Swan Dive

Mirra Fine - Blog

I’d imagined dumpster divers as angry anarchist kids, dressed in all black, who want to fight the big man by not paying for their food. I never expected it to be a guy my age with a good job and kids to feed. So when we got an email from “Joe” (he asked for his real name and occupation not to be used), I was confused and hesitant. But with Daniel by my side, gently pushing me to go outside my comfort zone (and in this case, into a large garbage can) I couldn’t say no. Literally. I wasn’t allowed to say no.

So, there I found myself at 11pm pulling up to Joe’s cozy suburban cul de sac — with identical homes, all nestled right next to one another — their rows of vinyl siding merging to create one solid line, all with beautifully manicured lawns, perfectly white painted lines in the road indicating who could park where, and I’m sure very nice people nestled in their beds ready for a good, honest day of work ahead. Except for Joe. He had taken the next day off work so that he could climb into a dumpster and fish out whatever he could salvage to eat.

Joe prefaced the evenings events by telling us that diving into dumpsters has its ups and downs. This wasnt surprising to me as I could immediately think of the downsides of such an activity: say, climbing into someone else’s trash, slipping on banana peels, getting cigarette butts in your hair, contracting a venereal disease… But Joe was referring more to the quantity of our bounty. Our efforts may be fruitless, or they may be just the opposite (fruitful). I was a bit concerned until we walked into his kitchen, with the beautiful pristine countertops, and saw Joe’s bounty from trips past:  heaps of fruit overflowing in large bowls, more cereal than you could ever need, bouquets of flowers on every flat surface, bread, teas, and baked goods. Before long, my head was swirling with thoughts of fresh fruit, warm baguettes and the finest cheeses. I imagined diving into a pool of free Tofurkey packages (a recent, and since long gone, obsession) and passing out all the freshly baked danishes on little gold foil that we had acquired to passersby on the street. The nights mission would begin at midnight — exactly one hour after the store closed.  “Perfect”, I thought. We could swing by the Trader Joes, pick up as much delicious food as our hearts desired and then be back home in time to get some beauty sleep.

But as you would expect with the art of dumpster diving, things didn’t go as planned. We got in the car and were closing in on Trader Joe’s when our driver made a quick change of plans — swerving the car around ala some 1980’s chase scene –and instead parked in an apartment lot across the street. Someone was still in the store. Many people actually. And we couldn’t afford to be seen. Employees came in and out of the front electronic door. They would slowly and very carefully load a cart full of garbage bags and then take their sweet ass time bringing it around back and into the dumpster. They were taunting us. Or rather, they probably didn’t know we were there. But to me, they were our arch nemeses and this little dance of their’s took 2 hours. When the manager finally locked the door for the night, he still didn’t leave, but instead got into his car and sat there for another 30 minutes doing God knows what. Unfortunately, we couldn’t wait any longer.

So we made our way over, and into the dumpster that we would be calling home for the next 10 minutes. It wasnt quite as pristine as I had hoped. After talking to Joe, I half expected a butler to pop up and hand us the finest quality of freshly packaged items in doggie bags. But instead we would pick up a huge bag of garbage, complete with coffee grinds, water and other trash mixed in, and sift through, doing our best not to coat our hands and forearms in its contents until we found something of salvageable value. The first thing we found was a box full of beautiful bouquets — most likely thrown away because another fresh batch had come in. Not that useful for us as we were living out of the car, but promising of what could be. Then we saw a bag full of perfect bananas, and another bag with fresh mozzarella, challah bread and cherry pies. Not the best night, as Joe put it. But sufficient to get the point across: These things didnt need to be thrown away. They were in perfectly good condition to be sold and eaten. This was just an unfortunate waste.

With our newly procured groceries, we headed back home to investigate further, divy up the goods, and head to bed. And the next morning, with our bellies full of the most delicious trash you could imagine, and our perspective on the whole dumpster situation appropriately shifted, we said our goodbyes. I appreciated Joe’s candidness and fearlessness in letting us film. And I was concerned with how the video’s publicity would affect his ability (and that of other dumpster divers) to continue his craft.  But he didn’t seem worried. After the movie Dive came out, exposing the huge amount of waste at Trader Joe’s, his local store started locking their dumpster.  But Joe was still able to jimmy his way in. He would be fine.

I spoke to Joe a couple days after the video posted, letting him know it was out and wanting to see how he has been doing. He was happy to tell me of his dumpster exploits from the previous evening: two full cases of perfectly good instant mashed potatoes, 20 lbs. of oranges, 30 of apples,  40-50lbs. of bananas, a huge variety of bread, cakes, cookies, muffins, organic salad mix, bell peppers, pineapples, a case of yogurt, eggs, chocolates, broccoli, snow peas, cheese spread, beef, pork, fish, and a ton of other stuff he couldn’t remember.


Follow Mirra on Twitter

12 responses to “Swan Dive”

  1. Foody2 andOliver says:

    I can’t help wonder how he deals with the bacteria issue with the food being in such an unclean environment.

    Great writing and great perspective.

    • Mirra Fine says:

      Thanks! Many of the food items found in our grocery stores go through much more disgusting situations than a dumpster, sadly. In most cases, as long as its well cleaned, its ok. Many items have protective shells — whether they be skins (grapefruit or bananas) or plastic.

      • Anonymous says:

        those disgusting things are pesticides, questionable fertilizers, and being shipped across the country/world. Also, you can always wash a vegetable. If there is any doubt of course you don’t eat the food.

