Food Bills Getting You Down? Try Dumpster Diving
It's dark outside, as it tends to be past midnight, and unseasonably warm but raining. Though it was my idea to be parked behind Trader Joe's, scoping out the dumpster, I didn't really want to come; I'm kind of lazy in general, and specifically nervous right now, and it's so much easier to just make a list and go buy groceries in a sheltered, lighted shopping facility where you are guaranteed to both find what you want and avoid police harassment.
My nerdiness is showing: Before we get out of the car, I turn to my partner in crime and ask, "What's the plan?"
Dan looks at me. I've heard about dumpster diving, and read about dumpster diving, but in conversations and articles that seemed to identify it as the pursuit of anarchists and gutter punks --nothing that served as a guide for upwardly mobile middle-class squares. A few weeks ago, though, some hippie Dan went to high school with mentioned she was going to Trader Joe's to score for free the very same foodstuffs we paid good money for. It was just as good, just as edible and sanitarily packaged, and it didn't cost $100 a week if it just came out of the trash, she said. We felt like suckers.
"You're gonna get in there and grab the shit," Dan says. He starts laughing at me, like, what do I mean what's the plan? When I still don't make a move, he says, "Now ... break!"
We walk to the dumpster across the parking lot, but no one's around, and no one suddenly appears and starts yelling, as I'm for some reason expecting. We're in the kind of upscale outdoor mall complex where dumpsters are surrounded by gates, but the kind of gates that serve cosmetic rather than security purposes and give way easily when pushed. So just like that, I'm standing in front of a giant metal trash receptacle, one taller than me, with a chest-high opening in it. I quickly and incorrectly assess it, deciding that I can approach my objective from the outside and just reach in to gingerly lift the goods out.
My dreams of clean and easy die quickly; the dumpster is less than a quarter full, and I can't get hold of anything but piles of discarded shrink-wrap. "I don't think there's any food in here, pal," I say, disappointed, but maybe a bit relieved. I'm about to advocate giving up and going home when I pull out a cardboard box containing three sealed bags of perfectly comestible banana chips. "Except how there's food right here."
Picking up that first handful of free groceries is a bit like Christmas, exciting, enchanting. I hadn't known what I was going to get, so I hold the goods out in front of me for inspection. And here it is, my favorite kind of present: something I want and can actually use. I feel satisfied and, absurdly, a little proud. I planted some initiative, and it is bearing fruit, sliced, deep-fried, hermetically sealed pieces of fruit. I grab the sides of the window into the dumpster and climb in.
It wasn't an especially big throw-away day at the store, but I stand shin-deep amid the waste with a snake light wrapped around my neck, tearing open huge clear plastic garbage bags and examining their contents for salvageable eats. A sweet pepper, a dented tub of chocolate chip cookies, yes. A package of precooked sausages leaking juice out of a hole in the package, no. Half-pound hunks of somewhat moldy Monterey Jack cheese, sure. I sink my cotton-gloved hands into some items wet and unsavory-busted salsa containers, broken eggs, smashed bananas, while rain drips through the crack in the two-piece lid above my head. Liquid soaks into my socks: milk, I think, from the layer of discarded half-gallon cartons lining the bottom of the dumpster.
"This is actually a little grosser than I thought it was going to be," I say, as, even though I earlier pictured myself standing in a giant trash bin, I never actually considered the tactile details. I work out a system, sifting thoroughly through one corner first and then tossing bags into it after I clear it for items I want, which I hand to Dan. Nobody comes by. Nobody asks us what the hell we think we're doing. Half an hour after we parked the car, we walk back to it with seven plastic bags full of food. We go home, unload our groceries, just like we would after any other trip, and take showers, unlike we would after any other trip. We eat some garbage cookies, and go to bed.
It was a lucrative score: two bananas, one half-gallon of organic 2 percent milk, two prepared and packaged Asian-style noodle salads with ginger cilantro lime dressing, one red pepper, one orange pepper, one package prewashed salad, one package Asian stir-fry mix, one package organic mini chocolate chip cookies, one prepared and packaged chef salad, one prepared and packaged Greek salad, one prepared and packaged chicken Caesar salad, one sausage and roasted tomato pizza, one package sliced white mushrooms, six apricots, two bags cocktail tomatoes, three carrot and ranch dip snack packs, a half a pound of ginger, 1.5 pounds petite Yukon gold potatoes, 1 pound green olives, 1.5 pounds eggs, 1.5 pounds Monterey Jack cheese, 3 pounds California minneolas, 5 pounds clementines, 2 pounds rainbow carrots, three packages banana chips, one package fresh basil, 24 roma tomatoes, one package fat-free crumbled feta, one prepared and packaged fresh mozzarella and focaccia sandwich, two mixed flower bouquets, one bouquet Gerber daisies, and one dozen rainbow roses.
