Simrin Desai, recent McGill graduate and Montreal resident, slowly lifts the flat top of a grey dumpster in a back alleyway in the Plateau. As she opens the lid, peering in, there is a clear sense of excitement in the air: The garbage bags in the dumpster could be filled with bounties of fruit, loaves of bread, or bundles of practically fresh vegetables—or it could contain virtually nothing. Without hesitation, she plunges her hands into the dumpster, reaching for a bag. What would normally be considered an unsanitary activity has become a regular practice for Desai. She is a dumpster diver.
Dumpster diving, the act of sourcing one’s food from dumpsters, is practiced by an increasing number of students, social activists, and environmentalists in Montreal. Taking to alleyways behind stores at all times of day and night, many local dumpster divers manage to sustain themselves on products that are slightly past their expiration date, or deemed unsellable by storekeepers. After a few safety precautions—including washing produce with vinegar and cooking the food—one grocery store’s trash becomes a dumpster diver’s treasure.
First-time divers are often shocked to discover the vast quantity of food that is thrown out by individual food vendors once it passes its expiration date or becomes marked in a way that makes it less appealing to shoppers. Loïc Freeman-Lavoie, a 2016 Concordia graduate and former dumpster diving workshop leader for Concordia’s annual Anti-Consumerism Week, still recalls the shock he experienced upon first seeing how much food is thrown out by grocery stores at the end of the day.
“For me it was like an a-ha moment, like, ‘Oh my gosh, so much food [is] being wasted, [I] must save and [I] must consume and [I] must distribute,’” Freeman-Lavoie said.
Thirty-one billion dollars worth of food is wasted in Canada every year, according to 2014 estimates from Value Chain Management Centre. Much of this waste is thrown out from homes—meaning it was purchased, allowed to go bad, and then sent to a landfill. However, the quantity of food thrown out by grocery stores and food producers, on a larger scale, also remains staggering. Knowing how much food is wasted, it seems counterintuitive that, according to Food Banks Canada, over 850,000 Canadians every month turn to food banks for meals. Juxtaposed against national rates of starvation, the issue of waste in the country highlights the vast inequality in food distribution and access.
By seeking sustenance from foods that grocery stores throw away, divers are cognizant about the amount of food that is wasted on a large scale in the North American food industry. In essence, the practice of dumpster diving and the discussions around it help create a wider conversation about food waste.
“What is radical [about dumpster diving] is changing our perceptions on waste,” said Freeman-Lavoie. “We often see waste as private, when a lot of other societies across the world, and across time, have seen waste as just passing on objects to someone who could profit off it better.”
In addition to the social impact of dumpster diving, there is an environmental side to it as well. Divers lower their carbon footprints—the amount of greenhouse gases an individual produces through daily activity—by diverting food waste from being sent to landfills, which ultimately reduces carbon emissions involved with production and transportation of food. Furthermore, dumpster diving is an economically sound method of sourcing one’s food: Those who dive can save hundreds of dollars on groceries per month.
Yet, because searching through dumpsters is culturally taboo, dumpster diving communities are fairly underground. For example, many divers go at night when they are less visible, and knowledge about the activity and its unofficial etiquettes are largely spread through word-of-mouth.
Even to those who are aware of the presence and possibility of dumpster diving within their communities, it can be a challenge to figure out where to start. Desai, for example, didn’t feel comfortable trying the activity until her friends introduced her to it first-hand.
“Before [being shown by a friend] it always felt like [it would be] a trek, like we had to go out to a specific dumpster and plan a whole trip around it [...],” she said. “I think what is inaccessible for the average student is the learning process of dumpster diving. That’s how I felt because I didn’t feel like I could do it when I was studying because [I had too many questions] like, 'Who do I go ask?’ and there were all these internal emotional barriers to get over.”
Apart from learning the process and etiquette of dumpster diving directly from friends, there are a variety of online communities through which those interested in the practice can meet other dumpster divers, share the locations of typically plentiful dumpsters, and learn more about the practice in general. Free Food for Free People, for example, is a Facebook group with 11,000 members of the Montreal dumpster diving community. A map of all the dumpsters in Montreal, with notes on each, is available to all members of this group. It also serves as a forum where divers can post information about dumpsters and relocated food. For new dumpster divers, joining this group can be a good first step to getting into the activity.
In addition to garnering know-how on dumpster diving, developing the confidence to search through dumpsters in public comes with time and practice. Though Desai has improved in this realm since her first dive in September 2016, she still recognizes the signs of insecurity in other new dumpster divers.
