Diving back into the discussion…

I’ve had an incredible number of responses to my initial educational foray into dumpster diving! There have been a number of comments on this blog (thank you!) and a phenomenal number of responses on my Face Book page.

Interestingly, although perhaps coincidental, I seemed to have lost a Face Book friend about the same time as I posted about dumpster diving. (Oops!) I have just enough friends on Face Book that it is too difficult to figure out who dropped off!

I’ve tried not to wade in on the comments too much because I’ve been trying to figure out how people define this activity.

For what I thought would be viewed as an “unacceptable” activity, there certainly are a lot of people who have dumpster dived themselves, or know somebody who has. While there are some people whose initial reaction is immediately negative, it is often qualified with “acceptable” forms of diving.
Acceptability seems to be defined by what is in the receptacles, with either an outright aversion to diving for food, or at least a heavy resistance to recovering food. What I term as the “ick” factor seems to kick in here.

Acceptable diving also seems to be dependant on what people consider “dumpsters” and this ranges from the garbage can on your curb, the black garbage bag you personally deposit at your local dump, or the traditional “dumpster” we see behind retail stores in towns and cities.

Overwhelmingly people seem to be very uncomfortable with the notion of opening somebody’s black garbage bag at curbside or at the dump, and rummaging in it.

There is something intensely personal about what we deposit in our garbage bags and the sense of invasion of that privacy is paramount when we imagine somebody opening it.

Once, when I was at the McLure transfer station I noticed two young men breaking open garbage bags to look for pop and beer cans, I actually approached them to tell them that OUR bags did not contain any. After that, I even considered writing across my bags, in big black letters (my bags being white at the time) NO RETURNABLES IN THIS BAG!

I discovered that while almost everybody shies away from the idea of breaking open a curbside garbage bag, a good number of people are o.k. with picking up furniture and other assorted items left curbside. Those who profess they would never pick up garbage in this manner, seem to be more comfortable with the idea of a “sharing shed” or a “free store” where people deposit their unwanted items and take advantage of the unwanted items left by others. This confirms what I’ve known for a very long time; the power of words is mighty indeed.

There also seems to be a real difference in our view of diving in personal waste and in industrial (commercial) waste.

Industrial waste seems to be a topic unexplored by the general population and one that really accounts for the majority of the world’s waste. By this I mean the waste generated by stores and manufacturers of all kinds.

We have some friends we found in our alternative building adventures, who are ardent industrial waste divers, collecting wood, brackets, screws and the like for their own projects.

Chris and I had a bit of an education in this last year. In our search for cardboard, we cased out the back of many, many big box stores. The magnitude of waste is stunning.

What do stores throw away when they sell to us?: One-use wood pallets, cardboard, old shelving, broken products ranging from planting pots and gardening tools, broken pieces of rigid insulation, unsold and chipped bathtubs, bent pieces of PVC and scads of lumber either used in shipping, or that were obviously deemed unsaleable after being picked through. We saw pallets of building materials that had been tossed carelessly into piles with nothing seemingly wrong with any of it. And this is just what I can remember.

No discussion of dumpster diving can be complete without including industrial waste, from hardware stores, manufacturing facilities and food stores.

Surprisingly, nobody has suggested that dumpster diving may be an economic necessity for some. In a conversation with a friend whose daughter dives, he pointed out that our view of dumpster diving is often those of TV shows; the drunk rummaging around for food. When you think about it, usually the drug dependants are after money, not food. And, our social net is set up to give money (or food directly) to people in need.

My friend’s daughter says she and her boyfriend, like others who dive for items and food, are students and otherwise normal looking people of all ages who simply see the economic and environmental benefit to themselves and others.

She says she rarely sees people diving because of economic necessity. Baldly stated, her father asserts that people on welfare don’t dumpster dive because they don’t have to. (That’s a generalization on his part and not meant to fan heated discussions about the plight of the disadvantaged.)

We hear of people in tough times going to food banks and receiving financial assistance through government programs who would never consider dumpster diving, despite the fact that our social safety net doesn’t seem to be enough to meet their needs. This leads me to conclude that dumpster diving’s taboo reaches even to the desperate.

Chris and I have talked a lot about dumpster diving in the last few days. It became clear to me that dumpster diving represents the starting point for many discussions. For us, the environmental issue is huge.

Our economic system makes it more cost-effective for stores to simply throw things away than to realize their potential for sale or re-use.

Food waste is probably Chris’ biggest beef (no pun intended!) To put resources into growing a tomato in California (having potentially shipped oil from Canada to fuel the tractor), then to ship it on a one-time use pallet to Canada using more oil potentially from Canada, then to unpack it and put it on a shelf only to bundle it back up in a box, set it in a dumpster to be hauled by truck to a landfill without even the benefit of composting. The waste boggles the mind.

A discussion of dumpster diving leads to some interesting social questions, like liability, especially as it relates to food safety, but also the risk to a store of having strangers on its property unsupervised, sifting through a bin. Chris and I discussed this, but a number of others I’ve been talking to raised this issue as well.