The next morning, Dan is already making cheese omelets and fried potatoes with our booty when I saunter out of bed. At lunch, we split the focaccia sandwich (after we scraped the mold off the mozzarella), and I invent a banana, apricot, and clementine smoothie. As I walk around our apartment, abloom with fresh flowers, I feel unusually fulfilled by the glass of dairy and pulp in my hand. It's not like I grew the fruit. Still, I've come by it by slightly more industrious means than grocery shopping, and I can't wait for the impending week of garbage dinner.
The USDA says Dan and I each eat almost 5 pounds of food every day, but more than enough food gets tossed in the United States for us to scavenge from: about 100 billion pounds annually, in fact, enough to also feed the entire great states of California and New York, more than a sixth of the entire population of the country. Retailers are responsible for some 70 percent of that waste, $30 billion worth. Even recovering just 5 percent of American food waste would feed the whole of New Zealand for a day. And if heartbreaking resource squandering isn't a compelling enough reason to dumpster dive, there's thriftiness. If you're like most Americans, you spend about 13 percent of your income on eating -- and environmental impact. In 2006, more than 12 percent of total municipal solid waste was food. And if you have neither hippie sensibilities, nor pocketbook constraints, nor a soul, how about good old-fashioned economic sense: putting said food into landfills costs taxpayers $50 million a year.
All things considered, the arguments for dumpster diving seem stronger than any against it. Though some cities and states have passed laws criminalizing it (it's not a federal offense, as the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that searching and seizing garbage isn't prohibited), and the fact that our particular dumpster lives inside a fence means accessing it probably requires trespassing, cops don't generally patrol my grocery store parking lot at night, and I'd be surprised if I couldn't sweet-talk or run my way out of an incident with any officer bored enough to instigate one. There's also the concern, voiced by many of my friends, that food from a dumpster could be bad for you. Indeed, Dan has to drink half a glass of the milk and exhibit no signs of disaster for 20 minutes before I'm convinced it's safe. And all week, for about an hour after I eat, a small portion of my consciousness inadvertently waits for regrets. But we've got bright bouquets and a huge vat of homemade salsa and a mushroom, tomato, and cheese quiche and crazy smoothies and stir-fried vegetables over noodles, and it was all made possible, free of charge, by trash picking. I have only one concern at the end of the first week of eating garbage, and it's that I didn't take as much as I should have.
When we return the next week, we're like cool, regular shoppers, except that we're freezing -- 150 miles north of us, the sky is dumping a foot of snow on Cleveland. Still, we're not just grabbing madly, enthusiastic but directionless rookies. We have a running conversation about what I've picked up and how we can use it before we take it or I chuck it behind me. I'm neither hurried nor worried, and we score fruits and vegetables and already-mashed potatoes and a potted purple orchid and waffles and chai spice cookies and frozen chicken masala, among other things. We're thoughtful and thorough, and it's 45 minutes before I start to climb back out, tired and accomplished. Not that it's all glamorous. When Dan says, "Watch out for rats," I yell at him for freaking me out, but I am most certainly immersed in the habitat of disease-prone rodents. When I do jump out, it's right onto the ground, right onto my ass when my feet slide out from under me because the pavement is covered in ice. Like last time, we can't find a parking space in our complex when we get back to our apartment because we live in a busy downtown district and it's club-going time on a Friday night. We run the garbage groceries, which for some reason are coated in the smell of trash this time, a block to our building and then up four flights of fire escape to our door. My fingers are that obnoxious biting pain that just precedes numbness, since I buried them in several unidentified stinky wet stuffs, and the wind is cutting across them now as they grip the plastic bags. Everything needs to be washed -- the cellophane on the cheese, the box of waffles -- to get the reek off, and we crack open a box of baking soda and put it in the back of the fridge, hoping it'll help restore appetizingness to our food. It's 2 a.m. by the time we've put everything away, mopped the kitchen floor, rolled my malodorous tomato-and-roasted-red-pepper-soup-splattered clothes into a ball before reluctantly throwing them in with the rest of our laundry, and cleaned ourselves up. I soaked in the bathtub for half an hour to get the cold -- which seeped in during the 40 minutes we had to kill wandering around the shopping center while waiting for the employees to finally leave, the time I spent wallowing in trash, and the additional carry back to the apartment -- out of my system. Lying there, my wrist throbbing from having used it to break my fall on the ice, I felt exhausted and dirty and not a little discouraged.
