Homeless and poverty is an increasing issue in affluent Australia. In Melbourne, considered among the world’s most liveable cities, Dumpster Diving through the bins of supermarkets to salvage what’s left is now common.
By Morgan Reinwald
Spiralling through the grime-filled alleyways of central Melbourne is a repugnant experience. Trenching between two tired concrete structures stained with rebel graffiti, the combination of litter and human faeces form a stench that is abominable.
Despite this, the notion of garbage is appropriating a wide range of goods and nutrition that appear no different to shelf-bought items. Nonetheless, many of Australia’s biggest food and retail companies are throwing away items every day that are perfect for consumer’s consumption. Hence, the trend known as ‘dumpster diving’ is gaining notorious popularity; the act of searching through the dumpsters of a shopping centre as a spontaneous way to receive one’s grocery shopping or any other item for free.
I take each step forward with precaution, constantly looking back every few feet to hear the busy sounds of Melbourne’s hustle become fuzzier and clouded, until there is nothing left. Silence. The air-conditioning units stacked on one another up the building’s wall lead to a small opening at the top which enables the slither of light left in the day to be glimmered in among the darkness. I look straight ahead at two dumpsters, one yellow and one blue, hidden within the shadows at the end of this alleyway.
This hidden corner of the city is where I begin my search through what most people would call trash, while others, would honourably signify it as dinner. Unsure of who the bin belongs to I lift the lid which simultaneously opens a floodgate to a swarm of flies. As this happens I’m immediately hit with a startling wave from the dump’s vile odour. These first impressions make me step back so I can rid myself from squirming. Standing briefly, looking at what’s in front of me I contemplate: how could anyone eat this vulgar? Dare I say it contains edible food. Of course, there was only one way to find the solution to that question.
I reapproached the bin with a guarded sense of nature. My arms, acting as a magnet for the flies, delicately weave in and out of the bin’s contents. Although, this wary approach of selecting what I touched only allowed me to scratch the surface of the five-foot-deep container, and thus, it dawned upon me that I had to dig deep into the unknown if I were to have any success of finding something valuable.
Immersing my whole upper body into the bin, I feel a square cardboard box that I presume to be food packaging. Although, it’s slimy and wet, minimizing my hopes of success. The result was in fact a box of Frosty Bites ice cream, untouched and in perfect condition.
Nevertheless, they were completely melted and deemed inedible.
Going back in for a second dive, however, led me to finding a white styrofoam box which was labelled ‘Salmon – 6.7kg’. Sure enough though when I opened it up, a foul stench of rotten fish oozed out of the box that made my stomach feel like jelly, leading my experience to the disappointing conclusion that dumpster diving isn’t as pleasant as its online following claims it to be.
Feeling unassured of this endeavour I turned to a group of dumpster enthusiasts on Facebook, a page specifically for those who live in Melbourne. It was here that I engaged with people who like to refer to themselves as ‘Freegans’ – ‘a type of person whorejects consumerism and seeks to help the environment by reducing waste, especially by retrieving and using discarded food and other goods’.
It was here that a Freegan told me that he gets all his fruits and vegetables from the exact same bin every night between four and five o’clock, while another person spoke about hisadventures that have taken him to abandoned buildings where he has found disused, functional TVs. Most divers do, however, prefer to act anonymously because of the illegality of searching through another’s bin.
Gathering inspiration once again from this online advocacy for dumpster diving, I looked into Australia’s food statistics. Astonishingly, 3.6 million people in Australia experience food insecurity each year, with 27% of this figure being made up of children. Emphasizing this heartbreak is the $9 billion worth of consumer food that is being thrown out every 365 days.
Motivated to continue yet irritated at the same time, my adventure persevered, calling out to those with any sort of association to this activity. Luckily, I connected with a friend of mine who works at the local bakery in my neighbourhood. I will call her Sarah for the purposes of her employment security.
Unfathomed why so much food is thrown out, she told me that because their bread is baked fresh daily, anything that doesn’t sell must be chucked away at the end of every working day. Wanting to witness first-hand the amount of actual wastage, she told me to meet her behind the carpark of the shopping centre – “Thursday night we close at 6:30… come around then and see or yourself”. Little did I know in that moment was the shock I would witness beyond my belief.
I arrive 10 minutes early to the agreed upon time and wait in my car across the other side of the road. My hands are sweaty. I lift them from the position on the steering wheel and can see a damp outline of where they had been resting. I look in the rear-view mirror to check my surroundings to see the odd person walk by with their late night shopping. My stomach churns as I get out of the car and cross the road. Unlike the dumpsters in Melbourne these bins are in the open for onlookers to see. A turn of the head from someone who didn’t like what I was doing, and I could be in some serious trouble. The consequences are minimal but the momentary embarrassment, unbearable. I struggle to act normal and pretend to talk to someone on my phone, holding it next to my ear in hope that a passer-by wouldn’t link me with such an illegal endeavour. Unknown to anybody in that moment was that on the inside I was clenching my teeth and squeezing the sweat from my hands with a tight fist in my pocket, constantly observing everyone behind my dark sunglasses.
Upon the arrival of my source I take note of the thick lines from her forehead being prominent due to exhaustion, her eyelids half closed, too fatigued to keep them open. She is carrying 2 black garbage bags, one in either hand. Their immense size make her walk awkwardly as they sway side to side, jostling her legs with every step. I feel for her and offer to help, though she kindly refuses, “I could get in big trouble if I’m caught (helping you)”. Evident that the bags are full of bread I ask why it isn’t just donated. She tells me that a guy comes every night and takes some of the bread to the dog shelter, though it’s only the loaves and rolls. Anything sweet or containing dairy must be thrown out.
When she’s done, I walk back with her to the door and give thanks for answering my questions before hastily pacing myself over to the bin again. Using the long nails of my two index fingers I slit the garbage bag open. I’m stunned. Unlike the bags I cut open in the city, there is no foul odour released, no slime wriggling its way under my nails. Instead, staring back at me is the baked goods that could have been purchased in store twenty minutes prior. I propel through mounds of bread and pick out a bag of six wrapped hot-cross buns, choc-chip flavoured with a warm golden colour. After inspecting its glamorous quality, I throw them back into the bin with a sad sense of disrespect, a quality that so much food is treated with. The other bag displays identical results.
This perfect nourishment would have been fit to feed the five thousand, even more so, the 3.6 million Australians who are experiencing food insecurity this year.
Reflecting upon my experience of the garbage in the inner city through to the trash of regional Victoria, my understanding has led me to the realisation that Australia has a major problem with its approach to the management of food, where it goes, the consumers who waste it and those who go hungry every night. And so, it is the small act of dumpster diving that will hopefully ignite the fire in changing Australia’s future attitude.