A Curious Look At Dumpster-Diving in Edmonton

trash transformed into tools for change

trash transformed into tools for change

The parking lot was locked in snow and virtually empty save for a few vehicles ensnared in frost, probably belonging to the store employees closing up shop for the evening. The façade of the organic grocery store was pleasing as always: painted in fresh cut grass green and deep golden yellow. Images of healthy, active families plastered on the windows. They smiled brightly at me as I stood shoulders hunched and total-body-shivering out in the cold – Come income in – they seemed to beckon.

My friend pulled up on his bike, his beard transformed by the frost. “It’s around back,” he said. We slipped around and behind the grocery front and turned left through an open (and clearly unused, gauging from the amount of snow preventing it from keeping people out) chain link fence into the narrow loading zone.

Just an arm’s reach from the store’s backdoor stood our late-night destination: two large dumpster bins protruding with neatly stacked cardboard boxes.

Our discovery? Day old scones. Cinnamon buns. Bananas patched with a bit of black. Perfectly red peppers. Softened tomatoes. A whole flat of organic apples suffering only minor bruises. A smorgasbord of edibles, discarded…but not (entirely) off-limits.

“They [the store employees] know we come here. The rule is to clean up anything that falls…and always leave a portion of what you find for other folks.”

Ah, yes. The informal rule book belonging to those who practice ‘dumpster diving’ or urban foraging in order to ‘reclaim’ disposed resources (in the form of food, furniture, and other products that can be resold for their deposit value). Just who are these urban foragers? Well, they might identify themselves with the “freeganism” movement, which is ideologically opposed to a system that often relies on the exploitation of workers, mass production and agricultural intensification, and overuse of resources to make a handful of people really rich and really powerful.

Freeganists attempt to limit their direct participation in the capitalist system by reducing their consumption rates and finding alternative ways to survive off the resources around them. In this case, waste is transformed into resources and a symbol of resistance.

A wasteful agricultural paradigm abuses the earth to produce food...only to go to waste?

A wasteful agricultural paradigm abuses the earth to produce food…only to go to waste?

There’s also the environmental justification: massive amounts of energy are required to grow what we eat (usually in the form of cash crops) and, given our frigid geographical location, transport insane distances to – what? Sit on Safeway’s shelves for a few days, soften, brown, bruise (or mildly sour) and suddenly become inedible, undesirable, and ultimately headed for our landfills to waterlogged and release methane gas into the atmosphere. Yup, that might be a large enough reason to do as the ‘divers’ do.

My friend, who studies business at the University of Alberta, is a fully functioning individual, very employable and also very passionate about music. He’s been ‘dumpster diving’ since September, which has helped him live off of a very minimal amount of money a month, and allowed him to focus on doing what he loves to do: play music. He admits that the expression time is money holds true, but it seemed to me like his new-found foraging ways added a different kind of value to his life. He isn’t alone. There’s a whole social phenomenon of economically, ethnically and culturally diverse individuals choosing to pilfer through the trash for food and goods here in Edmonton and in cities around the world – all for diverse reasons.

Curiosity drew me to the dumpster bin last week. I was met with a certain kind of shock, disgust and marvel. Shock as to the perfectly edible organic goods that had “expired” according to regulations enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Disgust because there are too many hungry people in Edmonton and around the world to be so frivolous with our food. And finally…(admittedly) a certain kind of marvel as to the possibility before me: a crate of half-frozen tomatoes.

I know it may sound romantic or far-fetched, but I honestly felt the same sensation of gazing upon a box of tomatoes picked from my parent’s garden. I felt connected to those tomatoes! Those tomatoes were like foster tomatoes, begging me to take them home and make sauce with them!

Of course, the similarity between growing my own tomatoes and pilfering them from a garbage dump is loaded with irony. They are not the same thing after all, despite the instinctive feeling both practices seemed to induce.

One, dumpster diving can be highly competitive. The rule of “first come, first serve” (to me) is no better than Alberta’s surface water regulations. Two, it bottom feeds off an unsustainable system that deepens poverty in places where small-farmers are kicked off their land to make way for massive, say, lettuce exporting farms.

Three, it’s not addressing the fact that some people have no choice as to where they ‘forage’ their food. (While groups like Food, Not Bombs are doing both (reclaiming food and feeding the inner-cities) my guess is that most people are feeding themselves and their immediate households)).

The Gleaners

The Gleaners

But while the DD-model isn’t close to being perfect, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a relevant and creative response to a system that many people have become disenchanted with and no longer want to support. It demands attention to a lot of societal problems: food politics and policies, homelessness, the landfills we’ve fattened up, and more than anything – our disconnect to what we shove in our mouths and how we so (furiously) dispose of as though there were “plenty of it where that came from.”

Except that, usually, most people don’t know where it came from other than the top of the pile at Safeway. And the land is becoming further degraded as we further intensify and profit from the myth of ‘plenty’.

Anyways, I did end up taking those tomatoes home with me. The sauce was splendid with the green pepper I scavenged and served with gnocchi (purchased from the Italian Centre). Last Tuesday in class, a hungry friend/classmate forked a few mouthfuls in between taking notes. It occurred to me that perhaps she had the right to know where the tomatoes in the sauce came from. But she never asked. I knew the sauce was safe, having feasted the night before. In the end, she only complimented me on its flavor and, admittedly, I felt satisfied at having quelled a friend’s hunger.

If you’ve got hunger pangs to learn more, here’s a good start:
Dive! The Film

Comments are closed