dumpster diving A\J AlternativesJournal.ca

Tip: Don't dumpster dive without shoes.
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Many of us would cringe at the idea of eating food from the dumpster. Yet dumpster-diving is happening, sometimes for survival, sometimes for ethical reasons. But no matter what the case, it is always environmental, because the fact that it’s possible, the fact that edible food is being thrown out in the first place, is a highly regrettable byproduct of our consumerist society.

Graham is a 25-year-old University of Waterloo graduate and veteran dumpster-diver. He and I chatted in Kitchener, Ontario while munching on a (dumpstered) bag of caramelized popcorn. These are his stories and reflections on the unfortunate (and fortunate) world of waste.

How and why did you start dumpster-diving?
In the summer of 2011, I was in Belgium, staying with a few folks for a couple of nights, and they asked us if we'd ever heard about dumpster-diving. I thought dumpster-diving sounded grungy and like something only homeless people would do out of necessity. But I was travelling and so I said yes. When we went out I was shocked by how calm and respectful they were while diving. We were quiet. We undid knots and then retied them, instead of ripping everything apart. I was floored by the fact that we left with $150 worth of food from most of the food groups.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever found while dumpster-diving?
After diving for the last few years, that question, to me, would be like asking someone who shops at the grocery store, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever purchased?” But if I do want to think of some great things, I found some frozen King Crab legs once, still on ice, perfectly edible. That was great. I also found a whole rabbit that was vacuum-sealed, and it was delicious. I found, one time, about $500 worth of nuts. I’d say those were some pretty wonderful finds.

Do you worry about getting sick from food in the garbage?
I have never become sick due to dumpster-diving. The food that is actually spoiled is far less than what the public thinks. There’s a critical difference between best before dates and expiry dates. The only foods that technically must expire, within Canada, are foods that are intended to provide complete nutrition; so that would be baby-formula or any sort of meal-replacement. When those foods expire they are unsafe and illegal to sell. Every other food group simply has a best before date as a recommendation as to when it is best to eat. The [Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s] website will say that a best before date is not an indication of food being safe or unsafe to eat. No official source tells you that food beyond the best before date is actually unsafe to eat. As a society, we think it’s an expiry date, but no one is saying that.

So how does food become unsafe to eat?
Food becomes unsafe due to a variety of factors. But really the thing that makes you sick in food is a significant presence of certain bacteria that your body has trouble digesting. If food is left in certain environments, bacteria will be encouraged to grow. Bacteria cannot grow on a cracker which has no moisture content, so just because it is past its best before date, doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat. Of course, food-related illness is still a serious concern. Just because we've swung way too far into a state of fear of illness, it's still important to realize that there are very real concerns for sickness. A little research will go a long way for keeping you healthy.

Are you upset about food waste?
Definitely. So while I don’t maybe view dumpster-diving as protest, I do feel strongly about the ethics behind why I dumpster-dive. I think it goes way beyond the idea that you don’t have to pay for cheese anymore. There’s a huge ethical unpacking that has to be done about food waste. Taking food from the garbage bin can be a much more intentional activity than the rush that comes with getting free food.

Do you ever redistribute reclaimed food?
Redistributing reclaimed food is difficult because most official food security organizations do not want to acknowledge that they have accepted dumpster goods. Because of that, I've worked with a local community member to set up a grassroots distribution network for handling the surplus. It's still a small network, but it works better than any officially organized attempt I've tried so far.

How much do you spend on groceries per month?
Over the last few years it would fluctuate between $5-30. Sometimes there will be a staple food item that I just haven’t found in a while, or if I’m going to a dinner party and I want to bring something specific. But to be honest, I don’t think that there’s a single food item that cannot be found in a dumpster.

Read more on food waste and how to reduce it: 10 Ways to Waste Less Food, Compost: Completing the Food Cycle, Cuttin' in the Kitchen, How to Can Food.


Seth Ratzlaff studies rhetoric at the University of Waterloo, but that doesn't mean he's a manipulative Sophist. It more accurately indicates his enthusiasm for social and political action.

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