Saturday, April 9, 2016

Third World Green Daddy 60: Dumpster diving

At long last, I'm finally getting around to writing a blog on dumpster diving for groceries.  I specify that it's for groceries, because when I initially proposed to a friend that he go with me, he thought I meant dumpster diving for like metal scrap and things to sell.  I also don't mean taking furniture or appliances out of the dumpster, since that is something I think most people do if the opportunity presents itself, so it doesn't merit a blog unto itself.

No, I'm talking about going into a dumpster behind a grocery store and salvaging the good food that had to be thrown away for some reason other than its sanitary state.  Since I started doing this, I have seen a lot of discarded food, and gotten to know the different reasons it gets thrown away.  Much of it has passed its expiration date, or never got an expiration date put on it.  In either case, the stores prefer to throw it away, even though it's still good to eat.  Sometimes a plastic envelope of vacuum-sealed meat or fish might get nicked by a boxcutter, in which case it loses its vacuum and has to be jettisoned by the store.  Sometimes one piece of fruit in a clamshell container will go bad, which necessitates throwing away the entire container.  Along the same lines, if one egg gets broken in a carton, away go the other eleven, too.  In fact, some of my better hauls have been when there's a box containing maybe 20 dozen eggs, and six or ten of the eggs break and ooze over the other cartons.  This is a bonanza for a dumpster diver, since all the other eggs are perfectly good, but can't be sold with a gooey carton.  Similarly, if a carton of milk gets a minute puncture such that it leaks a bit, they have to throw it away, and sometimes its neighbors, too.

My interest in dumpster diving for groceries started a few years back when I was living in Colombia.  I saw this video about a guy who gets the majority of his food from a dumpster.  I loved the idea, but the food system in Colombia isn't quite the same as in the US.  A large proportion of food shopping outside Bogota and the other major cities takes place in the fresh market, where any food thrown away really is rotten, and already gets recycled by people who pick it up to feed to their cattle.  There are supermarkets in Colombia, but I don't think they waste as much (consumers aren't quite as picky about aesthetics as in the US), and if they do, the waste certainly doesn't go to an unlocked dumpster out in a strip mall parking lot.  Settlements are denser, and there are more resourceful or desperate people who are already making use of the waste that arises from the system.

When we moved to Washington, DC, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try dumpster diving.  I did as much online research as I could, though it didn't yield much, frankly.  I found this forum for dumpster divers, which aside from focusing mainly on salvaging recyclables for sale, doesn't really seem to get much traffic or be updated frequently.  So that didn't help.  Then I found this other article, which seemed to dwell on the novelty and weirdness of dumpster diving (I mean, it's about freegans in Manhattan), though it does make the very relevant observation that often dumpster diving doesn't involve the grime and the yuckiness that many people expect

And that was about it in terms of preparation.  I believe that just in the few years since I started, dumpster diving for food is more of a common thing to talk about.  Food waste has certainly been in the news recently, even meriting a special on the subject from John Oliver, and this publicity seems to have led to the drafting of some local and even national laws against food waste.  There has now even been at least one documentary made about eating discarded food.

But I was maybe a year too early for most of this, so I just had to accept the lack of information and do my best to find my own way.  I scoped out a few potential sites in person, focusing on high-end grocery chains easily accessible by Metro.  I would get to a place on public transit, then walk around it at a leisurely pace, looking for where they stowed their garbage.  I also took advantage of other errands I had to run anyway by keeping an eye out for any grocery store dumpsters I might pass by.  This taught me my first lesson:  places in densely-populated urban areas aren't good for dumpster diving.  They usually have their dumpsters in an enclosed garage or something, since space is at too much of a premium to allow for sprawling strip mall parking lots.

So then I used 21st century technology to aid in my scouting.  I used Google Earth to find grocery stores in the exurbs with exposed dumpsters in parking lots  This gave me a list of a few candidates to reconnoiter in person, and my friend did me the favor of driving me in his car to take a look at the dumpster layout firsthand.

This entire scouting process took a few months, since I wasn't dedicated exclusively to checking out dumpster diving sites.  I had a new job and a new baby to keep up with, so time was not an abundant commodity for me.

Finally I had my first try in November, a very tentative effort at a local, non-luxury supermarket.  My first haul was this chocolate cake!