We are a society besieged by rules, and subsequently by insurance. Rules are implemented to protect the lowest common denominator among us. If a person entered a store’s property without their permission (even if permission was tacit because the diving was not discouraged) and fell over and broke their arm, who is liable? Or ate discarded produce and became ill? Common sense tells us to take responsibility for our own actions. But modern day regulations tell us we have to protect others from their own actions, and ourselves from those actions.

In some cases liability concerns have curtailed dumpster diving with some stores keeping their bins under lock and key. This, so far, is probably the exception, not the rule, in my limited personal reconnaissance.

Where does dumpster diving fit into our economic system? No where as far as I’ve been able to see. It’s certainly taboo enough that rummaging through others’ trash for economic survival is discouraged by our western society, on both economic and social levels. Yet, we can all recall discussions by our grandparents of the lengths they went to, to support and feed families during the Depression.

Chris points out that recovering food that is unwanted has long been entrenched in the history of European farming. In some countries (even in modern times), it is acceptable, encouraged and legal to glean leftover produce at the end of harvest times straight from farmers’ fields.

Would viewing dumpster diving as modern day gleaning help make it acceptable?

In fact, how we view dumpster diving (or resource recovery, as I am now starting to think of it) is the key to how comfortable we are with the whole idea, whether we dive or not.

Perception it seems is everything.

Chris and I discovered that perception plays a big role in how we think about it. We entered this discussion knowing and embracing the notion of re-using others’ so-called waste. Our earthship home gave us the banner under which we trumpet our advocacy of re-use.

But what if we had never decided to build the earthship? What if we decided that to live simply we needed to be more resourceful and mindful of our waste and that dumpster diving was a way to do this?

Can we overcome the social expectations of our solid middle class upbringing? Our fathers are both professional engineers and all of our siblings are post secondary educated. We had monetarily successful careers in Toronto and San Francisco. We ran a highly successful business for a decade. We could afford new things and we would never have thought of buying used, let alone become industrious to get things for free. Dumpster dive? Not on your life!

And now that our perceptions of our consumer waste stream have changed? We truly do see much of the waste around us as useful, re-useable and beneficial.

I am excited about being a part of reducing waste and always look forward to ways to reduce waste and limit my impact on the earth.

But I still feel the weight of socially acceptable behaviour. How, for example, would I feel standing behind The Home Depot in Kamloops, at closing time, trying to figure out what would be useful for me? If there were others there, would I look them in the eye? Would I be afraid of seeing people I knew and being embarrassed for me and them? Would I say something to justify what I was doing? Would my environmental beliefs be enough to overcome any residual…shame?

Or what if I take up my friend’s daughter’s offer to dumpster dive with her and her boyfriend…for food? Could I do it? I’ve already sampled some delicious salsa she made from produce handed to her from the back door of a food store and only felt a twinge of apprehension about not knowing what I was eating. Why can’t I trust her as much as I trust the nameless people who grow, package and sell me food at the grocery store?

Could I stand behind a retail building and wait for the store’s waste for the day? Could I pick up a box of produce from a bin and clean off perhaps a little bit of dust and preserve or freeze it? Would I actually eat it if I preserved it? At what point would food in a bin become “ick” for me?

How is dumpster diving different from freecycle, which I enthuse about endlessly, having received free composters, fabric, canning jars and craft supplies? Or perusing the free ads on craigslist or kijiji? I’ve sometimes taken up a person’s ad on kijiji to pick plums from their tree because otherwise they would be too ripe to be any good. In what way is this different from accepting a box of almost too-ripe food from a store?

How would our friends view us? Chris and I are head coaches of our cross country ski club and we each volunteer in school and 4-H activities. Dumpster diving is the kind of activity and topic that can cause eyes to avert and can literally change how people perceive us. Would judgments be made about us that would alter our relationships for good?

What about our families? Most of our two families have been witnessing what must seem like a wacky, zigzaggy path along a very strange road and have become used to us challenging some common beliefs and traditions. But what about those who haven’t? Do I care what they think?

Our kids? They’ve been listening to the chatter and a few days ago Katie asked me outright if I was going to dumpster dive. I felt very uncomfortable admitting to her that I was considering it…in fact, that I had made up my mind to try it and write about it.

Considering that I was trained as a journalist, that I’m writing about dumpster diving, partially as an educational tool for others, and that I’m always telling the kids to keep their minds open…my reaction to her question was very telling about how far I’ve yet to travel.

So, resource recovery aka dumpster diving. I still see lots of that strange road stretching out ahead of me. If you still want to come along, buckle up and keep checking back here!

Dumpster Diving…the last frontier of frugality? Invisible eco-warriors? Low class scavengers?

Stay tuned over the next few weeks as I explore this controversial topic. What’s your first reaction?  Who exactly can you find diving in dumpsters?  What’s o.k. and what’s not?  Are there limits on acceptable finds? Is food o.k. to dive for? Who does the system benefit? What kind of economic supply system feeds dumpster diving?  Think environmentally, financially, socially and emotionally.  Keep an open mind!