The Ethics of Diving

I’m a scavenger.  I search out recyclable food in garbage bins and composts; hop wood or wire fences behind grocery stores and bakeries; peruse bus-bins in cafes; slink into the booth at a newly emptied table, now with more samples than Costco on Sunday. 

Like anything controversial or fringy, I know I should handle things delicately, and pursue with caution, care.  Lots of statistics.  People love statistics.  But I’d rather skip the simple carbs and move right on into the meat department’s bloody garbage bag.  Err, that is, the substance of the thing.

So I’ll skip a bit of the small talk—a toss-around of easily Googled, no less obscene facts and figures that’re rather impossible to wrap one’s lips around when spoon-fed at random.  I’ll give you one, a sort of aperitif:  In good ol’ Merica! nearly HALF the food we produce is WASTED.  If you conceptualize best on an individual scale, that’s equivalent to twenty pounds per person, per MONTH. 

I don’t know when we began to denote edible food and functional goods as waste.  But we do it, again and again.  We toss prepared food out—often a portion of a meal we just spent time audibly relishing—with only a passing consideration of saving it:  it’s rude to bring a Tupperware to dinner, yeah? and ugh, what a hassle to grab a to-go.  And generally no thought at all to giving it away: That would be weird if I offered some random person this half of my sandwich, right?  They'll think I think they're a bum or something.  Awkward.

I mean, you could always give it to a bum.

We rub barely-sated bellies while clinging to a half-baked conception self-control means throwing away a temptation halfway in, versus denying it from the start.   We consider it a sign of success to take on more than we can handle or justify, at the expense of others’ work and time, and the environment’s meager allowance.  Then we toss the excess or uncomfortable in the trash, and turn up our noses to those who dare go after it, swim in the muck, and satisfy their needs with our own exorbitance.

We look at people collecting cans or snacks from somewhere designated don’t touch me! someone put me here because they did not want me, and you should respect that! and shake our heads.  We gape when we see someone snag something off an abandoned plate, snap our gaze back when she tosses it in her mouth with a grin.  We voice compassion while emulating pity—compassion’s condescending twin. 

What we so actively forget, because we’re far more comfortable not knowing: somewhere down there, there’s a lot worth saving.  There’s liberation from capitalism and consumerism.   There’s a reason.

I can’t conceptualize how we've taken it so far, or how it continues to be overlooked, in a time otherwise so progressive.  Can you?  We speak out against factory farming—rightfully—but then merely whisper about the flesh that’s already been pumped full of resources and hormones, abused, slaughtered, and now goes wasted because portions are too large, or people are too full, or bogus sell-by dates continue to puppeteer grocery store standards and customer conceptions.  We forget or disregard our own participation:  how consumer demands have become so extreme, the thought of a store running out of your preferred brand of organic vanilla soymilk is far more outrageous than how many I found in their dumpster yesterday. 

We gawk at oddly-shaped carrots as if they sprout from the ground rigid and smooth;  assume expiration dates stem from science, not business; are confused by bananas lacking a perfect curve.  Our capricious wants, unrealistic expectations, rigid avoidance of what we’ve been told is unnatural or unhealthy (lies), and unsubstantiated standards for what is safe and good (more lies), all ensure premature or unnecessary disposal, and catastrophic waste.

The only hands thrown up in disgust seem to be those of my fellow divers—who readily avoid further contributing to the heaps of rubbish our system creates and perpetuates.  They see all the waste firsthand, and so they see it as I do (or so I hope):  a win-win.  Feasting for free on capitalism’s tab.  And simultaneously consuming in perhaps the most ethical way possible in the twenty-first century first-world. 

There are people going hungry.  There are also many people eating shit food because it’s the only thing they can afford.  We live in a time where personal health has become more and more of a luxury, and poverty-stricken and working class—hell, even middle-class—individuals and parents struggle to stock the fridge with whole, organic—let’s just say, real—food.    Our rampant consumerism has created a world in which nutritionally dense produce, stacks of imported cheeses, bags of fresh-baked loaves, whole pizzas, all-natural bacon and delectable doughnuts, rot in a big fat bin outside a store we walk into to buy the same things. 

This is why scavenging for food—whether it’s off restaurant plates, or out of a commercial trashcan—has become a pragmatic, ordinary part of my life.  It’s easy for me to forget how many people don’t know the basics to diving, or don’t realize accessible, edible, often top-tier food is piled high in the compost behind their preferred sustainable grocery store, waiting for someone with enough pluck to pick it up. 

I eat for free out of a dumpster.  I have the option to eat more healthfully and diversely than I could otherwise afford.  I have the ability to eat whatever I discover, to make my body happy, without needing to question brand or company ethics—not just what’s promised on the package, but what’s actually done—to uphold my own.  My dollar isn’t involved in any bankrolling:  I am not contributing to factory farming, or animal captivity and slaughter; the felling or pesticide contamination of rain forests; the human rights abuses that have allowed me to peel the skin off a banana harvested thousands of miles away.  I am simply not contributing.

Some argue not participating isn’t the answer.  It’s about supporting the ethical companies, those who do it right. But even the supposed good guys have a bottom line, and perpetuate our waste culture.  Contrary to what we’d all like to believe, Whole Foods and New Seasons and likeminded enterprises that preach community and sustainability, and yes, do donate a large portion of food, still toss perfectly good sustenance as often as they toss their favorite buzz words—sustainable, eco-friendly, green—onto print advertisements and excessive food packaging.  Their dumpsters are my go-to for organic produce:  since they don’t mark down items nearing or past expiration (still desperate to know what the excuse is), there’s always something, and usually plenty. 