It was pristine, in a sealed box sitting on top of the dumpster.  I assume they must have gotten the order slightly wrong and had to throw it out--the label said it was a yellow cake when it was really a chocolate cake.  Now, we don't eat much chocolate cake in my family, but I was really excited to get it, so we all indulged in a few slices over the next few days before I threw it away.  I considered giving it away somewhere, but I didn't know if it would be ethical to give someone salvaged groceries without telling them where they came from (more on this topic later).

But this was just a trial run, done on foot and public transit.  My first real dumpster run was months later in April with my friend, using his car, to a place where Trader Joe's and Whole Foods were right across the road from each other.  This was the culmination of three months of dreaming about dumpster diving, and three more months of scouting possible sites.

And it was a success!  On this first try and the subsequent few we got things like still-frozen ice cream sandwiches, hand cream, sausage, wild-caught Alaska Coho Salmon, charcoal, scallops (still frozen), bread, eggs, milk, potted orchids, root beer, nut butter, chicken, and lots of cookies and other sweets.  Here is a typical haul (the silver is from my grandmother, not found in a dumpster!):

The first time was for the fun and novelty of it, but when we calculated that we were obtaining $80-$200 apiece worth of groceries on each run, we realized that it made real economic sense to do this.  Of my family's $800 or so monthly grocery bill, I could offset at least a quarter of my out-of-pocket expenses by dumpster-diving once every two weeks.  If I'd had a car of my own, I would probably have gone more often (though of course then the per-hour payoff would diminish, since I'd be doing more runs than strictly necessary, thus allowing myself to go more out of vice and thrill than out of need).  Some weeks there were probably thousands of dollars worth of groceries in the dumpster; we left most of it since we were only taking what we were going to consume directly.  Other weeks were thin.  The advantage of our site was that if Whole Foods had slim pickings one day, Trader Joe's compensated with its bounty, and vice versa.  Even a modest haul of $80 or so for 2 hours' worth of work is more than most people earn in their day jobs, and the opportunity cost was essentially zero, since I wouldn't be doing anything else more profitable at midnight on a Saturday.  If you factor in the exercise and fun you get (and how much this entertainment would cost you at a gym or an arcade or something), it's even more of a winning proposition.  However, depending how much you value your sleep and time with your spouse, or resent splitting your Saturday night in two, it may be more or less interesting to you personally.

Aside from the boon to my pocketbook, dumpster diving allowed me to reduce my carbon footprint, because my food demand was essentially removed from the economy.  In fact, if I were really thorough about it, I could create a negative food footprint, since I'd in fact be reducing greenhouse gas emissions by preventing fermentation of food into methane in a landfill.

We learned that the best time for diving is in cooler weather, since the food is preserved longer after it's thrown away.  Some of those 90-degree summer DC days made for nights where all the meat we found was already puffing out its plastic packaging, botuli bacteria hard at work rotting the prime cuts.  Bulging packaging is the best sign of food to avoid, but even if the packaging isn't bulging, it's important to touch the bottom with your bare hand to feel if it's still cold, or at least cooler than the ambient temperature.  I've gone a few times when the weather was so bitter cold that the food was in good shape, but we had to make haste to get out of there before frostbite set in.  And I've never even tried dumpster diving in a Chicago winter!

The attraction of dumpster diving for me wasn't just the money or the novelty, though.  I liked having a chance to rebel against the norms of society (while not harming anyone, which is often an unfortunate corollary of disobeying society's norms), to make an active protest against the immorality of food waste.  I liked being physical, jumping in and out of a dumpster, hauling things, grunting and schlepping stuff.  I liked wearing leather gloves and old clothes, getting a bit dirty, and earning my keep by my own sweat, instead of the abstract relationship we normally have of working in an office and receiving a paycheck.  I liked gleaning my food without paying for it, feeling like I was beating the system while not contributing to global warming.  Any food I found, even carbon-intensive food like beef, had essentially zero additional carbon cost, since it was already produced and thrown away, and I was just saving it from a landfill and a few more years of methane emission.

After a while dumpster diving became more routine for me.  It was still fun and useful and even a bit thrilling, but it was just part of what I did regularly, like going to work on weekdays.  Sometimes it was hard for me to forego a night of talking or movie-watching with my wife, because I had to head out by 10 or 11pm on Saturday night.  But I did it, because the economic logic and all the other advantages were just so compelling.  Once my main partner moved away from the DC area, I had to scrounge and beg every time to find a friend to go diving with.  This reduced my trips to the dumpster, since it increased the effort involved in each run.