    • Johnfournier77 says:

      Bacteria is not an issue, risk management is an issue.  For example, there are thousands of microbes that people have depended on in our food supply for thousands of years.  Do you think bacteria is an issue in yogurt?  Without bacteria it wouldn’t be yogurt, it would be spoiled milk.  That being said, do you have a specific example of a bacteria that evolved to grow in dumpsters that has show human pathogenic potential?  No…you don’t.  Basically, your question of bacteria is baseless, other than on an emotional level and is mostly fear, a very unproductive emotion when dealing with the modern food system.  Think it through, evaluate the risks, and decide whether or not it is safe to eat.  If I pull four giant garbage bags full of bread out of a dumpster, for example, and there is nothing in the bags but bread, do you assume that some type of pathogenic bacteria has spontaneously appeared in the bags?  No…that would be magic.  We’re talking about reality here.  The bread is safe to eat.

  2. Love the blog, love the concept and writing is excellent.  I would like to know how does he keep the food safe to eat considering the environment he’s in.

    • Fred Cayou says:

      Saveena, imagine yourself walking along an open sewer canal and you see an avocado tree has dropped avocados into the human waste.  Do you pick them out of the water and take them home to eat?  Not unless you’re dying of starvation.  Now let’s slide a little bit further along the scale of reality and risk.  You see a guy walking out the back of Starbucks with a bag full of coffee ground.  Inside that bag, you notice, are a dozen unopened 12-oz. bags of expensive organic coffee beans.  They’re not opened.  Is there a risk?  No.  Is there a grossness factor related to having to pull them out of the coffee grounds and rinse off the bags, yes.  So how do you make that decision.  Well it comes down to your belief system and your economic condition.  If you are an environmentalist or a conservationist, you clearly believe that it’s very sad for organic coffee beans to have been grown a continent away, shipped here using fossil fuel, roasted, packaged, marketed, and finally…just discarded because they got within a couple weeks of an expiration date.  We can talk about expiration dates at another time but keep in mind that things can go bad before the expiration date but in the US food system, we’re generally very conservative and the food is actually perfectly good long after the expiration date.  Obviously, with meat/dairy products, an expiration date means something entirely different than an expiration date on a bag of coffee beans or graham crackers.  So back to this garbage bag of coffee grounds.  Say you make $40,000 a year and aren’t saving very much for retirement, maybe the cost of living in your area is high, and you think of coffee as a luxury that you only treat yourself to once in a great while.  Maybe you would never even think of walking into the front door of a Starbucks to buy some really expensive coffee.  But here you’ve got a year’s worth of daily coffee, a very good organic coffee, being discarded before your very eyes.  That’s where the economics comes in.  You decide that for the five minutes of digging through coffee grounds and (gasp) having to wash your hands, it’s worth the couple hundreds of dollars worth of unopened bags of organic dark roast coffee beans.  Furthermore, since you figure the whole operation from grabbing the bag out of the open dumpster, to picking out and rinsing off the bags, to washing your hands…is going to take you a combined total of 15 minutes and you figure there’s about $120 worth of coffee in the garbage bag, you’re actually looking at this transaction being valued at about $480/hour (tax free unless you tell the IRS you got free coffee), which is more money on an hourly basis than you’ll ever make in your entire life!  Now if this whole situation just sounds completely unrealistic to you, consider that the last time I went to Whole Foods (the dumpster), they had thrown out about 40 12-oz bags of coffee.  About 1/3 of them were decaf.  Maybe 10 bags were already ground.  All of it was “fair trade” and “organic.”  So a good combo.  Actually about half of it was a light roast and the rest was medium roast.  Some of the decaf was a dark roast.  It was a week from expiration.  I wrapped them up tightly in bags so they wouldn’t be exposed to air and packed them away in sealed boxes.  It’ll be my coffee for the year or more…after having given away about half of it.  I’m not scared that the coffee is unsafe.  Are you?

  3. Marion says:

    I find this very enlightening. The story is poignant but simple and direct in taking the readers to the story. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure or in this case,possibly a month-long worth of groceries. Allow me to juxtapose this to a similar but at the same time remotely different situation in another country (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qn0XynCvqIE&feature=related) where people literally mine eaten food from landfills and re-cook them. The latter situation has clearer danger and susceptibility to diseases yet they do this out of poverty whereas the former, clearly there is just too much waste of good things. If only there is a better way of enabling redistribution of basic necessities.

  4. Kategoldwater says:

    Love this blog post! I used to do a little dumpster diving in college, this makes me want to give it another go! Though my boyfriend says he doesn’t want to eat trash – he’s a little close-minded, haha.

  5. juhubfoods says:

    So many food banks, soup kitchens depend strongly on donations, why aren’t these foods donated; especially the fruits and vegetables. They can be quite expensive. This should not be happening! This was a very informative article! 

    • Yacko says:

      Fear of liability if someone gets sick. Even with legal waivers from the food bank or soup kitchen, if someone dies and it is traced to something donated, all bets would be off legally and the bad publicity would be unwelcome to the donating business.

  6. Yacko says:

    I am surprised there are still publicly available dumpsters. First, there are security cameras, so a business might know full well somebody is going through garbage and have your plate number. Second, I would think most zoning laws now require dumpsters to be inside their own fenced and locked enclosure. Usually chain link with something opaque like wood or privacy strips to shield the sight of the actual dumpster. I know I have seen that at fast food places. And lastly, most “dumpsters” I have seen at supermarkets are of the hydraulic compressive type with no access to the contents.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *