Roving reporter Adolfo dives into the world of dumpster diving to find out why people would want other people's rubbish.
As the time for hard rubbish collection draws near and nature strips are filled with unwanted paraphernalia, the amount of people taking "evening strolls" seems to increase. Even the number of utes and trailers meandering around residential areas grows as well.
I'm sure you've encountered them, their torches in hand and barely audible whispers pervading the otherwise silent streets. To these "dumpster divers", the temptation to salvage still-useful items discarded as rubbish is irresistible.
What is a dumpster diver?
Dumpster divers, who form a subset of the "freegan" movement, are people who extricate themselves from the capitalist system by foraging for commodities like food, furniture and clothing. They justify their minimal consumption by arguing that capitalism is driven by production instead of demand, which inevitably generates surplus.
This surplus comprises purchased items (such as furniture or computer hardware) that get thrown away by their previous owners solely because they have been replaced by newer models.
It also includes food products discarded by supermarkets because they have been "tainted" by spilled food. Because these surplus items are usually still intact upon disposal, dumpster divers intervene before the "rubbish" is taken to landfills.
"Skip Dipping in Australia" (new window), a 2006 study by public policy think tank The Australia Institute, found that dumpster diving is carried out by people of all ages and from all over Australia. Their study also discovered that many of those who practise it live well above the poverty line. So why do these people do it?
Isn't this just a load of rubbish?
The decline of non-renewable resources distresses dumpster divers, particularly because of the exorbitant quantity used in manufacturing new products. In their view, resources are squandered in the production of new items because older ones are still in existence and could be used to meet the same demand.
To place this in perspective, here are some statistics:
- More than 17 million tonnes of solid waste is deposited annually in Australian landfills
- In Australia, about 3.3 million tonnes of food is thrown out each year
- The average Australian generates 2.25 kilograms of "rubbish" per day
By not buying items unless they really need to, dumpster divers are not only reducing waste but are protesting against the system of overproduction creating this waste.
There are, of course, some issues with the varied forms of dumpster diving. For instance, if bins are located on private property - like those in large shops like Coles - getting to them may be seen as trespassing.
Likewise, because hard rubbish is regarded in some areas as the property of the companies outsourced to handle them, hard-rubbish diving may be deemed theft.
But according to City of Port Phillip Mayor Cr Frank O'Connor, there is nothing inherently illegal with acts of salvaging "if the material is reasonably considered to be abandoned [like on nature strips]". "Our concerns are principally around public safety … and people causing a littering problem as a result of fossicking."
Mr O'Connor also cites further issues like potential violations to previous owners' privacy, as well as delays contractors would face in collecting material dispersed as a result of rummaging.
"However, council does not recommend or condone the salvaging of items by individuals from booked hard rubbish collections… It removes materials from a controlled recycling and disposal process and raises issues of occupational health and safety."
So why get your hands dirty?
Despite words of warning such as these, Lia, a twenty-something university student and dumpster diver, is not dissuaded. "There's plenty that’s good about [salvaging], though perhaps sometimes people are more righteous than they ought to be."
She recounts how she got involved in the activity after she left high school and became active in environmental groups. "Coming both backwards from thinking about ethical production (like fair trade, No Sweat, etc.) and forwards from wanting a society where goods are produced on demand rather than the other way around is how I got to this position. I felt [that] the most ethical consumerism is none."
Apparently the "grungy glamour" of going through other people's rubbish is infectious. Lia explains that people are generally "more sympathetic to the idea of salvaging trash than protecting waste as property", with only the odd person telling her and her accompanying divers off. "But you can just leave and go back later."
She does admit, though, that avoiding consumer culture can sometimes prove difficult. "Sometimes it's more work than it's worth economically, and that's when you'd need to have the political commitment to opt out of a cycle of needless consumerism."
Nevertheless, Lia remains adamant in her cause.
"I think minimising unnecessary production and consumption is a valuable political goal. While I think salvaging garbage can be an effective way to highlight the wastefulness of our society, I think we also need to provide people with the means to acquire what they need through social services, or the money to purchase it through the market.
"The economy of salvage is unreliable, and more importantly it depends upon a cycle of waste I would rather see stopped at the point of production."
For more information about dumpster diving, check out:
And to see examples of food and related products obtained through dumpster diving, visit www.notquitenigella.com (new window).
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