On Dumpster Diving and Waste

by criticallygraham

Dumpster diving is the act of reclaiming resources that have been designated as waste by our society. It follows the idea that the definition of waste is subjective. A kitchen chair with a chip in the paint may be waste to some, but a valuable addition to a household for another. With that in mind, dumpsters, garbage cans, city dumping grounds, and all sorts of societal waste repositories take on new meaning. They become collections of items that may be hugely valuable, or not valuable at all, depending on who is asking the question. Reclaiming these items is a legal grey area, and definitely a cultural taboo. It’s so much more than that, though. I hope to outline some ideas behind dumpster diving, not as to strongly advocate for change, but to encourage a rethinking of dumpster diving in our culture. The acceptance of the practice, above all, I think can offer so many benefits to our society, regardless of an individual willingness to dumpster dive oneself.

Let’s make this a bit more personal, as to put my bias out there. Hello, I’m Graham, and I dumpster dive. I have gone over a year without paying for food, cosmetics, toiletries, and other items. I dumpster dive because I have found that every single aspect of my quality of life has either improved or remained unaffected by this change. I mean that – quality of food consumed, quality of social engagements with friends, cost required to live, and so forth. If you can think of a metric that you think must suffer, please leave it it in the comments – I would be open to having my mind changed on this.

I’ll keep the reasons I have for dumpster diving short – I want to encourage the acceptance of the practice, not the diving itself, which I feel is a personal choice.

  • Waste Reduction: Due to dumpster diving, the vast majority of my consumption was otherwise destined for a far more energy-intensive waste process. All of the garbage that leaves my residence was previously in a dumpster somewhere else.
  • Food Distribution: The sheer abundance of wasted food in this society has given me the opportunity to supply ample amounts of food to my community, some of which may otherwise be unable to provide for their family, and who may be dissatisfied with the quality of food from food hamper programs.
  • Cost of Living: I’m able to completely eliminate my food and toiletries budget, and minimize my budget for other items (furniture, clothing, etc).
  • Ethical: I have a serious ethical problem with food waste. When I see thousands of dollars of animal meat, vacuum sealed and binned for disposal, I can’t help but be reminded of entire animal lives that were raised for the sole purpose of our consumption, shipped around the country, and eventually thrown out to be wastefully reincorporated back into the system.
  • Community Bonding: With an abundance of resources, the natural next step is to share. I have established meaningful friendships with my community due to sharing food, cooking large meals together, and this is based completely off a free and giving model. What a pleasant feeling it is to invite 8 people over for dinner, and know that not only are we enjoying delicious food together, but that we are all able to share in this for free.

You might be reading this post with a serious questioning of what quality means to me. Images of rotting steaks and chunky milk might be fresh in your mind, but I will only simply state that this is not the case, and that I understand and enjoy quality food. I won’t lay out my subjective definitions of quality here – it is of no concern to you the quality of food I eat, but I can say that I have been feeding an entire community, spanning all social statuses, and the response to quality has only been positive.

I write to the public because I have been the subject of police phone calls, public harassment, and so forth, simply for the act of peacefully retrieving items from dumpsters around my community. Yes, I understand this is a legal grey area. It is not cut and dry. Yes, I understand that you could never know what this hooligan, looking through garbage cans, might be up to.

“Well, you never know! You could be injecting those loaves of bread with arsenic.”

I’ve heard that before, too.
The reality is, most dumpster diving goes unnoticed. That’s because it’s a peaceful act, where you take what you can use, leave what you can’t, and leave the dumpster area cleaner than how you left it. You smile at contact with other people, and you do your best to reduce waste in this system. The benefits for society seem obvious, given that we really do value waste reduction, and not consumption, which is sometimes still yet to be seen.
I encourage you to think about your initial reactions to the idea that there are people in your community who are almost definitely dumpster diving. They are picking through your furniture pile at the end of the street, going through dumpsters behind a grocery store, and generally poking their head into any waste repository to answer the subjective waste question for themselves. The last thing these people are doing is intending to cause anyone harm. We dumpster dive out of care for the community, and a recognition that our current system necessitates such a large amount of waste that it becomes possible to live off it. The next time that you think or talk about the idea of dumpster diving, please pause for just a second longer and consider what impact these people really have on your lives.