Dumpster Diving Designers

We generate an astonishing amount of waste in this country, 236 million tons a year according to the EPA, which works out to 4.5 pounds of garbage per person, per day. Broken down into categories, food waste comes in at 11.2%, the third largest component after paper and yard clippings. That people elsewhere are starving while we throw away 1.3 pounds of food per person every day is unconscionable. Sadly, this becomes just another fact in the long list of injustices upon which our society is based. That's why we decided to take matters into our own hands.

Next time you go to the grocery store, take a look in their dumpsters and prepare to be amazed by what gets thrown out. We've been dumpster diving for about three weeks now and living, for the most part, off of what we find. Our cooler is stocked with fruit smoothies and protein drinks. Stacked beside it are numerous jars of homemade applesauce and freshly made pasta sauce. We have a box of potatoes, a box of bread, and a box of oranges we use to make glass after glass of delicious fresh-squeezed juice. Our tiny micro-fridge is brimming with eggs, lettuce, soup, sandwiches, and more.

There is more food in the dumpsters than we know what to do with now so we are hoping to integrate with Food Not Bombs to find a use for it. We worry that we may be gathering food that hungry people rely on; but we have yet to see any sign of other dumpster divers and gather most of our food from grocery stores on the outskirts of town. Most often we leave the dumpster with food in it and we don't visit every day. There seems to be more than enough waste for everyone.

Every night we find something new and each night we are excited and apalled by what is headed for an eternity in a landfill. Excited by the culinary possibilities- apalled by all the resources used in creating and transporting a product down the non-stop stream from the farm or factory to the trash can.

As budding ecological designers, we talk a lot about embodied energy, or the total sum of energy consumed in the creation of a product. This sum is used in creating a life-cycle assessment, a calculation of the total environmental impact the product has during its journey from cradle to grave. An example we discussed was paper vs. polystyrene cups and which is the more sustainable material to use. Paper seems like a nice choice; cardboard can have an earthy appearance and wood can be a renewable resource. But when you start looking at how timber is harvested and the machinery involved, you realize that it actually takes more petroleum to harvest the lumber needed to create a paper cup than it does to just make a cup out of petroleum in the first place. Factor in things like the negative effect logging roads have on local streams and salmon populations, or the pollution created in the process of wood pulp production and you begin to get an idea of how life-cycle assessments are used and the value of thinking this way. Of course the oil industry has more than its fair share of environmental problems. We're not fans of polystrene; we are trying to think of things holistically and not jump to conclusions.

A few nights ago we were merrily picking through a dumpster when we found about 15 packaged roasted chickens you might purchase at the deli of your local chain grocery store. Curiously, all of the birds had their breast meat removed before being discarded. Like cultural anthropologists we tried to piece together their story. Maybe the deli was making chicken pot pie and would only use the choice white meat in their preparation. Perhaps these chickens were on their way to the trash and someone decided all that meat shouldn't go to waste and took what they could. Either way, it was painful to think about these birds giving their life only to be thrown out after providing such a small amount of meat. Apart from the environmental and ethical horrors inherent in factory farming, this event got us thinking about the embodied energy in a roasted chicken and the huge impact this bird had on our world during its short time here.

Think about what goes into making a chicken: growing its food, disposing of its waste, preparing it for consumption and transporting it to grocery stores throughout the states. Then think about the resources involved in keeping our grocery stores constantly stocked with so much variety. What percentage of waste is built into the system and shows up in the cost of our food? What is the embodied energy of a produce department that offers such a selection regardless of the season? What are the implications of being in tune with your local environment, meeting local food needs with local resources? We don't know the answers, but we do know that considering the issues of a growing world population, the questionable sustainability of our current agricultural systems, rising rates of obesity and 230+ million tons of waste a year it's worth asking these and other questions about how our systems of food and waste are designed and imagining that another world just might be possible.


At 5:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Aaron!

I'm glad you started chronicaling your dumpstering experience. where are you living now? you should check meetup.com which has a very active nyc area dumpster diving group, with a lot of freegans. or maybe there's one in your area. trader joe's is sweet bc they bag their offal in a tidy and roach-less manner. interestingly enough, if you are near an area with a lot of construction or renovation, say a venerable institution of higher learning, the construction sites also yield a lot of good wood, sometimes beautiful antique fixtures and so forth. good luck with expanding the project and reaching out to hungry ass people.


At 9:23 AM, Anonymous adam said...

I graduated from university in 2003. The summer after my graduation, I was still living in the town where I attended school (State College, PA), and I lived a few blocks away from a local bakery. This bakery is a national chain that serves pastries as well as coffee, sandwiches, salads, soups, etc. At all times that summer, our freezer was occupied by giant plastic bags full of delicious pastries, bagels, and breads that would have cost a small fortune to purchase. Most of the employees knew that these products would be taken and double-bagged the "leftovers," placing them neatly on top of the dumpster. I slowly started inviting friends to come on my runs with me, and soon it was one of our favorite activities.

These days, as a "young professional," I have not been in the habit of diving, both because I no longer live in proximity to a dive site (driving to dive just doesn't appeal), and because the town I live in now lacks the laid-back attitude of a college town.

Still, it's good to see that this practices lives on, and that some thought is being devoted to it!

At 2:24 PM, Blogger la beauheme said...

I did alright in the recent Airtran/Wendy's promo by pulling some old college d-diving techniques. I collected over 100 cups and now have 2 roundtrip flight vouchers and didn't even have to get inside!

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Chris Kringle said...

It would be cool to have a site that compares items for the amount of waste. For example the coffeecup example you gave.


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