Dumpster diving: reports from the food waste front

I just found out about a 2014 movie, Just Eat It, investigating food waste in America.  It looks fantastic; I can’t wait to see it.  The premise as I grasp it, is following a couple as they search for food in dumpsters and explore the epidemic of North American food waste, living on only food that would otherwise be wasted.

Is this dirty, shameful, disgusting?  Those people are, gasp, eating garbage!?

It shouldn’t be.  Because even if you don’t want to get in it yourself, you should know what’s in the dumpster behind the store you shop at.

Why? Because the cost of that food that’s getting thrown out is part of the cost of the food that’s getting purchased, and there is a great deal more food thrown out in North America than should be.  As consumers, we should all care.

We’re not talking about finding a half eaten sandwich with a soggy napkin stuck on it or an apple core in a garbage can.  We’re talking about unopened bushel boxes of fruit, still banded (never opened since leaving the farm).  Frozen foods in complete packaging, still frozen. Boxes and boxes of mixed vegetables with tiny flaws, or no flaws.  Bags of apples, carrots, baked goods, onions, potatoes, still in their boxes and bags.  Bread by the giant clear garbage bag full.

This is the hidden cost of your food.

At least 10 cents from every dollar of yours spent on groceries is walking out the back door and getting thrown in the trash.  The “official number” is 11%.  I suspect the reality is higher, far higher.  That’s like throwing a tenner in the trash can on the way into the store every time you spend a hundred.  Food banks don’t do that well at Christmastime.  Speaking of food banks, grocery stores almost never give their waste food to food banks, because it’s a liability.  The most progressive stores compost, but for the majority, hundreds of pounds of edible food go to landfill.

When you see the produce boy sullenly picking peppers out of the display and putting them in the cardboard box on his cart, that box is going to be closed up and thrown into the compactor. Often, when you return something to customer service, say at Walmart or Canadian Tire, it goes straight in the dumpster, not back on the shelf.  When inventory expires, or won’t be stored ’til the next holiday-appropriate season, ditto.  When everyone looks behind the front row of milk for the better expiry date and there aren’t enough suckers to take the milk in the front, it goes into the dumpster when it hits the sell-by date.  A bag of dog food gets snagged by a shopping cart and torn a little, or a box of cereal falls from the top shelf and gets a corner crushed, it goes in the garbage. When the purchaser screws up and the replacement stock arrives prematurely or in too great a quantity, the excess goes straight to the dumpster.  Every time the truck comes with the new fruit before the old fruit sells, guess where the old fruit goes?  Sometimes food goes directly to the dumpster without passing within eyeshot of the consumer.  If there are too many bananas warehoused to ever get sold – into the bin.  I’ve been told that at times, distributors sell food in combination (if you want bananas you have to take these coconuts too), and the less popular food will go directly out back.

Shall I even mention the manipulation of marketing?  Lots of exotic food (starfruit, anyone?) is stocked in produce just to give the impression of variety and possibility.  The store never expects to sell all the pink striped lemons and pluots, but their presence evokes feelings of abundance, progressiveness, and cosmopolitan choice!  Plus they make the normal lemons look much more affordable.  Guess where all that unsold showy food (imported from a great distance) ends up?  I’ve noticed a higher percentage of organics in the bin than conventional.  I guess they cost more, so sell less, so… get chucked more.

Extrapolate this across over 36 000 grocery stores in the US, and the waste of food is in the millions of tonnes.  Eleven percent of saleable produce, wasted before it’s sold.  It’s an obscenity that this much food is being wasted.  Specifically, destroyed, compacted behind grocery stores while people go hungry all over the same cities (more stores have compactors than still have open dumpsters that can be filched from and reported upon). There doesn’t seem to be much talking about it, nor lobbying against it, probably because so few people really know about it.

Ask a dumpster diver, though, and they will go off about all the great stuff they’ve hauled out of a dumpster.   They may even start rambling rhapsodically about those ultimate scores.

Funny thing though, not so many people want to admit to eating out of the garbage.

I know all about what I’ve described here, firsthand, because I’ve seen it.

Once I pulled up to our usual dumpster with my partner, and another truck was already there (yes, a truck is appropriate for the quantity of food).  The pig farmer it belonged to was standing atop the dumpster with a hayfork, stabbing 1-3 plastic bags of potatoes at a time and pitching them into his pickup bed.  The dumpster was too full to shut, with five pound bags of Yukon Golds.  He filled his truck, then we took all we could imagine eating and giving away, and left the dumpster still far from empty.

One time a Walmart dumpster right after Easter was filled with individually bagged one pound solid milk chocolate bunnies.  I mean filled.  It looked like a wharf-side container brimful of fishes, only with chocolate bunnies.  We tired of scooping them with our hands into the truck and left to drop the first shipment and return with shovels.  Yep.  Shovels.  Those rabbits exceeded our chocolate “needs” for over two years.  Chocolate chunk cookies, chocolate fondue, shaved chocolate, chocolate cakes, chocolate trail mix… you’re picturing Forrest Gump now, right?  Ok, moving on…

One time the open dumpster was mounded high with banana bunches.  Perfect bananas, even slightly green.  The bananas were piled a good 3 feet above the lip of the dumpster, and littered liberally around on the ground, like a dump truck had dropped them into the dumpster and many had spilled.  It’s a strong possibility that a forklift did dump a palletful straight into the dumpster.  Inside the store, there were multitudinous bananas for sale  as well.  They were even greener.  What can a person do with that many bananas?  Banana bread, banana muffins, banana creme pie, banana…well, that’s about it.  I tried to dehydrate the bananas and unintentionally made banana jerky.  That is not as good as it sounds.

