Photo - Cloudy Rhodes

I’m not a wasteful person. And I like to think that my resourcefulness and thrifty shopping habits are, if not due to a level of very mild poverty, at least influenced by some form of environmental accountability.

But, no matter how many milk cartons I recycle or adorable op-shop bucket hats I discover, I also live on a decent wage in a rich city. I am part of an affluent, consumer culture that values the latest and best of everything. Whether we know it or not, the impermanence of material goods that are constantly updated, thrown away and replaced is encouraging a mentality that anything we own is utterly replaceable and therefore justified to be wasted. It’s no surprise that the average Australian per year will waste 200kg of food and throw away around 21 million tonnes of rubbish. We can afford to, and perhaps we just don’t know any better. 

But what can you do? Cue an inspiring yet utterly exhausting speech about self-sustainability, refusing to succumb to advertising and living in a consumer-free Jesus-like state of enlightenment. This alternative only makes me want to reach for the nearest package of processed food and turn on HBO in a resigned slump of capitalist self-loathing. The truth is, waste is unavoidable. It’s our view of how this waste can be valued that could change for the better.

Recently, one of my more money-conscious friends rocked my wasteful world. He eats well and he eats for free. He eats out of skip bins.

This friend is part of a growing sub-culture of ‘Dumpster Divers.’ This urban foraging, in less glorified terms, involves sifting through rubbish bins for salvageable food and other items. Once deemed the practice of smelly bums, dumpster diving has been adopted by money saving, environmentally aware people of all ages, professions and… levels of personal hygiene. They are leaving the checkout lines behind to peruse the skip bins of Sydney for free.

And it’s amazing what you can find in there.
“The first dive I ever did was with a friend in Melbourne. She took a grocery list. We got almost every kind of veggie you could imagine. We got heaps of bread, we got milk, we got everything to last us the next three or four days. It was very good very healthy organic fruit and veg and good produce.”

My friend tells me that the amount of fresh, still edible food that gets thrown out is huge. Grocery stores like Harris Farm in Bondi Beach are a proverbial resting place for previously overpriced and outrageously good organic food. “Pretty much anything that’s going to go bad at some point, you can find it in the dumpster. But its not necessarily bad as soon as its thrown out.”

Dumpster Diving isn’t illegal per se; Australian Law doesn’t seem to forbid it. But laws surrounding private property provide a grey area that means some bin owners can kick out divers if they want to. “At some places people are very encouraging of it, they are stoked to see me and ask me to come back next week. And then other places just wont have it. They’ll kick you right out of there.”

So it’s free and it’s legal - if not slightly frowned upon. Why aren’t more people doing it? Especially those who might really benefit from a wholesome, three course bin-meal. My friend says that it comes back to the way we view waste. “I think the number one factor is just simple ignorance. I think more people need to be shown what really is out there in these dumpsters.” It’s not just good food that the skip bins are hiding. “Once I found a whole bunch of backpacks and shoes in there that were in perfectly good condition.”

I know what you’re thinking at this point. You thinking, that’s great but there is no way I’ll be climbing into a bin any time soon, even for a free lettuce. I’m the same. Besides, I have a friend who can do it for me. But the rising popularity of Dumpster Diving raises some interesting questions about wastefulness. Why does this perfectly good food have to end up in a bin? When does profitability and convenience overrule charity – or why can’t we have both? Sure, the legalities surrounding food quality make it a risky practice for shop owners to endorse but I don’t see any harm in at least facilitating a resourceful process that is already occurring anyway. We far too often go for the easy option, whether that means throwing away your milk cartons or filling a skip bin with food that could help feed a homeless shelter.

I think it comes back to habit, and the wasteful practices and assumptions that are integrated into our daily lives. It doesn’t necessarily mean changing your lifestyle - by god I’ll still be buying my exotic organic juices at full price. But the resourcefulness of these divers represents an alternate approach to the ‘latest and best’ consumerist mentality. We can’t stop it, but maybe we can look for a greater value in the things we throw away.

Or at least get a free backpack to hold all our iPods.