Most of the time dumpster diving is not yucky.  There are bags with yucky stuff like used napkins, discarded plates from a restaurant, meat trimmings, but you just steer clear of those.  The bags you want are full of packaged food, whole fruit, boxes and cans.  They may have an exploded jar of Greek yogurt or hummus that has smeared the other stuff, but it's not nasty or garbage-smelling.  In any case, you're wearing gloves, so you don't get anything on your hands.  Sometimes it's best to jump into the dumpster, but again, since everything is in a bag, it's not like you're standing in rotting food or a brown festering broth or anything.  You're just standing on the metal floor of the dumpster, or on a crate or a sealed plastic bag.  Sometimes you open a bag and find yucky stuff, but you simply throw it into another dumpster or another side of the dumpster you're in.

My family and I really expanded our food selection thanks to dumpster diving.  There were lots of sweets and other packaged food that we normally wouldn't eat, but that we got for free.  In fact, we never shopped at Trader Joe's in two years, but our cabinets were filled with Trader Joe brand stuff for most of that time.  The overall national food economy may have indeed benefited from our expanding tastes thanks to dumpster diving.  My family began buying waffles and maple syrup new at Costco after finding them one time in the Trader Joe's dumpster and then not finding them again for free.  We likewise began consuming bananas, string cheese, and yogurt thanks to having found them a few times in the dumpster.  Thereafter, we were loyal purchasers of these foods.

We figured out that Saturday nights are the best time to go.  It is a killer to go back to work the next day after a weeknight run, and it seems like the stores really clear out their stock on Saturdays, throwing away whatever they haven't sold.  We stopped going to one Trader Joes in the inner-ring suburbs, since it never had much food for us; we eventually found out that it donates all its waste to food pantries.  Not so the farther-out stores.  I guess the logistics are more difficult farther away from the city, and either the supermarket or the pantry is too lazy to make the food delivery.

Another lesson, perhaps the most important, was that you should always go with a partner.  While dumpster-diving is not illegal, both supermarket employees and cops may not like seeing people doing it.  The only time we've ever had problems is when my partner unwisely went alone.  One time there were cops waiting in the area, and they pulled their weapons on him ten minutes after they'd talked on amicable terms.  My guess is that suburban northern Virginia police aren't the best and the brightest, and were probably caught unawares the fourth or fifth time my friend passed by their car with a box of food.  The other time the store employees threatened him.  My theory is that, aside from presenting a more formidable front for self-defense, two guys dumpster diving seem more human than a lone operator.  When you go with a partner you're talking together, shooting the breeze, just seeming like normal people.  If you're alone, you're a mysterious, silent silhouette.  And I imagine that if you're a person of color, you're really screwed.  I never lived this in the flesh, but when I went a few times with my Colombian stepdaughter, I made sure we were talking in English so everyone knew we were humans deserving of life and not pesky subhuman Latinos.

It's ironic that, as I was dumpster diving to be more green and frugal, I in fact became more wasteful and consumerist in a way.  I would greedily grab as much food as I could when I was in the dumpster, in a way that I don't do when I'm purchasing groceries.  I also found myself becoming a bit more careless with food; if I got more than I needed, and if it started to go bad, I just threw it away without remorse.  I never waste food normally, but this was food that was already headed for the garbage when I got it, so I didn't feel so bad.  On a related note, my wife was shocked once as I was adjusting a bookshelf I'd found on the street near my kids' school.  I was not very careful, and ended up chipping some of the particle-board shelves as I roughly jammed them into place.  My thinking was again that not as much care was warranted, since the bookshelf was salvaged from the garbage and would go back to the garbage when we left Washington.

Most strikingly was that we ate more meat due to my dumpster diving.  Normally both the price and the ecological footprint of meat preclude me from buying much of it for my family.  But again, since the ecological opportunity cost of salvaged meat is essentially nil, I didn't hold back in eating it.  At the same time, I became an uglier shopper, pissed off when I actually had to pay for the food we consumed!

