Producing food for oneself takes a considerable amount of time, planning, and patience. Mother nature possesses the ability to take out even the most tediously planned out food forest in the swipe of a single storm. But if there is one thing the urban environment unconditionally guarantees us, it is waste. Businesses and households provide us with an abundance that even the most well fed hunter-gatherers would have a hard time conceiving. The possibilities to repurpose this waste are just as varied as the niche consumer markets that modern corporations appeal to. Whether you have an established forest plot or you’re just starting out, exploring your local dumpsters and waste bins after hours is a good habit to get in to. I have been dumpstering locally for a few months on a very casual basis, and every time I seem to come back home with more than I know what to deal with. As I write this, I have a second fridge full of pineapples and mushrooms from over a week ago, while my first fridge is full of oranges, apples and strawberries I’m struggling to eat before they develop mold. Here are a few ideas I have come up with in regards to food waste, along with a couple I’m already practicing:
Animal Feed. Chances are, much of the food you find will still be edible for human consumption. But if you are struggling with feed costs and lack the space or ability to raise your own feed, a large supermarket can often supplement food for the animals in your system. Grocery stores have a very small tolerance for imperfections in their product, and fresh produce is no exception. I frequently encounter large piles of leafy greens like lettuce and cauliflower, which will be an excellent meal for my chickens once they come of age this summer. You may also come across disused shopping carts behind supermarkets and thrift stores, which are great tools to have when transporting large amounts of organic material around. I also imagine they serve as great conversation starters for your neighbors.
Compost. Technically, compost could be a byproduct of your dumpstering efforts if you use manure from your animals that were fed pilfered greens. Or, in my case, you end up with so much food that some of it is bound to go bad before you get a chance to use it. Case in point, the red wrigglers in my vermiculture system have spent just over a month in the bin underneath my stairs, and have already turned a 5 pound pile of grapes into a compact layer. This is in addition to the food scraps that have been coming from my kitchen, all of which are now underneath another layer of bedding and about 9 cups of overripe blueberries. Worried about overwhelming them, I place the rest of the food waste in a compost bin outdoors. If you need to jump start your compost pile, or are considering a large scale vermiculture system, food waste may be the solution.
Personal diet. Many people would consider this taboo, how can trash possibly be safe to eat? Not to mention the cleanliness of the dumpster to begin with, say the naysayers. From my experience, I find the condition of the dumpster to closely resemble the condition of the establishment it belongs to. McDonald’s is relatively greasy even on the inside of the restaurant, just step behind the counter and the floors become similar to a slip-and-slide if you’re wearing the wrong shoes; I would never dig through a fast-food dumpster. But the bin behind a supermarket is hardly much worse then the shelves they stock. What I find especially disappointing is the amount of packaged food that gets thrown out. I’m talking about bags of apple slices, plastic wrapped pears, peppers and zucchini, and entire vines worth of grapes that have travelled across the country and from around the world just to be thrown out. Producers go through all the extra effort and resources to add a layer of plastic to temporarily preserve the food, only to have it end up in a landfill for eternity.
Acquiring all this food has been a great way for me to practice my baking skills. Even in the middle of a harsh Midwestern winter, I can create breads, muffins, jams and wines from fruits that couldn’t even grow here during the summer.
Feeding others. In my opinion, this is perhaps one of the most rewarding uses for dumpstered food. This will take at least a small group of coordinated people, and living in a more rural environment has it made it more difficult to organize this personally. But it is a great way to introduce people to concepts they wouldn’t otherwise know about, while exposing the scale of food waste in our society. One group you may have heard of from time to time is Food Not Bombs. Food Not Bombs is a collection of autonomous, independent worldwide chapters that repurposes food waste into free vegan meals for the public. Unlike a traditional charity or soup kitchen, Food Not Bombs empowers marginalized individuals by giving them the ability to cook and serve alongside organizers. You can visit foodnotbombs.net to find an existing chapter or for information on starting a chapter yourself.
Tips. Whatever use you find for the food in the trash, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind.
Scout the location during the daytime. This will help you determine whether or not there are locks, compactors or other obstacles before you go out at night, and minimize the amount of time spent exploring in the dark (unless that’s the part you enjoy the most).
Bring a headlamp, a pair of gloves, and a pocket knife. For me, regular flashlights always end up becoming part of the trash. It’s too easy to drop it when your trying to fish out a bag of oranges wedged underneath a pile of milk cartons. The knife and gloves are helpful for cutting through and handling plastic bags.
Avoid meat products. This isn’t just because I’m vegetarian. Unlike vegetables, it doesn’t take long for raw meat to harbor dangerous bacteria when left outside.
The ‘burbs are bountiful. If you can, take a car or bus out into the suburbs. There are typically more supermarkets per capita, and their security measures are more lax than in the inner city. The same grocery store that locks their bins behind locked doors in the city may have an unlocked dumpster reserved specifically for organic waste in the outer rings. Competition from other divers is almost non-existent, and you won’t provoke suspicion as much as you would while wandering around a city alley that is shared with a residential neighborhood.
Have fun, be safe. One of my favorite parts of dumpster diving is just about getting up at night. Unfortunately, some business owners don’t share this sentiment. Bleached food isn’t unheard of, but you can avoid this becoming a problem by regularly cleaning up after yourself and leaving the dumpster in the same condition as you found it. Know your rights for confronting the police, and be aware of your surroundings. If you prefer, you can find dumpster diving communities on social media sites like Facebook and Reddit to share tips and post your nightly haul.
Permaculture is all about interacting with our environment in a positive and responsible manner. Where hunter-gatherers once roamed the fields and forests searching for edibles, the urban dweller is confronted with a bounty of food and tools if they simply start searching. If our goal is to circumvent modern agriculture and lessen it’s destructive impact on the environment, why not take advantage of the wasteful byproduct it produces?