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A 100% dumpster salad

We’re still using extra virgin organic olive oil from Trader Joes, because one jar in a case of 12 obviously had broken, oiling the labels of the other 11 bottles in the box.  Unsaleable; into the dumpster, conveniently still in the box they were delivered in.

I’ve been in a lot of dumpsters, since the early 90’s.  I’ve been flabbergasted at the quantity of food I’ve found.

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One half of one night’s good haul (the frozen foods half). Must have been a freezer-cleaning day.  Food not expired, all still frozen.

Yes, I was introduced to the bounty of back alleys when I was a messed up homeless kid and needed to eat, but that was a long time ago.  My on and off dumpster diving adventures for the last 20 years have had little to do with not being able to afford what’s inside the front door,  and everything to do with curiosity and fascination with what’s out the back door.

It’s just too damn interesting and easy; it’s straight up fun, with a dash of social subversion!  Coming next: a piece I wrote in 2008 on how to be a dumpster diving ninja.

Let me say that I am effing fortunate to be able to brag that I don’t need to dumpster dive; I do it for kicks.  Many people do need to.  It’s a social crime that 1 in 10 people are hungry in this culture of bounty and perfection that throws out so much.  Hunger is a tragic aspect of this story.

A modest night's haul of fruit (packages opened for display)
A modest night’s haul of fruit

This story of food waste is a layer cake of problems.  We garbage food instead of sharing it with the needy, because it’s too legally risky. It’s inconvenient to separate waste on the commercial scale and compost.   We’ve made salvaging food from the garbage illegal (it’s theft or trespassing), and employees are forbidden to take the waste food.  We use fossil fuels to grow the food, then more fossil fuels to transport the food 100’s of miles to throw 11% of it in the garbage, and then burn more fossil fuels driving it to the landfill where it creates more carbon emissions rotting.  Food prices are high, and rising, while a thick slice of the percentage of food produced is garbaged!  The expectation of food waste is built into the planning of the grocery store so that the shopper can have a certain experience – how is this ok???   How did we get here?

And this is just the post-retail waste.  Waste happens at the harvest point, in transportation, and if it is sold, is also wasted by the consumer, spoiling in the fridge and going uneaten.  With all the tiers of food waste, it’s possible 40% of edible food is wasted in North America.  I’m not even touching the extravagant waste that happens before food even reaches the grocery store, and after, when I talk about dumpster diving.  The film covers that(My numbers are old.  It’s closer to 50% )

Every time I’ve furtively approached a dumpster, opened the heavy lid with a metallic creak, and gasped with delight and shock when I look in at a mountain of food treasure, I’ve simultaneously felt a heart-sinking sense of the tragic imbalance of things.  This should not be!  Our culture is seriously sick, to have arrived here, where beautiful, fresh, edible food is discarded for no legitimate reason.

A typical box of "culls"- flawed veggies picked out of the displays
A typical box of “culls”- flawed veggies picked out of the displays.  Sometimes the flaws are hard to discern.

 

What to do?

I’ll be the first to admit that dumpster diving is not for everyone.  That’s why those who do should report from the front.  What (else) is there to do about food waste? Talk to your grocery store and ask what they do with food waste.  Ask for a percentage.  Pester the stock boy and the grocery manager.  Do they give their produce waste to pig farmers?  I was once told No never, store policy.  Why?  Because of all the pesticides on the produce (What?  But what about the people eating the food?).   Just like fair trade policies and worker benefits on the food production end, retail stores should brag about their low waste percentages, food bank donations (Maranatha does it), composting programs, and discounting past due date foods, because we should care about these things!

Here in Nova Scotia now, I’m thrilled to see the practice of reducing food at it’s due date by 50%.  This is unusual.  Pink 50% off stickers pop up all over the Atlantic Superstores, from produce to dairy to deli to bakery to natural foods.  That is all food that I’ve seen in dumpsters elsewhere in these two countries.  Good job Superstore.

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If I didn’t know better, I’d be confused. Is this food ready to shelve, or ready to throw out?

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About this article.  After writing most of it in 2012, and then editing it in 2015, inspired at the time by the discussion popping up in the media and the Just Eat It movie, I somehow continued to fail to post it despite friends begging for it and the importance of the subject.  Until now.   I’ve lost many of my “great score” pictures due to hard drive breakdown and still have not recovered them, but am posting anyway.

I’ve seen Just Eat It.  It’s fantastic.  It’s super fun to watch new dumpster divers learn the tricks, and they totally capture the delight of discovery, comingled with the stomach sinking disgust that this is what our society has come to, that can only be experienced standing on the brim of a dumpster filled with clean, packaged, edible food.  They also discuss the other tiers of food waste, and present some happily encouraging alternative types of food handling.  I beyond recommend it!

The movie:  Just Eat It.

Rob Greenfield says all that I just said here, only better and faster.

Flawed fruit and veggies for sale – what a notion!

wastedfood.com

utne reader on dumpstering

Tristram Stuart

 

5 thoughts on “Dumpster diving: reports from the food waste front”

  1. After seeing this in my feed I found it on iTunes and bought it so I could watch it. It reminds me a lot of the Better Man Project, their goal was to be waste free for a whole year and leave no carbon footprint. I am fascinated by these projects, and then I realize I already do much of this, although the dumpster diving has not been on my agenda, it might be when I get back stateside. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What an interesting read! Food waste is a topic that gets me wound up tight every time I go there. I believe there are enough like- minded people to bring about huge changes, and I believe the planet’s inability to handle the present system will demand changes. Can’t wait to see “Just Eat It’. AND…if you ever go dumpster diving again, please take me with you!

  3. Fear of legal ramifications is real and a big part of the problem, I believe. It is very sad, as you say, that so much food is wasted when it could go to the local food bank and keep a family from going to bed hungry.

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