Fighting food waste with dumpster dinners

Fighting food waste with dumpster dinners

Marie Mourad and Alex Barnard

By revealing and rescuing the piles of edible food left outside supermarkets, “dumpster divers” have contributed to public mobilizations against food waste over the last few years. In the US, Barbara (all names are pseudonyms), a 45-year-old high-school Spanish teacher, sees dumpster diving as a way to focus media and popular attention on mass consumerism, which, in her eyes, is “destroying the planet.” For Benjamin, a 25-year-old self-described anarchist and full-time activist, eating from the garbage is part of a strategy (alongside voluntary unemployment, squatting, bicycling, and hitchhiking), for engaging in a “total boycott” of capitalism. Across the Atlantic, Pauline, a part-time French tutor and Quentin, who writes for a gastronomic guidebook, are a young Parisian couple organizing free meals in their community garden with food rescued from the trash. They describe dumpster diving as “fun” and an “adventure.”

From 2007 to 2016, our observations and interviews with dumpster divers and food waste activists in the United States and France, and our own embodied (and imbibed!) participation in recovering and re-using discarded food, have taken us beyond the spectacle of dumpster diving to its concrete practice. The series of practices for acquiring, preparing, and cooking with “waste” – as well as, occasionally, re-wasting it – reveals how the ethical commitment of turning waste into food creates challenges for adopting other ethical practices.

Acquisition: Pavement shopping
In some surprising ways, dumpster-diving – even when undertaken by anti-consumption activists – looks a lot like shopping. Regulars generally know where to go to find one type of food or another and they develop a weekly routine, built around the rhythm of stores putting out waste and municipal collection services coming to pick it up. Benjamin may not have bought food for over nine months, but he confidently rides his bike to what he knows as good “spots” and specifically looks for his favourite pizza or sandwiches. Like grocery-store shoppers who leave the house with a specific list but fill their carts with unintended purchases, he suddenly exclaims, “Whoa! There is sushi!”

Of course, divers can’t be choosers, and “shopping” in dumpsters does not quite have all the conveniences of consumption in modern capitalism. Divers regularly describe what they do as a modern day version of hunter-gathering, but it looks like fishing too. In opening a garbage bag, they cast a line into the vast waste stream of the metropolis, often with a half-joking, pseudo-religious plea to the “dumpster gods”—as Pauline calls them—to deliver a hoped-for item. Dumpster divers spend a lot of time waiting for garbage to appear and frequently boast about their findings, even the ones they had to let go.

By rejecting the importance of standardized, perfect looking food and instead relying on senses of touch, taste, or smell, dumpster divers believe they have developed practices that are more sustainable than those of mainstream consumers in the current food system. They accurately pin partial responsibility for waste on supermarket sell-by dates and aesthetic standards (the former being potentially responsible for 30% of household food waste; the latter leading to the rejection of up to 20% of fruits and vegetables). Yet expectations about what constitutes so-called “good” food are not easy to change. Despite the growing interest in “ugly” products, even dumpster divers often opt for the least-blemished and most shapely items.

Preparation: the food-rescue recipe
Preparing a dumpstered meal can be almost effortless. For his part, Benjamin composes his diet from pizza, ready-made salads, sandwiches and, on special occasions, sushi. As Western consumers work longer hours and spend less time cooking, supermarkets have devoted an increasing amount of shelf space to pre-packed, pre-prepared foods. Although food packaging is often touted as a potential solution to consumer-level food waste, our catalogue of finds from over 60 dumpster diving expeditions tells a different story. We consistently found more cut pineapple than whole fruits, more individually packaged pasta salads than dry pasta; more cookies than flour, eggs, or sugar. Some strategies manufacturers use to “add value” to their products cut into their shelf lives, leading inexorably to waste.

Most dumpster divers see food preparation as a way to break with more mainstream food practices, by reversing the usual assumption of the right way to cook: they know the individual ingredients that must be used, not what the final dish looks like. Cooking in this way requires creativity, improvisation, and knowledge of the material qualities of food. At times, though, the culinary traditions that dumpster divers think they are reviving, especially strict French gastronomic “rules” about which vegetables must be peeled and which vegetables can be combined, do not mix easily with a commitment to reducing waste. In the end, taste and tradition have to be balanced against environmental concern.

Eating: Garbage gourmands
Once the meal is ready, it is no longer “waste.” Many dumpster-divers avow that they eat better food when dumpster diving than they ever would if they were buying it. Quentin and Pauline describe a diet full of choice cuts of meat, fancy cheese, and foie gras—all delicacies that they could scarcely afford to actually buy. The abundance of dumpster diving opportunities converts otherwise shoestring purchasers into garbage gourmands: “I’ve become very picky,” Benjamin observes.

Still, the difficulty that even picky dumpster divers face in putting together healthy meals from the garbage raises questions about some of the strategies commonly proposed to reduce food waste. Reports often sum up the total calories that are discarded and then proceed to infer how many people could be fed by that food: by one calculation, current avoidable global food waste is enough to feed 1.9 billion people 2,100 kcal per capita per day. The implication is clear: that any excess food should be donated and used to feed the hungry. Yet a recent study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found nearly half of the calories in discarded food come from added fats and added sweeteners. In recognition of this reality, Barbara once even cautioned new attendees at a trash tour about the risks of an all-dumpster-dived pastry diet, ruefully observing that she had gained weight since she started rescuing food.