All grocers, as businesses, play by certain rules.  They adapt to our preoccupation with endless options, variety, what we’re used to, and what someone’s told us is good or we heard about on that cooking show. They must intentionally overstock perishables; carry obscure ingredients diet trends require; stock whatever superfoods commercial capriciousness currently promotes; ensure produce pyramids are tall and colorful and reflect all corners of the globe.  Customers must be satisfied. 

And when you vote with your dollar by shopping at these stores—at any stores that don’t donate, have a brimming trash or stuffed compactor, or don’t feature mark-downs —you are contributing to the cycle of overproduction, excess supply, and throw-away culture.  You are the customer who must be satisfied.  We all are.   Until the system’s fixed, I’ll rather glean from its cracks than bolster it financially.  

Dumpster diving, then, has everything to do with resourcefulness, ethics, and, quite simply, awareness:  Awareness of the smorgasbord of wholesome, varied, often clean, undeniably free food piled high inside a dumpster right there; awareness of the waste and its damages; awareness of corporate duplicity and misinformation; awareness that your purchases—whether they’re vegan or vegetarian, local or organic, promise humane treatment or were packaged with recycled materials —all contribute to the excess which runs rampant in our nation. 

I’d rather not settle for the lesser evil.  From what I find daily in the bins, it’s evil enough.   So as long as I can find food in a dumpster to eat, I feel compelled to eat it. 

I don’t want to glamorize the act.  Since more grocery stores are getting compactors so they can smash all the food into a tiny cube (DON’T go into those), it’s becoming harder to locate mega-bins.  I’m always taking a legal risk.  Discomfort is inherent—there are foul smells and goopy blobs, unaccountable histories, indistinct contents.  There are associated health risks, too.  I still haven’t been sick after two years of this—and, to give you an indication of my standards, I ate a half-eaten thing of yogurt and a deep-fried samosa I found loose between some napkins in a Nature’s Fare dumpster last night—but it’s possible.

 The risks can be mitigated, but ultimately, there is no one looking out for you inside that bin: no manager is going to post up a flashy flyer saying so-and-so peanut butter’s been recalled for salmonella if purchased between this and that week (which unfortunately for the customer, was a month ago, and her kids have been eating it very day since); no one’s wiping up the floor, or waxing the fruits with disinfectant; no one’s labeling how long something’s sat in the sun.   So yes, care is necessary. Common sense and what not.

I’ve found a full chicken, feathers and all, wrapped in a bag.  Broken bottles, pallets with protruding nails, questionable puddles, and raw meat bits are all things I’ve tip-toed over.  I’ve been warned of needles.  There’s always a full bag of cookies, when I’m starving.  Of course it’s risky.  But usually it’s just messy.

Even so, diving remains the most feasible way for me to eat ethically and responsibly.  It fits my lifestyle and alleviates my conscience.  The minor, generally avoidable dangers involved make it more interesting, and easy—not many are willing to do it, so there’s often plenty of food.

I still go out for coffee.  I snag a chocolate bar when the craving’s there—and pay for it.  I shop for items I don’t often find in dumpsters:  spices, sauces, baking staples, tea.   Sometimes the only unlocked, compactor-less dumpster I can find in a town is a Little Caesar’s, and I’ve stared down a few Hot N’ Ready’s before, know the pain therein, have no interest in repeating it, and so don’t.  Sometimes, I’m just too exhausted to dive.  I go grocery shopping full-on, for the sake of my health and sanity, when I want to.  I’d like to think it all comes out in the wash.

So my intention, then, isn’t to demoralize or shame the conventional shopper.  I’m guilty, too. If your circumstances allow you to financially support companies whose ethics you condone—after reading more than a simple label—keep doing it.  We need that: informed, intentional spending.  Because diving is not sustainable if it brings about the change I want— less to zero food waste.  We need savvy, compassionate companies to stick around, and the ethics they portray to usurp the norm. 

But I am asking for more transparency, accountability, and proactivity on the corporate end.  And I am asking for more awareness, questioning, and responsibility on the consumer end.  I believe ignorance and misinformation is at the root of the issue here, buried beneath green paint, stickers with arrows, and a general conception that to eat consciously means to pay high prices.

I want to normalize the art of scavenging and re-use; I want to challenge those who can’t afford, or otherwise choose not to purchase sustainable and healthful options, to join me, and make diving their prerogative.  I want to shift society’s perception of food ethics, and food safety, and waste, and diving.  I want to make everyone comfortable eating what we’ve been calling trash.  I want people to throw up in their mouth a little bit when they think of what all we’re wasting—not what they see me pop in my mouth after I hop out of a bin.

I would encourage anyone whose curiosity I’ve tickled to take it a step further:  Go to your nearest library, grab a book on food ethics.  Good places to start:  Eating Animals, Food Ethics: The Basics, The Face on Your Plate, Omnivore’s Dilemma, Mad Cowboy.  Read a chapter, or the entirety of whichever book has your preferred tone or approach.  Masticate.

Then watch the documentary Dive! Watch Rob Greenfield’s Ted Talk, or read his book.  Explore the Freegan movement. 

By the end of it all, I'd be surprised if you didn't explore some dumpsters around town.