pile of garbage to come out with half chewed apples, rotted eggs, and spoiled milk.
I’m here to tear down that stereotype. Yes, I’ve gone dumpster diving myself. OK, it wasn’t actually in a dumpster – it was plastic garbage bags that were placed on the sidewalk, but the concept is still the same.
I was first turned onto dumpster diving by a friend of mine who said he regularly used to go and get all sorts of fresh food and produce for free. When he told me this, I looked at him with the same head cocked and scrunched up eyebrows with which you are reading this.
He told me that he would go and get heads of fresh kale, bottles of juice, apples, bananas, and loaves of bread. After some minutes, I was definitely intrigued. Not only by getting free food, but also by the fact that these stores literally throw away all of this food. I thought that we were in a recession and there was a food shortage, which cause people to live on the streets and starve.
After hearing his stories, I promised myself that I would one day take the voyage into “dumpster diving.” I’d do it for no other reason than curiosity as to what is being tossed out and what I could find.
The night finally came. My alarm went off at 1a.m., and I got myself dressed. I was all prepared with my black sweatpants, black hooded sweatshirt, black wool hat, head lamp and a bandanna to cover my face. I couldn’t possibly let anyone see me rummaging through the trash now, could I?
I took my reusable bags and made the trek down the street to the store. There were about a dozen or so large black garbage bags piled on the sidewalk. I put my workout gloves on, lifted up my bandanna, flipped on my headlamp and started to untie the first bag.
The first bag had some tomatoes that were a bit squishy, red peppers and rotted pears. This is exactly what I thought it would be. A bunch of old rotting produce in a bag. I went through two more bags before I hit my first jackpot.
I came across a bag that had a few dozen bananas that were browned. When I buy my bananas I let them sit on my counter for a week until they start to brown. They were perfect. I packed them into my bag along with some tomatoes and peppers.
After going through only two or three bags, I called it a night. I just wanted to see what this was all about and how much food really was wasted.
It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment, shortly before 2a.m., and laid all the produce out onto the table that I realized how much that I had taken. In front of me were about two and a half dozen bananas, three or four tomatoes and a few red peppers.
They all weren’t perfect looking, but they were all totally edible and usable. The ones that weren’t I set aside to bring to my community compost center. The rest I planned on using and did.
I thought this would be a one-time event, but it’s something that I have since done about once a month. I even once did it in the rain. Instead of setting the alarm I was already up and decided to go. About half way there it started to rain. I wasn’t turning back. It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience. I mean, come on, I was going through garbage in the rain. Not so much fun.
Here are some things that I was able to score during my other dumpster diving adventures: two packages of portabello mushrooms, a box of organic crackers, three pounds of dried cherries, five clamshells of Earthbound Organics salads, organic carrot juice, two boxes of organic creamy tomato soup and bananas. I always score at least a dozen bananas.
Some of these items are blemished and some just have dented packaging. Regardless, they are still perfectly fine for human consumption.
If I had shopped at the store one day earlier, I would have spent somewhere in the range of $40-60 at the low end for all that. The salads alone would’ve been at least $20.
So what would’ve happened to all that food if I didn’t save it from being tossed out? It would’ve gone straight to the landfill to rot away and potentially do harm to the environment and our atmosphere.
Not only is the food being tossed, but it’s traveling a few thousand miles all the way from Peru to be tossed out. From a common sense and environmental aspect that doesn’t make much sense to me. The bananas are probably spending more time in transit from South America to New York than they did on the store shelves.
Instead of being tossed, I was able to save them from landfill and put them into my belly where food belongs.
This got me thinking even more. I’ve been doing this at one small store in New York City, and have seen the amount of food that’s wasted and sent to landfill. There are hundreds of stores throughout the city and the world; how much food is being tossed on a daily basis?
In my opinion this isn’t really an issue because the problem is out of sight, out of mind. The food gets tossed and we never “see” it again, so it just goes away. With all of the problems we have with homelessness and the recession, I’m not sure why we’d want usable food to get thrown way.
In talking to friends about this, most of them think that dumpster diving is gross and don’t understand why I do it. To them, I say that wasting food is gross and I don’t understand how we can be so irresponsible.