Often I found myself wanting to give away excess food I'd found.  This was especially the case with sweets, since I didn't want us to get fat eating so much junk.  But this forced me to consider the ethics of giving this food.  On the one hand, I knew that many people would not willingly, knowingly eat food salvaged from the garbage, but on the other hand, I knew that this aversion was unreasonable, especially considering that most food is noxious not because of where it was obtained, but due to the artificial chemicals and excessive sugar it contains.  The first few times I took cookies or something to work to share with others, I was scrupulous about telling them where I'd gotten it.  After a while everyone knew where I was getting my stuff, and I stopped worrying about it; in fact, I would just leave it out without any explanations.  I reasoned that any food that is left out, and any food you take, involves a whole series of leaps of faith regarding its wholesomeness, where it came from, how it was prepared, etc.  Mine was no different in this respect, insofar as I was sure it was safe to eat.

I've dreamed of writing a book about non-employment ways of getting money or other goods.  I'd like to try scrap metal hunting, game hunting and fishing, day labor, firewood gathering, etc., and then compare the economics of each activity.  I'm sure that many such activities, like grocery dumpster diving, would prove to be competitive with much paid employment in terms of per-hour benefit, if not job security.  A preliminary accounting based on my limited experience thus far would give the following order:
  • Most profitable is to get furniture on the street when you find it on your daily rounds.  There is no opportunity cost involved, since you're not dedicating time to actively look for it, and the value of a single piece of furniture is pretty high.
  • Next is getting free food at different events.  If you live around a university, or a place like DC with lots of think tank events, you can eat lunch for free every day, and often take home dinner and more for your family.  This too involves little opportunity cost, since you're getting entertained by the event (or you're even required to be there for your day job).
  • Next most profitable is dumpster diving for groceries, which involves a few hours per run to go out and get the stuff, but can have a very high payout.
  • The last option if you're looking to get food without paying is gleaning berries and nuts around your neighborhood.  If you keep an eye out for promising trees and bushes during your normal routine, the searching itself doesn't need to imply any time cost, but the harvesting is often labor-intensive.  I've calculated in the case of the delicious, abundant June berries in our old DC neighborhood that I was getting about $8 worth of berries for every hour of harvesting.  Not much to show for your work, especially compared with getting frozen salmon for free from a dumpster!
I've encountered many attitudes of people around dumpster diving.  I'm surprised to find that most people aren't grossed out when I tell them about it.  Instead, they see the sense in it when they learn how much food you can get.  A lot of them have expressed interest in coming along, and I've gone with a few workmates.  I usually don't see anyone else when we go out to the dumpsters, but a few times there have been fellow divers that seem almost compulsive about it, grabbing stuff they don't really want or need and then trying to give it away.  One guy I met kept laying hens, so he fed them on discarded bread that he picked up almost daily.  Of the people that have gone with me once or twice to dumpster dive, many didn't seem to get beyond their initial intrigue.  They liked the idea of doing it, but they were reluctant to actually take food for themselves.  Maybe it was disgust, though then those same people might grab an uncovered cookie out of the Whole Foods dumpster and pop it into their mouth!  I had a friend that went with me that didn't feel comfortable taking free food since he didn't really need it, i.e. he could afford to buy food.  This seemed like a silly logic to me.  If I go to a store and they've got a sale on something I want, I don't go to another store to pay full price for it, just because I can afford to pay full price.  There are lots of things you don't need to save money on, but you should if you can.  If it makes you feel oddly guilty, then donate the difference to charity.

I, on the other hand, mainly felt moral outrage after discovering how lucrative dumpster diving could be.  It is appalling that so much food is wasted.  I didn't feel at all bad about taking it, since it was just going to a landfill.  When we would see food marked for donation, we consciously steered clear of it.  We weren't out to take food from the needy, but rather to take it from the landfill.

To Whole Foods' credit, they put all their organic waste in dumpsters destined for a compost treatment, so they are avoiding the major source of landfill emissions.  At the same time, they throw everything else (packaged food etc.) into a trash compactor, which makes it unavailable to me your trusty dumpster diver.  You never dive in trash compactors; they can kill you if you're inside when they're turned on.  Plus anything you might find would be smashed and useless.

One last contradiction to close this reflection.  While I am outraged at food waste and at supermarkets that don't donate excess food, I became dependent on the waste inherent in the system.  As I said, the one supermarket that regularly donated its excess was not interesting for us, since there was little left to salvage in the dumpster.  My temporary, hypocritical resolution of this ethical issue was that I personally hoped the food system would become less wasteful in the near future, but that for now they'd at least leave me the pickings from one Whole Foods and one Trader Joe's in northern Virginia.

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