I have come to see dumpster diving as one of the most tangible solutions for redistributing food and combating the consequences of overproduction. The United States throws 29 million tons of food away a year; over 40 percent of all edible things produced, never reaches a person. At some point, a food product is deemed disposable by the powers that be–disposable because it no longer serves its intended purpose. So when I was leaving Trader Joe’s the other day, and my cashier realized there was a single broken egg inside the carton I chose, the Trader Joe’s alarm went off. Uniformed personnel materialized out of nowhere. The carton was removed from my hands before I could react and say, ‘I don’t much mind taking home the 11 egg carton’, before I could say, ‘please, don’t just throw away the 11 eggs because of the one broken culprit.’ Trader Joes’s code of conduct mandates this course of action in order to please the customer, whom they assume would not settle for anything less than perfection. In the industrial food system, manufacturers have come to decide what becomes waste, long before the option reaches the consumers.
Trader Joe’s disposes of items such as bread, pastries and cookies that cannot be sold after the day they are made; food items in damaged containers, boxes of fruit with as little as one rotten item, frozen foods, meats, and other packaged foods that are about to pass their sell-by date. The sell-by date is listed by the food manufacturer as the date when an item should be taken off the shelves of the store. This date is different from the use-by date and is not intended to be relevant to consumers. Many of these food items are still acceptable to eat, but due to strict regulations, and in having to attend to the interests of manufacturers, Trader Joe’s is required to dispose of them. A large portion of this food heads straight to the landfill; however, there are ways in which the food can be intercepted and redistributed. The local community has effectively broken the boundaries between what some consider ‘waste’ and what others see as food.
After doing some of my own investigative work in the dumpster, I thought the next logical step would be to talk to the managers and find out what they thought about it. The manager at Trader Joe’s and I seem to hold different views on the subject. When I first asked, he skirted around the topic of dumpster diving. He explained that not much food actually gets thrown away, because many of the items that cannot be sold are donated to local churches and survival centers, which is about 90% of the food that would otherwise be thrown out. The other 10%, that is of worse quality, goes to the dumpster, he explained.
Attempting not to give away the fact that I am one of the guilty, I mentioned I had heard the dumpster is usually filled with a lot of edible food. When I asked what kinds of items have to be thrown away and not donated, I received the vague answer that only food that is really moldy is thrown out. I was still not ready to tell him that I had only seen one moldy clementine in the bundle of clementines hidden away in my bike bag right outside.
As I asked more questions on the topic of dumpster diving, the manager’s smile began to grow and he kept on looking back at his coworker. He started to have trouble coming up with answers, especially when asked about Trader Joes’s opinion on dumpster diving.
The official response stated: “we have no opinion of that at this time.” However, the manager’s personal opinion was that customers should be buying food and should not be trespassing on private property. Because of the continuous giggles coming from the manager and coworkers, I had the feeling that this dumpster diving talk was something they had to deal with often. Although he mentioned how dumpster diving is not a good thing and that the food is in the trash for a reason, he surrendered to the fact that it does occur, “It’s going to happen,” he said shrugging his shoulders. “It’s not worth fighting over trash.”
I walked away with the feeling that these Trader Joe’s workers see dumpster diving as a sport for the anarchist college student- a ridiculous concept but nothing too harmful for the business. As I was checking out, the manager approached me with a question, “Were you trying to distract us as your friends were out in the dumpster?” He asked. “No,” I answered. “But that’s a good idea, for next time”.
I paid for the food that I could not find in the dumpster, hopped on my bike, and cycled away, with my dumpster flowers sticking out of my bag. I saw the manager skirting back to check on his dumpster to make sure there was no one was in it. The manager disapproves of dumpster diving for his own reasons, but I hold on to a different opinion. I was ready to get back to eat some of the clementines, bananas, tomatoes, and asparagus that I collected from the dumpster.