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Combating Retail Food Waste, One Dumpster At A Time

An anonymous dumpster diver gives Earth Eats a glimpse into his trade, combating food waste.

Bananas in a dumpster

Photo: Ace Armstrong (Flickr)

In 2010, 31 percent of the entire edible food supply was throw away. That's 133 billion pounds of wasted food.

Food waste is a growing problem in America. According to a recent USDA study, in 2010, an estimated 31 percent of the entire edible food supply was thrown away. That’s 133 billion pounds of food. About one third of this—10 percent of the edible food supply—was thrown away by retail stores alone.

A recent Earth Eats interviewee who preferred to remain anonymous had this take: “that’s the thing about grocery shopping in western culture. We want the best value for our products… We don’t want to buy a banana that has a brown spot on it. We don’t want to buy an apple that has a blemish on it. We don’t want to buy a can of beans that has a dent in it. So it all winds up in the trash.”

His personal solution to the growing retail food waste problem? Dumpster diving. That’s also the reason for his anonymity. As he puts it, he preferred to remain anonymous for the sake of “future Google searches.”

“That’s one thing I hate,” he added. “I hate when people, when the first thing people know about me is, ‘Oh, that’s [redacted], he digs through the trash. That’s weird.’ I love that. It’s part of what I do. I’m OK with people knowing that. I just hate when that’s the first thing that they know about me, ‘cause I get pigeonholed.”

We recently met up with this anonymous dumpster diver behind a grocery store in Indianapolis—where we found about a dozen bananas—to learn some of the tricks of the dumpster diving trade. Some interview highlights are below:

On the greatest dumpster find:

One time I found a gas-powered scooter in the dumpster. For food: ice cream’s a really good find. If you can find that and it’s still cold, like they just threw it out, then it just kind of feels like you’re in the right spot and the right time, and everything in the world is right.

On how he finds his locations:

It’s trial and error. Most places that don’t have trash compactors throw things away. I drive a lot for my job, and that takes me all over town. If I’ve got a lunch break or something, and I see a grocery store nearby, I might give it a shot and see what’s up. Sometimes I’m lucky, sometimes I’m not. I’ve tried to come up with some sort of schedule, but it always seems to switch up.

On how dumpster diving has changed his cooking habits:

I love feeding people. I love cooking for people. Dumpster diving has made me a better cook for sure, because I come home with a bunch of random ingredients and I got to find a way to use them. So I find someway to use them.

On what he won’t take from a dumpster:

I don’t take food that I don’t like. I used to draw the line at meat, but that line has blurred drastically. And I feel like my life is better for it, because, believe it or not, I have never got sick from eating something out of the trash. Anything I feed to friends or family I hold to a higher scrutiny than something that I would eat myself. I don’t want someone else’s food poisoning on my shoulders.

Using his dumpster finds for his chickens:

Earlier today I went out and found a bunch of tomatoes, a bunch of lettuce. Actually, I also found a bunch of birdseed. I feed my chickens too out of the trash. I got four chickens in my backyard and they are not picky eaters, so I get to supplement their diet with some dumpster finds.

On his first time dumpster diving:

When I was in high school, we were standing around in the parking lot of a restaurant after eating and in the parking lot there was also a thrift store. I just got curious, went around back, and found a bunch of clothing. My first dumpster-dive t-shirt, I still own it. It’s all ratty now—it wasn’t looking good when I first got it—but it’s got a picture of a cowboy on it. It’s one of my favorite shirts.

Mark Chilla

Mark Chilla is an announcer and producer for WFIU, where he serves as the host of All Things Considered and the music trivia show Ether Game. His knowledge of food comes mostly from his Italian mother.

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