Treasure in the trash

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By Samantha Anderson

It’s dark and Michelle Coyne works quickly, lifting and peering inside each of the green bins. She’s wearing her special dumpster diving outfit, which is warm but dark. Finding nothing in the bins she jumps up onto the ledge of a dumpster, grabbing its edges with her thin black gloves. Coyne leans over and the smell of watermelon and other fruit overwhelms her.

“It smells good,” she says, closing the lid, her lone find of perfectly packaged noodles in hand.

Coyne has her dinner.

Freeganism, a word derived from “free” and “vegan,” is a term used to describe taking food that would otherwise go to waste. The York University PhD student is currently researching freeganism. She was invited to Ryerson to speak on the subject during food sustainability week. Her dissertation explores how society got to the point where we think of edible food as garbage. “Freeganism points creatively to what’s wrong with our food system,” she said. We’ve come to think of food in terms of profit, not as something that feeds and sustains people. “It’s our sustenance,” Coyne said. “Food is something we depend upon. We build community around it. It’s not as soulless as the dollar.”

Diving is a way for her and other freegans to put this waste to use, engaging in social activism and feeding themselves at the same time. If anything, it’s changed the way she thinks about food.

“Garbage is not as disgusting as we think it is,” said Coyne.

Lance Marwood, a fourth-year arts and contemporary studies student, has no problem taking what businesses throw out.

“It’s like having a glass of water when I’m thirsty,” he said. “It makes sense.”

He dives casually and said community is an important part of freeganism, including cooking the food together. He was introduced to dumpster diving a few months ago by his friends, an experience he found liberating. Since then he’s learned it takes flexibility and a willingness to learn how to prepare and cook the food. It’s especially important to know what food is good and what isn’t.

A dumpster is no different than a fridge when it comes to analyzing produce, said Coyne. Thick skin and firm flesh are good signs that it’s edible. So long as it’s good overall, a small soft spot can be cut out. And it’s important to wash everything.

There are also general guidelines when dumpster diving. “The cardinal rule is to leave things cleaner than you find, and to not make it messy,” said Coyne.

Finding the goods in the first place takes some planning and a little luck. Dumpsters and green bins outside grocery stores and markets are usually brimming with produce, though getting them before they’re picked up means knowing their schedule. If everything is aligned, all that’s left is to open the lid and dive in.

The first time Coyne hopped into a dumpster was a strange and perspective-altering experience.

“Once you get your head around approaching a dumpster it gets a little easier,” she said.

Stores can make dumpster diving difficult and sometimes dangerous. They can’t afford to put their liability or insurance at risk if someone gets sick from diving in their dumpster, so they use rat poison, put up fences or use compactors where “any food, any goods get destroyed,” Coyne said.

Other stores make it easier for divers, setting aside bushels of peppers or keeping a bin of squash away from the trash. And Second Harvest, a non-profit organization that Coyne volunteers for, regularly goes around to specific stores to deliver food to shelters that would normally be thrown out.

Seeing dumpster diving as related to poverty is missing the point. What freeganism challenges is our willingness to turn food into garbage as easily as we do.

“It forces us to confront so many belief systems we didn’t know we had,” Coyne said. “We are having to confront how much is usable.”

It is damp tonight and so is everything inside the dumpster. Coyne throws open the lid while her friend Tammy leans in and pushes aside empty cardboard produce boxes. Nothing so far; then, a small clump of bananas. Tammy climbs in and digs deeper.


“I just rediscovered banana bread this week,” says Coyne, “so this is great.”

They fill two fabric bags with the bananas and a few apples before moving on. “My parents are going to be so proud,” Coyne says.

She will go home and freeze many of the bananas, using them to make food for housemates and for the food-notbombs group, who go out regularly to serve free vegan food to others.

On their way to another dumpster Coyne and Tammy pass by a man slumped in the entrance of a boarded-up store. Coyne pulls a bunch of bananas from her bag and lays them down beside him. At the next site the two take different green bins, lifting the lids and peeking in before moving on.

The last one they check is threequarters full with lettuce, whole mushrooms, strawberries, a potato — it’s a massive dumpster salad, ripe for the picking.

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