The nature of the food procured by dumpster divers shapes the way food is eaten in often contradictory ways. Quentin and Pauline state that while they might prefer to be vegetarian, they feel a duty to eat the meat they find because of its high ecological footprint and economic value. But precisely because many divers see taking discarded food as having no environmental impact, they can consume these (former) commodities without reflecting on whether these meals and their preparation would make sense in a less wasteful world where they wouldn’t dumpster dive. Dumpster divers have a much clearer view of how to live ethically as individuals within the existing food system than how to design a new system to replace it. Indeed, the temptation of effortlessly-recovered blueberry muffins or four cheese pizzas often draw them away from seemingly more constructive projects, like community gardens.

Disposal: “Don’t waste the waste”
The very act of dumpster diving affirms the premise of social science “discard studies”: the act of disposing of something is not an end-point, but can actually begin a complex trajectory that—sometimes—ends in re-valuation and re-use. Having already saved their food and the natural resources and human labour embedded in it “from the jaws of the trash compactor,” many divers are reticent to dispose of it again.

Yet the fact that the food is already rescued makes it first more likely, and second more legitimate, to let it to go to waste. One evening at Benjamin’s apartment, Lucy, one of the temporary roommates and a regular dumpster-diver, opens the “dumpster box”, a cardboard box full of bread and pastries, and declares, “This bread is getting stale.” Benjamin replies dismissively, “Just throw it out, we’ll get more tonight.” Lucy hesitates, and Benjamin adds, “You’re just re-wasting it!” Unconvinced, Lucy defiantly takes a bite with a loud “crunch” and retorts “Don’t waste the waste!” For Benjamin, like other groups of anti-waste activists, re-wasting is an unavoidable and necessary consequence of recovering food whose quality is open to debate. Quentin and Pauline’s fridge overflows with items in various states of decay: they admit they may produce more waste than they did if they were not dumpster diving, partly because of the temptation of taking too much, and partly because of the greater proportion of packaged food.

At the core of some dumpster divers’ critique is the notion that, in capitalist societies, useful things that cannot be sold are considered valueless. Yet dumpster divers themselves struggle to develop practices of care and stewardship for free things. As food banks and apps like Zero Percent and Phénix are promoted as a way to redistribute otherwise wasted food, these experiences caution us that not everything saved once from the dumpster escapes it forever.

Changing the world one dumpster at a time?
Irrespective of its diverse motives and goals, voluntary dumpster diving has had an influence – if not necessarily the one divers intended. One prominent UK food waste campaigner told us that, “By taking journalists round the back of supermarkets, showing them what was there, and serving them dinner based on it, and being able to very articulately talk about how this fits into a global problem,” dumpster divers were among “the original instigators of this new wave of global action on food waste.” But with reports from the European Union and United Nations declaring much of the 40% of world food production that goes to waste is discarded by consumers, attention has shifted to consumer practices – not “capitalism” or “industrial agriculture” – as a target for reform. As the United Nation’s recently-launched “Think.Eat.Save” website assures us, “with relative ease and a few simple changes to our habits, we can significantly shift this paradigm” of waste.

Yet are changes to culinary practices as simple as activists and policymakers assume? We find that even dumpster divers – individuals often willing to renounce privileged backgrounds and live on the margins of society, while facing the stigma attached to contact with waste – struggle to adopt truly sustainable practices. While their meals may be “no impact” in the sense that they have not financially contributed to the ecological or human costs of the food system this is not the whole story. Some practices that go along with dumpster diving, such eating non-organic, non-seasonal, highly processed food and throwing away a large quantity of packaging, look surprisingly “normal” in their level of ecological consideration (or lack thereof). Ultimately, by focusing on individual practices, campaigns around food waste may be missing the extent to which these practices are constrained by the existing organization of food production, distribution and consumption.

Further Reading:
Barnard, Alex V. 2016. Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America. Minneapolis, MN: University  of Minnesota Press.
Dubuisson-Quellier, Sophie. 2013. Ethical Consumption. Halifax, Canada: Fernwood Books.
Evans, David. 2014. Food Waste: Home Consumption, Material Culture and Everyday Life. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.
Mourad, Marie. 2016. “Recycling, Recovering and Preventing ‘Food Waste’: Competing   Solutions for Food Systems Sustainability in the United States and France.” Journal of       Cleaner Production 126:461–77.
Stuart, Tristram. 2009. Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. New York: W. W. Norton &         Company.


Marie Mourad is a doctoral student at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations and Sciences Po, Paris. Her research focuses on public policies, corporate initiatives and social movements to address “food waste” in France and the United States, analyzing how different solutions to food waste challenge the current organization of food production, distribution and consumption. She has also collaborated on food waste studies with the French Waste Prevention Agency (ADEME), the French Ministry of Agriculture and the National Resources Defense Council in the United States. Alex Barnard is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His first book, Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in the United States, is based on two years of ethnographic research on freegan anti-waste activists in New York City. His doctoral dissertation examines how states classify people with severe mental illness in the United States and France. We base our analysis on ethnographic observations of the activist network in New York City from 2007 to 2012 and of Disco Soupe—a movement founded in 2012 that organizes public cooking events that use discarded ingredients in order to “raise awareness” on food waste in a musical and “festive” atmosphere—in Paris from 2013 to 2014. In addition to our participation in these groups, we conducted semi-structured interviews with twenty-nine dumpster divers in the U.S. and nine in France. These data are complemented by on-going, embodied participation in dumpster-diving by both authors between 2009 and 2016 and tracking of types, locations, and times of the products recovered during 6 months. 

Photo Credit : Léa Ben Zimra, Disco Soupe, ‘French activists cooking with rescued vegetables, some of which were pre-packaged for a typical “pot au feu” recipe’