There has been national media coverage recently about students who dumpster dive for food in Canberra. For those unfamiliar with the term, “dumpster diving” refers to the act of salvaging food from bins. In Canberra, it is common for people to retrieve bread, fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy products and the occasional kilo of muffin bites.
The media has predominantly discussed the economic motivations driving dumpster diving. A recent ABC article focussed solely on financial pressures forcing students to dumpster dive. This is undoubtedly the primary motivation for many dumpster divers, however, this perspective is not the complete picture. For many, dumpster diving is more an ethical choice than economic necessity.
Many people are initially sceptical, uneasy or even repulsed by dumpster diving. My experience, however, is that once people see the quality of produce thrown away, this scepticism turns to astonishment that such large quantities of fresh, healthy, often gourmet food would be left to rot in the bin. In Sydney alone, around 340,000 tonnes of food is thrown away by businesses every year. When food is left to rot in landfill, it also emits methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2. All of the energy and water that went into producing the food is also wasted.
Rather than weighing into the debate over the merits of dumpster diving, I would like to offer my personal reflections, sparked by two films that I recently saw. The first was Wasteland, a documentary about a Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, who travelled to the world’s largest waste dump to make artworks with the workers out of rubbish. The film shows the hidden reality of industrial waste, an entire city subsumed into a waste dump.
Despite the enormous scale of waste depicted, the film emphasises that even the smallest piece of rubbish contributes to that enormity. One of the workers recounts how people sometimes say to him, “But one single can?” He says, “One single can is of great importance. Because 99 is not 100, and that single one will make the difference”. Saving one loaf of bread from the bin is one less wasted.
Further, just as Muniz sees the potential for art in that which most see merely as trash, there is an element of creativity to dumpster diving. There is something to be said for making do with the luck of what you find, rather than attempting to find happiness in boundless choice.
The second film was The Secret World of Arrietty, an anime based on the children’s book The Borrowers by Mary Norton. The film follows a group of tiny people who live under the floor of a house and “borrow” from the big people who live inside. The Borrowers take only what they need, living off the excess of the big people who have too much. Dumpster divers, like Borrowers, are trying to tread lightly on the earth, to not leave too many traces. In a world where people are on track to cause ecological crisis in the next century, sometimes being a big person is too much to bear.
Despite the environmental case for dumpster diving, I am not naïve enough to think it can solve the tremendous waste endemic in our food systems. For example, it is estimated between 20 and 40 per cent of fruit and vegetables are thrown out before they even reach the shops because they don’t meet our perfectionist cosmetic standards. Dumpster diving is not a systemic solution to our ecological problems.
Rather, I am persuaded that a solution should start with reconnecting us to our food systems. This could include making us more directly involved in food production through gardening, composting, building communities around local food production, or even becoming involved in the political processes that determine where our food comes from.
Citizens and governments should also support initiatives to divert food waste, such as the tireless and humble work of Student Bites, an ANU group that gets food from supermarkets that would be thrown away and donates them to students and the wider Canberra community.
Ultimately, in a world where billions go hungry, fresh, nutritious food should not be going in the bin in the first place.
For more information about dumpster diving in Canberra go to www.facebook.com/dumpsteract.