Food

I Ate Rubbish for a Week to Understand the Rise and Fall of Dumpster Diving

How did it go from the height of edgy to the lamest thing ever in just a few years?

by Nat Kassel
15 August 2016, 12:00am

Not a bad haul. All images by author.

Dumpster diving—along with beard grooming and writing awful poetry on antique typewriters—is basically considered a dumb fad reserved for wankers. This is strange to me. Jumping into the skip behind Coles is not only free, it's also a pretty sustainable way to eat.

I got into dumpster diving around 2013. Back then it seemed, to me at least, like it was kind of "hip" and "edgy." In just a few years, even among the people I knew in Melbourne's north who preached about it, dumpster diving is just passé.

I'm not sure when things changed. I never really decided to quit dumpster diving. It was just that suddenly work left me with little time to rummage through bins. Dumpster diving slipped from memory, replaced by a diet that's heavy on cheap Asian restaurants, takeaway coffees, and cheese on toast.

But what happened? Why did eating out of bins become so uncool? To find out I decided to get back to my roots: I'd spend a week dumpster diving, and examining where the dream went so wrong.

Monday

Sunday night's mini dive.

Past experience has taught me Monday morning is no time to rifle through a bin. Workers are more likely to hassle you, passersby tend to stare. For this reason, I sorted myself out on Sunday night.

It was fairly easy to find some fruit and vegetables behind my local supermarket. They never lock the bin and there aren't any fences. Also, I found a lot of cheese.

All the packaged stuff I found on a street near my house, among furniture left out for council pickup. Based on the other stuff that was being thrown away—toiletries, cleaning products and a photo album—I got the feeling it was a deceased estate. I hadn't envisioned eating a dead person's food but here I was. For breakfast, I ate fruit, a muesli bar, and a Nescafe instant cappuccino, which tasted like dirt.

Though the term "dumpster dive" may have been used as early as 1973, it was an Texan named Lars Eighner who really popularised it. In 1990, after he'd been homeless for two years, he wrote a piece for the US literary magazine the Threepenny Review, praising the contents of bins. However even Lars couldn't deny that "[a dumpster diver] can wipe the egg yolk off the found can, but he cannot erase the stigma of eating garbage."

Lars was an educated man who'd slipped into homelessness, which is a very different story to mine. For me, jumping into bins to find dinner was a choice, rather than a necessity. This could be another thing people find frustrating about dumpster divers. Nobody likes a rich kid playing poor.

Monday's dinner was bruschetta.

Tuesday

The honeymoon is over.

Over breakfast (fruit, muesli bars, and that shitty instant coffee), I reread the Freegan Manifesto. It was allegedly written by Warren Oakes, the former drummer from punk band Against Me!, and published as a DIY zine in 2000. The document itself oscillates between tips for self-development and outright anti-capitalist rage. It seems all a bit dated now, but it very much fitted in with the anti-globalisation movement of the time.

The Manifesto ends by offering the reader two choices. Firstly, you can waste your life working to get money to buy things you don't need and help destroy the environment. Or, failing that, you can live a full satisfying life, occasionally scavenging to get the food and stuff you need to be content, while treading lightly on the earth. Oakes' vision sounded intensely black and white, especially considering he left the band in 2009 to open a restaurant. Still, I still liked the idea of honing my self-sufficiency skills.

After breakfast I headed to my Tuesday office job where I wasn't exactly sure how they'd feel about me bringing in bin food for lunch. When I asked a colleague to get a photo of me chowing old Swiss cheese, stale bread, and a raw capsicum, I had to explain.

They acted cool but I think it caught them a bit off guard. "But this is just for the article you're writing, like, you don't do this all the time do you?" they asked. I said I did it whenever I found the time, which admittedly wasn't that often. Then I offered some fruit around the office but, surprisingly, no one wanted any.

Wednesday

Wednesday's pickings.

It was a cold, rainy day and I had to do my taxes. I woke up late and cooked pancakes—the kind you shake up in a plastic carton—and ate them alone at my desk. I put some fruit on top but didn't have any syrup or honey or anything. Eating bland pancakes alone was depressing.

Grim.

It reminded me of this segment on Portlandia in which a couple of dumpster divers try to throw a freegan dinner party. Nobody comes. So they're left to eat lentil soup laced with garbage and rock-hard stale bread. Dressed in ridiculous clothes from a bin, the scene basically presents dumpster divers as weird, self-righteous idiots. I guess there is some truth to this. I can be a self-righteous idiot sometimes too, as much as I don't like to admit it.

Interestingly, the episode of Portlandia was from 2011, which must have been when dumpster diving officially died in America. Australia is always a few years behind though, so maybe we still had a few years of edginess left.

A not entirely terrible cheese platter.

I skipped lunch and then, around 6 PM, corralled some of my housemates with a Trojan horse cheese platter. I needed their help diving again, purely so I could get some variety in my diet. I missed vegetables.

Some free veggies.

Introducing my housemates to the joys of scoring free potatoes.

Thursday

Breakfast was decidedly less depressing.

I cooked the rest of the pancake mix for breakfast but this time I had strawberries. I'd also learned that mascarpone is more like a creamy dessert than a cheese. This was a much better start to the day than the previous one, but I still thought about Portlandia again.

You know what really sucks about dumpster diving? It's that committing to a diet where you boycott consumerism is brutally isolating, unless you only hang with other freegans. Grabbing lunch with a friend, going to your mum's place for dinner, or going out for coffee with your partner—that's how we foster relationships.

If you only dumpster dive, you're kind of like the vegan at the barbecue forever. Realising this, I suddenly got the urge to go out and buy something, or to just sit at a café and participate in capitalism like a normal person. I suddenly felt like a lonely idiot.

Alone with my cheese on toast for lunch.

That night I went out to see a gig with my girlfriend. I was kind of hungry so when I found a rogue slice of meat lover's pizza next to a bin, I ate it. It was cold and chewy and the meat was highly questionable, but I'd been eating out of bins anyway—what was the difference? The look on my girlfriend's face told me there was a difference.

Friday

The days of dumpster diving are probably numbered. In February 2016, France became the first country to outlaw large-scale corporate food waste, forcing supermarkets to sign donation contracts with charities. Ostensibly, this represents an end to dumpster diving in France, which is probably a good thing because the food will go to those who need it, rather than people like me. The alternative scenario is that supermarkets will install trash compactors to destroy edible garbage before divers can get to it. These are already common.

I spent Friday working from home, snacking on pumpkin soup, cheese toasties, and bad coffee. There was a sense of achievement in this slobbery because I'd earned all this food without actually having to pay for it. While dumpster diving isn't cool anymore, it's still a pretty easy way to get masses of high quality food for free. Also, it was Friday, which helped to ease my sense of culinary isolation.

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