Down in the dumpster
in Mike and the Bush Mechanics on 5 March 2011
I’VE begun dumpstering. One night, my friend and I rode to a suburban shopping centre in Melbourne’s north.
Rubber-gloved, overalled and booted, I swung into the bin. I began by sifting through several cartons of discarded, in-date eggs, searching for organic, free-range ones (in the case of food wastage, beggars can be choosers).
Suddenly I looked up and to my left. I saw an old Pakistani man with a full white beard, peering at me over the edge of the bin. He wore a head torch and surgical gloves.
“Do you come here often?” he enquired.
“Ah, um, we’ve been here a couple of times,” I stammered.
He introduced himself, explained that he lived nearby and raided the bin regularly, and promptly sprung over the side.
There ensued some minutes of silence as he searched, and I stood back, not knowing the etiquette. He gathered two bags of potatoes and some eggs and took his leave, shaking my hand, smiling broadly, and commenting that it had been a pleasure to meet us.
A moment later he returned. “If you’re going to come again,” he said, “it’s best to come after eleven-fifteen, because there are staff around earlier. Sometimes they see me and break the packaging so I can’t take it.”
Other employees turn a blind eye. The supermarket bins are locked, but the master keys are in wide circulation – the waste removal companies prefer it that way, so skip-dippers don’t break locks to get in.
Once you’re in, it’s a lucky dip: you can find everything from plums to pedestal fans, canned beans to Camembert. Often, the item’s presence in the bin is baffling. “Don’t even question why,” one long-term gleaner advised me. His lounge room is stocked with crates of essentials picked up over time.
For me, the experience has been thrilling. Sure, it’s icky. And thankfully, I can afford to feed myself otherwise. But it’s a small act of civil disobedience, a harmless protest against a mad world.
Australians throw out more than $5 billion worth of food each year. And that’s just from the produce that we bring into our households. More is trashed before we even get the chance. Supermarkets toss good food if the packaging is damaged or the best-before date is approaching.
As a new dumpster diver, I’ll need to learn to trust my own judgement about what is good to eat, rather than relying on the shop’s approval. My bearded friend from the northern suburbs, and his family, must have learnt that lesson long ago. And I'm sure they've been eating well.