As I hoisted myself into the dumpster, I could tell by the bulging garbage bags inside that we were in luck. My guides for the night, two Yalies who live off-campus, were already tearing the bags apart in search of food to restock their refrigerator.
At first, everything looked inedible, but when I began sorting through the bags, I quickly learned how to pick out the gems. Unbroken packaged items are usually safe. Meat is only good “in winter, when it’s frozen,” according to one of my guides. There is no such thing as too many eggs—just throw out the broken ones. Apples, tomatoes, and other produce items with skins are okay, depending on the level of damage. Sushi is debatable.
When we finished with one bag, we tossed it to the side and plunged into another. We packed our finds into milk crates brought for this purpose. The excursion ended after half an hour, when there was no room left in the car for both us and the food.
The night’s yield included two whole red peppers, five bagged salads—Cobb and Greek—two almond pies, a bag of avocados, two loaves of wheat bread, a sack of potatoes, a handful of tomatoes, nine containers of unexpired tofu, and more than four dozen eggs.
Dumpster diving—sometimes referred to by diving devotees as “dumpstering”—is generally associated with those who don’t have enough money to buy the items they take from the trash. But for some people, dumpster diving is an ideological and political lifestyle choice. The practice is associated with freeganism, a term combining “free” and “veganism” that was born in the ’90s from the environmental and anti-globalization movements.
Freegans scavenge waste of consumers to avoid participating in the capitalist system. More simply put, they eat other people’s garbage. But as any freegan can tell you, garbage is a relative term.
I discovered a community of Yale students who dumpster dive, scattered across five or six different off-campus houses at Yale. Some go once in a while seeking a novel adventure, but several go once or twice a week as an alternative to grocery shopping for their households. Lacking meal plans, these students use the food as a primary or significant portion of their overall food supply.
In this group, dumpster diving is a social activity—it’s “more fun than shopping” and can turn into “a little bit of an obsession,” said ‘Frank,’ a Yale senior who requested anonymity. The best spots to dumpster dive are out of walking distance, and unlike grocery shopping, there is no guarantee that there will be any food. This fosters an atmosphere of sharing—students from different houses will carpool to get to a site or share their food with one another after a successful run.
Cris Shirley, ’10, said the relationships he built around dumpster diving at Yale were more important to him than the food itself. As a Yale student, he noticed that in many off-campus houses, traditional grocery shopping was often a source of tension.
Though the dumpstering reduces these students’ financial burden, it is not generally a necessity. “If I wasn’t dumpster diving, I wouldn’t starve. That’s for sure,” Frank acknowledged.
Rather, these students share an interest in frugality and keeping consumerism to a minimum. Some would call their politics extreme—dumpster diving is only one activity that reflects their collectivist ideologies. Frank said he and friends are planning a clothing swap on campus, where students will trade clothing they don’t want for someone else’s discarded items. He added that he personally hasn’t bought a brand-new item in years.
Shirley and fellow dumpster-diver Hans Schoenburg ’10 helped to found the website giftflow.org, which Shirley described as an “online community of gifting.” Members exchange goods and services to promote an “alternative economy” based on trust and a non-monetary value system. The pair are now hosting a “couch surfer” from Germany in return for his service doing repair work on their house. CouchSurfing.org is a worldwide network that connects travelers with free accommodation.
Though state or local laws may differ, rummaging through public dumpsters, at least in New Haven, is legal. Trash, when deposited on the curb or in a public disposal area, is public property, as the US Supreme Court ruled in California v. Greenwood in 1988.
“Once it’s thrown away, it’s considered public, even if it’s in a dumpster,” said Nancy DeJesus, communications supervisor for the New Haven Police Department. “Anyone can take it.”
Divers run into problems, only when they dive in private dumpsters, on private property that belongs to food retailers or distribution centers. In these cases, dumpster diving’s illegality is a matter of trespassing, not stealing.
Shirley has been stopped by police three times in the past few years. In two of these encounters, the police took down the names of the people in his group and let them off with a warning. The third time, the officers made Shirley put back the food he had taken from the dumpster and leave the premises. The officials’ relatively lax approach follows from dumpster diving’s muddy legal status. On the one hand, the discarded food would not have been eaten otherwise. On the other, regardless of the trespasser’s intentions, his activities are still against the law.
“If it were advantageous for [the police] to do something about me, they would,” Shirley explained. “They’re trying to keep both parties happy.”
Why does food end up in the trash?
Grocery stores have standards for items they can sell in stores. Retailers must discard food from their shelves when it reaches the sell by date, or if it has been damaged.A few bruised apples? Throw the entire bag away. A broken egg? Dump the carton. “The funny thing is, when you’re dumpster diving, everything comes in packs of eleven,” Frank noted. His most impressive find was a box containing eleven jugs of quality maple syrup — one jug of the dozen had broken during shipping.
For their part, consumers bring food home and forget about it in their refrigerators, and restaurants throw out uneaten portions of meals. Unsurprisingly, the majority of food wasted is produce and dairy, which spoil quickly. One 1987 University of Oregon study showed that most household food is thrown out because of the misconceptions about perishable foods. Many people do not realize that milk and other dairy products, unless obviously sour, can still be consumed after their expiration dates.
Because of this, good food often goes to waste. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 1995 almost 96 billion pounds of food—27 percent of the year’s edible food supply—were lost at the farm, retail and consumer levels. Although some was diseased or spoiled, a significant percentage of food lost at the retail level was fit for distribution.
Dumpster divers have no trouble finding food from all levels of the food pyramid, including meat, fresh produce and dairy products. The food is often minimally damaged and needs only to be washed before being eaten. Shirley said he has never gotten sick from salvaged food.
If only five percent of the 96 billion pounds of food wasted in 1995 were recovered, the amount would adequately feed four million people for one day. Food recovery programs across the country seek to rectify this problem by redistributing leftover food, while businesses and restaurants have been implementing programs to reduce food waste, for economic reasons. There are other stores like Atticus in New Haven, that leave out their edible waste for the public to take.
Many Yale students eagerly participate in events such as Spring Salvage or Eli Exchange in which students trade clothing and other used items, but would never climb into a dumpster for the same items. Potential legal and health risks combined with personal standards for food intake may give many pause, but for those without those qualms, the choice is logical. As Frank explained: “I eat food. I know a place where I can get food that is free. It’s going to be wasted otherwise. As long as [grocery stores] are being wasteful, I feel totally justified in taking advantage of their waste.”