Last Updated: November 1st, 2018


“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?”
–  T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land

To a man with an empty stomach, food is god,” Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, and denying another his god is tantamount to persecution. Yet we do so every day. While there are millions who want only to eat, we throw their god into dumpsters to rot or become the breeding ground for rats.

Each day, without thought, we perform massive acts of sacrilege, and without thought we confine millions to the barracks of starvation. We call ourselves “intelligent”—and some of us with more chutzpah even dare refer to ourselves as enlightened. But there is nothing intelligent, nor even approaching enlightened, about any human who wittingly or unwittingly strips another of his dignity. When a single person loses his or her dignity through the need to beg for food to prevent a family from starving, the community as a whole loses its dignity.

There are many—and they are growing in number—communities who are moving away from consumerism and embracing the ideals of community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation and sharing. They go around scrounging for usable waste—in particular, food—thrown out by others either for their own consumption or to be shared with needy communities.

Dumpster diving

The freegan movement began in the mid ‘90s. Freegans dig for food in the waste of retail food suppliers and restaurants that routinely throw away food approaching its sell-by date, or which has damaged packaging, but is still perfectly edible. By foraging, freegans believe—among other things—they’re preventing edible food from adding to landfills and feeding people and animals that might otherwise go hungry. A practice commonly known as “dumpster diving.”

Communities that are prepared to wade knee-deep in garbage to provide for the needs of many are treated with disdain and severe warnings of health hazards. But, in reality, who should be called to account? Those who, in the face of rising food prices, attempt to care for their own and the needs of others by dumpster diving? Or those who are increasing the need to do so by throwing untouched and unwanted food into dumpsters, who then complain about the rising price of food and the growing number of poor?

The impact of dumpster diving on food prices and the economy

Have we ever considered the effect of dumpster diving on the economy of a country—and the world?

Prices are demand driven and the higher the demand, the higher the price. Buying more than we need and throwing the rest away, creates more and more demand, thus driving prices up and increasing the number that cannot afford to buy food. They then become dependent on waste to survive, or turn to charity for their needs.

We are also removing the requirement for a growing number of citizens to contribute in tax dollars to a society and system that, no matter how skewed we feel it is, is the one we all live in for now—contributions which are needed to enable governments to provide education, health care and housing.

Putting it into perspective

Let us take a look at the not-so-secret “Secret Freegan” who has spent nearly four years living an almost normal suburban life and who dumpster dives a couple of times a day. She has donated $92,000 worth of abandoned goods to charity, while saving $12,000 in grocery bills. Assuming that the average tax on the found food was say 1 percent, this removed US$30 tax dollars per year from government coffers.

Effect on the United States economy

US$30 per year. Small stuff? Sure, or so it would seem; but let us look at small stuff and its effect on the United States economy alone. The population in the United States on December 17, 2011 was some 313 million people. If only 1 percent of the population “dumpster dives,” it wipes out almost US$94 million in tax dollars on food annually.

Applied to the world

If only 1 percent of the non-starving world—some 61 million people—lived off waste in 2011, it would mean a loss in world tax dollars of US$1.8 billion, which could have been used to support 5 million households in countries where a whole family somehow manages to survive on US$30 per month.

The poverty loop and food price inflation

Buying food—or anything we do not need—and throwing it away creates an ever increasing poverty loop. It:

– increases the number of dumpster divers
– decreases the flow of tax dollars which are needed in other areas e.g. housing, education, health care.
– increases the need for governments to place higher taxes on other broad-based commodities such as fuel
– increases transport costs
– drives food prices up
– increases the number who can no longer afford to buy food

There are health hazards attached to dumpster diving; but there is an even greater health hazard to the economy of a country and the world community, and we the dumpster fillers are the ones creating it. Waste creates hunger which not only affects the hungry, it affects us all.

Companies dumpster diving

There are companies now dumpster diving into their own waste and saving themselves thousands of dollars.

One of them is Burt’s Bees who made employees don protective clothing and dig through the trash in order to find things that could be recycled, saving the company some US$25,000. They have now made it a goal to reach zero landfill waste by 2020 and in 18 months have compressed their waste from 40 tons to 10.

There is also Bentley Prince Street’s dumpster diving program, part of the commercial carpet manufacturer’s Mission Zero initiative to eliminate any negative impact it may have on the environment by 2020. Each month, Bentley associates have been volunteering to dig through trash at its LEED-EB manufacturing facility in Los Angeles to reclaim recyclables. In addition to the monthly garbage grabs, Bentley also encourages its associates to reuse materials. It donates its reusable supplies to the Del Haven Community Center, a non-profit social service organization that offers programs for children and developmentally-disabled adults.

We need to understand the “big picture” implications of our actions—each move we make is the throwing of a boomerang. And, as some boomerangs have teeth that eventually return to bite us in the posterior, wouldn’t it be better to remove the teeth?

image: Jim Fischer (Creative Commons BY)