My socioeconomic surroundings are showing: When my father calls and asks me what I was doing last night and I say, "Dumpster diving," he says, "For what?" And when I say, "For food," there's nothing but silence. Then, as if he hasn't heard me: "What?" My best friend came over a few days earlier and complained that she was hungry. "Do you have any delicious food?" she asked, then reconsidered. "That you haven't gotten out of the garbage?" And yeah, some of the food in our fridge has to be picked free of mold before it can be eaten, and the Jack cheese has a stink that (a) makes me uncomfortable and (b) doesn't want to come off my hands. (Ultimately, we decide to re-toss it.) Yeah, we could have been arrested. Yeah, we could get food poisoning, or rabies. But when we roll out of bed late the morning after our second dive, the apartment smells fine, and we fix a breakfast of trash waffles and bananas before sitting down to make a list of groceries we still need. We consider our loot. We can make havarti, rice, and broccoli casserole. Spinach quesadillas with cheddar, mushrooms, and sauteed sweet peppers, with homemade salsa. Mashed sweet potatoes or sweet potato chowder. Warm green bean and tomato salad. Stir fry. Banana smoothies. We've recovered an entire apple pie. We figure our meal plan four different ways, and have so much food left over that we freeze some. When we finish the list of groceries we have to buy for two people for a whole week, it contains exactly five items.
Before we started dumpster diving, Dan pointed out that it would probably change our eating habits. I like to make enchiladas, for example, but it's unlikely that beans, rice, cheese, tomatoes, onions, and tortillas are all going to happen into the dumpster at the same time. I wouldn't normally eat carrots and ranch dip for breakfast, or salad for dessert, but the organizing principle of our diet has changed from "What do I want to eat?" to "What do I have? What can I make with it?" -- a much more traditional (and at the same time ultramodern, as eating local has come back into fashion) type of interaction with food. Once, when we were working on an organic farm in the South Pacific, the owner told us that if we were true ecologists, we would during the feijoa season eat only feijoas, the little green fruits that his orchard was showering us with. Like then, I won't now make such extreme compromises -- I refuse, for example, to live without milk or olive oil, so we spend $20 at the grocery store that week.
Still. We could be spending $0 on food by harvesting waste, and even with my unwillingness to make stir fry instead of cereal for breakfast, in just two trips we saved hundreds of dollars. We ate things we never would have, got creative with our menus, kept 60 pounds of edible "garbage" out of a landfill.
Dumpster diving is another one of those things that I should do for both money and the environment's sake, like buying only used clothes or not taking long, hot showers. It's kind of like going to the gym: You never want to, but after you have, you feel like you've really achieved something. The next week, though, the snow comes south and hard. Then soon after that, I get a new job and move, and the dumpsters in my neighborhood are inside garages I can't get into, and I work a lot of overtime, and I have a litany of other excuses for not salvaging groceries anymore (as I do for not taking short, cold showers). It's another way that I'm part of the culture of waste, wasting resources, wasting money.
Standing at the sink one day in my trash-eating time, I had a moment of characteristic grace in which I somehow tossed the quiche I was holding down the garbage disposal. I cursed, then threw down my dish towel, and then my shoulders. Dan, sensing a tantrum, rushed into the kitchen from the other room. "It's OK, pal," he said. "It was from the garbage anyway." True. But I couldn't believe I'd done it, just like I can't believe restaurants and grocery stores around the country so recklessly and wildly dump whole analogous quiches down the metaphorical drain every second. Like I feel a little ridiculous shopping at Trader Joe's when I know that for every four tomatoes I once took out of the dumpster, I left four dozen.
That one time, there were more than 100 pounds of discarded bananas in the parking lot, that I could entirely subsistent on trash without even making a dent in it, that for every bag of salad that made it from the garbage to my fridge, there were five more that someone else could've eaten. For the grocers and restaurateurs, throwing the food in dumpsters is, however exorbitantly wasteful, a matter of convenience. As leaving it there is for me. "I don't know," one of my friends says when I try to talk her into just getting her food out of the garbage. "That's a really good idea. But it sounds like a lot of work."