As an activist, sustainability educator, and random person sometimes I find it difficult not to try and mesh all three of these elements into the way that I communicate thoughts about life. Recent discussions around dumpster diving and educating the “masses” about the legalities of such acts has raised alarm bells for me. Let me start by defining these actions..

Dumpster Diving: The act of going into commercial dumpsters (or non-commercial to) and pull out items of use or food that is being waste for reuse or consumption.

Gleaning: The act of going into farmers fields (note: still legal in Europe although not as heavily acted upon as the old days) and taking the produce left on the farm fields after the harvest.

In the true form Gleaning is an act that is still legal in Europe as a means of collecting left over food. The concept of Dumpster Diving has been a response to the over production of food rather than a means to the end.

In its outright Dumpster Diving is not a sustainable action, but something that most people do in response to the over consumption that our existing world takes part in. Correction: Our existing world meaning “Western” world because travelling to places like Ecuador you find people eating the food that we tend to throw away – brown bananas anyone?

Bringing Dumpster Diving to the mainstream is something that I constantly struggle with especially now that I have been interviewed on the issue three or four times. Usually I agree to partake in the interview and then talk less about what I find and more about what is behind the issue: our waste, our demand for new, and our need for more. Glorifying the products that are obtained from the pirates of the commercial bins only creates a reaction from society. Industry responds by pouring meat on top of good vegetables, bleach on food, or locking of bins. It’s difficult to get large commercial entities to properly talk about these issues while engaging people about dumpster diving as it simply inflames the situation (read: they see dumpster divers as taking “money” that they wilfully threw away).

Much discussion was given between Dan and myself about whether it was more ethical or appropriate to hold a seminar on Dumpster Diving or Food Wastage. Why would holding a seminar on dumpster diving be inappropriate? This was something I kept challenging Dan to explain to me as I thought that it was appropriate. That even though I wouldn’t necessarily talk about how to dumpster, legal issues, or all the related issues I could talk about the issues behind why people Dumpster Dive. Dan pointed out quite clearly to me that in the process of creating any seminar on Dumpster Diving you are glorifying the act. You are creating a situation in which we focus more on a fringe action then we do on the real issue. We shouldn’t be educating people about how to Dumpster Dive, but rather how to waste less. After much consideration and debate I found myself agreeing with her.

As Dan noted, people who are dumpster diving are doing it for more than “political” reasons, but as a means to educate others about their existing consumption patterns as Ferne Edwards and David Mercer suggest in their “Gleaning from Gluttony: an Australian youth subculture confronts the ethics of waste” abstract.

I’m convinced. We shouldn’t have to create sexy fringy titles to seminars to educate people about these issues. Nor should we draw them in by glorifying something that is a response to a serious issue. Dumpster Diving should stay in it’s current form and as Dan noted people should truly use this act as a means to educate. If you aren’t educating people about waste in whatever form then quite possibly the act of dumpster diving is self serving.

There is a fine line between talking about Dumpster Diving and finding the right approach to prevent the waste from happening. For example, in the Blue Mountains the Katoomba food co-op simply puts out out-of-date food and produce in a box that is given to it’s patrons for free. Smaller communities sometimes will reduce the price of expired food and sell it rather than throwing it away. Groups approaching local bakeries and grocery stores to take home food that will go to waste is another approach. It is a harder issue to deal with when dealing with larger Big Box grocery stores because they are more concerned with the legalty of giving away this food. Although, in Melbourne two such organisations exist to deal with these issues: Second Chance (taking food twice a week from various markets that would otherwise be thrown away and making food to feed people on the street) and another stores that takes expired food and selling that in order to raise money for charity).

As an educator I’m just a bit sensitive about these issues as I spend a lot of time talking to people about food waste and glorifying dumpster diving is kinda not appropriate. Take for example the workshop I just did with some kids. I could have told them I dumpster dived but instead show them a piece of fruit that was being thrown out from a grocery store and something from a market and asked them to “spot the difference”. Answer: They chose the food that was going to be wasted. So it’s more important to deal with this through food education than tackle it from glorifying something that is more of a response.

Personally, I feel that this type of engagement is a much better way of trying to deal with our issues of waste and still diverting this waste at the same time. By engaging with public, writing letters, and trying to reduce our existing waste the act of dumpster diving is less about obtaining food and engaging the world on the “real” issue.

Do I want to dumpster dive forever? I hope not. It’s not a sustainable means of living for anyone. Plus the glory of jumping into a bin isn’t all that glorifying and doesn’t ensure that local farmers are able to stay in business – rather than big business farmers (yuck). I hope that we return to societies where all the stuff that is created has a stream for reuse. That when I demand honey I can’t necessarily walk into a store and expect to see 40 jars sitting on a shelf. Why? Because it’s not sustainable to keep putting so much energy into the food we eat without considering know much we waste.