Dumpster diving is a way to rethink consumption in a society where expiry dates have become more important than reducing food wastage.

The term “dumpster diving” defines to many the practice of jumping into dumpsters, scavenging for edible material amongst rotten fruits and vegetables.

But Nora Faltmann, a doctoral student at the Department of Developmental Studies at the University of Vienna, has realised that dumpster diving is more than an effort to freeload. It’s also a way to rethink consumption in a society where expiry dates and fully-stocked shelves have become more important than reducing food wastage.

The IPF spoke to Nora about the practice of dumpster diving – and what she’s found out by doing it herself.

What was your initial reaction when you heard about dumpster diving?

I heard about it from friends, as well as in university classes on the global food system and was quite fascinated. It took some time until I had the courage to join a friend for dumpster diving, but I always thought it was a great way of saving food from being wasted and a sign of political protest against a system that inherently generates overproduction and resource waste.

How did you begin dumpster diving?

I followed the classic dumpster diving career: at first I joined an experienced friend, then I went alone or took friends with me who were new to dumpster diving. In Austria, some places are publicly accessible but in many cases you need a key for the garbage room. Therefore, it makes sense to join people with experience – and a key.

What was your family and friends’ reaction?

At first my parents worried that their daughter had to eat “garbage”.

It took some convincing until they understood that the food you find during dumpster diving is not garbage, but oftentimes perfectly good food.

Many of my friends and flatmates were fascinated by the amount and type of food I brought home and happily ate it. Some even joined me in dumpster diving.

Dumpster diving is a controversial topic. What do you say to people who think you are merely trying to freeload?

I like to ask them to try taking another perspective. How can it be morally more acceptable for our food system – and for companies – to waste perfectly good and edible food, than for people – no matter if out of activism or necessity – to counteract this wasteful system? It is also a question of the value that we give to food.

The work, time and resources that were put into producing food should not be devalued by throwing edible food away. This abundance stands in such a stark contrast with the many people who do not have sufficient nutritious food.

Last, but not least, food waste is a pressing global question. With the depletion of arable land through climate change we cannot afford to waste approximately one-third of all food produced in the world. This number shows that there is much potential for feeding the world by reducing waste at all points of the food chain without dystopian visions of test-tube meat and vegetables.

Why do you think people throw out things that are acceptable to consume?

One reason is law restrictions regarding expiry dates. Fruits and vegetables are thrown out before the weekend in expectancy that they will spoil before shops open on Monday. This happens especially when supermarkets want to maintain full selections till closing hours, which is only possible with oversupply of produce. You find nets of fruits or vegetables where one piece is mouldy, but the whole unit goes to the garbage because accounting does not allow flexibility to sell them loosely.

Some shops give leftover food to institutions that distribute them to people in need. Yet this practice requires time and organisation, so unfortunately it is often easier for shops to just throw away the leftover food.

How has dumpster diving impacted your life?

Seeing with my own eyes the amount of good and edible food that is thrown away on a daily basis made me realise the extent of what is wrong with our food system.

It made me ask myself which system I would like to live in and what kind of consumer, and also citizen, I want to be.

What were your ideological reasons to get into dumpster diving?

My reasons were to counteract wastefulness. I see dumpster diving and talking about it as a type of political activism. Both, sharing “saved” food, and telling people about the extent of wastefulness in the Western food systems, especially in the sphere of supermarkets, is raising awareness on the issues of overproduction and food waste.

How do you define our moral responsibility in terms of consumption?

While we should not take ourselves out of the equation, it is a myth that solely the consumer determines the supply. The industry often argues that food waste is a necessary evil because consumers want to be able to buy everything at all times. Yet the modern consumer was created and habituated to the mode of constant food availability. In the Western world this is a development that took place in the last few decades and with the rise of supermarkets.

As long as it is more economical to throw away leftover food than to have empty shelves, this will be done. The key not only lies in ways of consumption, but in voicing concern or finding real alternatives.

What has been your most incredible find while dumpster diving?

Once I found over a dozen bouquets of flowers a few days after Valentine’s Day. The absurdity of this find and giving them away to strangers on my way home was a very memorable experience.

What, other than dumpster diving, can change our consumerism and ecological footprint?

There are some obvious steps for reducing the food-based ecological footprint, which includes the consumption of seasonal, regional and organic food.

The meat and dairy industry – especially in its modern form of factory farming – are very resource intensive forms of food production in terms of water and fodder inputs. When you look at the energy efficiency, a plant-based diet has a much lower ecological footprint than one centred around meat and dairy.

A great example for a different concept of food production and consumption is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where a group of consumers pre-finance the annual budget of a farm. In return, the group receives a harvest share of said farm on a weekly basis. This way, farmers are not the sole carriers of yield risks and consumers regain a connection to how food is produced.

What are the risks of dumpster diving?

The legal situation differs strongly between countries. In Germany, garbage of supermarkets is seen as their property so they have the right to sue people who dumpster dive in their garbage.

In Austria, on the other hand, anything in dumpsters becomes property of the garbage disposal company, which usually has much less interest in punishing dumpster diving. You can get in trouble with supermarkets for entering their buildings though.

How could dumpster diving change our society if people looked at it differently?

There are some, almost philosophical, questions that we can ask ourselves: when do we think food becomes garbage? How were we turned into mere consumers trusting a printed date more than our senses when judging the edibility of food?

Food becomes garbage even before lying in a dumpster or exceeding its expiry date. Changing this understanding would be a step in the right direction.

Society could also acknowledge that it is strong convictions or necessities that get people to dumpster dive – people who just cannot stand and watch while edible food is being devalued or people who have no other choice. Hunger or the will to make things better – aren’t those motives plenty of, to pardon the pun, food for thought about the system that we live in and about social inequality?