“I’ve seen people who stop in front of a dumpster, and they pretend to tie their shoe until nobody is watching, and then they go into the dumpster,” Desai said. “I used to do that in the beginning, because there is a level of confidence building that I guess you need to do in order to feel ok dumpster diving, because it isn’t talked about a lot, and it’s tough to find people who will give you information about how to start, and you don’t know if what you’re doing is ok or illegal.”
According to The Trespass to Property Act of Canada, dumpster diving is entirely legal in Montreal, except in situations where a diver returns to the area after being asked to leave by a property owner or the police. Even so, many new dumpster divers are anxious about being approached by store owners or police officers.
Dumpster diving can also be infeasible to those who don’t have the time to regularly search through dumpsters instead of visiting a grocery store. Those living in “food deserts”—typically low-income areas lacking grocery stores and healthy food providers—may require higher travel time to reach the dumpsters of food suppliers. Those working several jobs to make ends meet may lack time to visit dumpsters. These barriers can make dumpster diving inherently inaccessible to the economically disadvantaged groups who would benefit from it the most; many of these people have shared their stories online.
“The Free Food for Free People group is really interesting because there are a lot of people who are like, ‘I’m a single mother and I can’t get out and go dumpster diving,’” Desai said. “‘Or I don’t have a place, there’s a food desert where I live and there’s no place where I can go,’ [is another complaint I’ve seen].”
Therefore, dumpster diving is not a fix-all solution to the inequality of food access in society. Similarly, despite addressing the flaws of the wasteful food industry by diving, many dumpster divers struggle to find ways to directly challenge the system.
“I often wonder whether dumpster diving is not really fixing the heart of the problem, which is that the way in which food is distributed is really stupid,” Desai said. “It’s being produced [at a] volume [high] enough so that every person could eat, but it’s not accessible [and for businesses,] it wouldn’t be lucrative if the prices were [low enough] so that everybody could eat it.”
Some dumpster divers believe that the social impact of their actions is minimal. In past workshops, Freeman-Lavoie has passed this stance on to his attendees: While dumpster divers often don’t approve of the food industry’s waste, they still benefit from it by consuming its remnants.
“[Dumpster diving in] itself is not a radical activity because it [...] is not changing the consumer habits of others,” Freeman-Lavoie said. “It’s changing the consumer habits of ourselves, but not orienting it towards a system that we’d like. By dumpster diving, we’re just living off the waste of a system that we don’t [approve of].”
In critiquing the larger food industry, Freeman-Lavoie stresses that individual grocery store owners are not to blame. He encourages workshop attendees to strive for a relationship of mutual respect with the store from which they are dumpster diving, as it is not to blame for the inequality in the wider food system.
“I don’t think store owners are the audience, [...] store owners and employees are trapped in this right now. They’re in the business that is controlled by capitalism,” Freeman-Lavoie said. “They’re not by a long shot the target of dumpster diving because they’re not the enemies. I think that’s really important: [The enemy] is the system.”
Even if dumpster diving alone may not be a socially impactful activity, there are ways that divers can supplement this activity in order to challenge the food system more directly. Online forums, like the aforementioned Free Food for Free People Facebook group, can serve as spaces to discuss the issues surrounding food waste and mechanisms to challenge it.
“There are a lot of initiatives that are slowly inching closer and closer to the heart of the problem,” Desai said. “There are people on the [online] groups that hold discussions about [...] how to fix the fact that food supply is so poorly done right now.”
Some divers also hold themselves to other standards of compassionate consumption when they do need to purchase food. To Rachelle Rousseau, local dumpster diver, those who dive also have the responsibility to purchase food that is organic and locally-sourced, if and when they are financially able to.
“You use what’s thrown out, but things that you do buy, you should be purchasing from local organic [stores], it has to go hand-in-hand,” Rousseau said. “[I’ve heard the argument that dumpster diving is …] not doing anything because it’s not changing the system and you have to be buying local or you’re just profiting off of capitalism and getting free food, if you are otherwise able to purchase healthy food locally. The compromise is that the things that you aren’t dumpster diving, buy local, buy organic.”
Another prevalent way to address the inequality in access to food is to work to redistribute what’s found in dumpsters. Many divers operate under the principle that they should only take as much food from a dumpster as they need in order to leave food for others; however, many divers will also take food they do not need and leave it in parks and other public areas. They do so in the hopes of redistributing it to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to purchase it from a grocery store.
In tandem with other forms of compassionate consumption, dumpster diving allows individuals to lower their carbon footprints while enlightening themselves about food waste. As the community grows, so does its potential to shape demand, and in turn, cost and accessibility, for foods that could very well end up in a landfill.