In England, dumpster diving is called skipping. It’s a rather indirect way to talk about trash picking, but it feels appropriate in its way. Picture two small children holding hands and skipping through the park. Picture the gleeful expressions on their faces. This is how I look when, wrapped up in multiple jackets and scarves, I rush from a beat-up red van to the house kitchen laden with not-frozen-anymore soft pretzel dough. I was euphoric. Skipping was in order.
I haven’t been dumpster diving in a car in years. Wait, I take that back. I’ve been dumpster diving in a car once in the last five years. My very first food dive was in an old Volvo station wagon, and we drove home with garbage bags full of bread and bagels. But since moving to Germany, I’ve had to limit myself to backpack-sized hauls. It never really mattered—I only had one or two people to feed back then. But now that I live with so many dumpster-food-friendly people, a backpack, even my human-sized army surplus duffel backpack, isn’t always big enough to haul home what we could put away in a week.
Rewind a few Sundays. Uncle Meat and the Highway Children play in Mainz and stay on with us for the following week. They’re poor, we’re poor, but we’re all hungry and like dumpster diving, and they have a van.
There are so many bountiful dumpsters just out of reach around here. Technically I could reach them by bike, but at 10 or 11 pm I am not usually in the mood for a 14 kilometer ride with 40 pounds of food strapped to my back.
Our first quarry was humble but interesting: cereal, several packages of oats, and a few vegetables. The second was cornucopious. We piled out of the van silently, each person taking a box and a dumpster. There were tons of vegetables, but the find of the night were the Snickers ice cream bars and the 20-something boxes of not-frozen-anymore soft pretzel dough, pretzels pre-formed and ready to bake. They had probably thawed, and the supermarket probably wasn’t legally allowed to refreeze them and sell them. We took them home and made them into calzone(ish) vegetable-and-rice filled pockets for the Wednesday vokü.
The last dumpster we visited was our usual and was filled to the brim with milk products. We ran out of boxes and van space before we’d even emptied the bin halfway.
The euphoria of a good dumpster run is intoxicating. I’ve often thought, well, this must be what it felt like back in the day of hunters and gatherers to come home from the hunt with a big juicy deer/buffalo/rabbit.
Once upon a time I put it like this: “There is something about dumpster diving that gets your blood pumping. You leave the house after dark, backpacks full of empty bags, and you pedal off to your first stop. Maybe you climb a fence, maybe you squeeze through some bushes. Maybe you find one apple and a moldy carrot, maybe you find enough to feed everyone you know for two weeks. Maybe you get chased by the cops or ambushed by a raccoon. Maybe there’s rat poison in the dumpster or maybe there are pies and boxes of macaroni and cheese. Maybe the dumpsters are locked (and maybe you have a key) or maybe you make it home with adrenaline in your veins and mischief in your eyes, and have a dumpster pie throwing contest outside of *insert local corporate enemy’s name here*.
“I like to imagine that the feeling you get dumpstering–a racing heart, tousled hair, a grin that goes all the way to your toes, high off the fact that with a little pedaling, a little climbing, and a little luck, you just got bags of delicious food for free, again—is something like the feeling people got a long, long time ago, when they used to hunt and scavenge for their food.”
Dumpster divers may be the urban hunter gatherers, but dumpster diving is really a parody of hunting and gathering, or perhaps even what Derrick Jensen has called a “toxic mimic.”
A toxic mimic is, to paraphrase the definition in his book Endgame, is a parody that “doesn’t ignore the intent [of the practice, such as dumpster diving, or marriage], but perverts and attempts to destroy it. Rape is a toxic mimic of sex. War is a toxic mimic of play. The bond between slave oen and slave is a toxic mimic of marriage. Heck, marriage is a toxic mimic of marriage, of a real partnership in which all parties help all others to be more fully themselves.”
Dumpster diving feeds me and fills me with adrenaline. To go dumpster diving I have to go hunting about the city for the most fruitful spots and the least dangerous. The hunter/gatherer comparison is easy to follow. But what’s so toxic about all that?
Literally, the toxicity can be seen as the pesticides on the vegetables and the chemicals in the packaged foods. At the end of the night a lot of the food in your cupboard was factory farmed or flown from a bajillion miles away or was maybe even genetically modified. At the end of the night you’re eating food that has become more product and less food in many ways both subtle and obvious. At the end of the night I still have no idea where most of my food actually came from, am still disgusted by how much is being tossed. The dumpsters feed me but at the end of the night I still always wish that it didn’t work like this.
On another level, dumpster diving could be called a toxic mimic in that it gives the diver the rush and the intoxication of hunting and gathering without providing any of the skills needed to actually feed oneself in this manor, oh, I don’t know, say civilization were to collapse, along with agriculture as we know it. When, one day, I find the dumpsters empty, will I know how to feed myself?