“You got your headlamp?” She doesn’t wait for my response before replying to herself, “wait, where’s mine? Okay, here it is!” Pure excitement and a solitary sense of adventure fills the eco-friendly compact vehicle as my Returned Peace Corps buddies and I head out to learn about the fundamentals of dumpster diving from a friend who is a pro. It’s a movement – a culture really – I’ve heard various things about, assumed other various things about, but truly had no idea about. Stacie, the leader of this expedition, dumpster dives in her Illinois community regularly. She makes plenty of income and, in fact, lives in a quiet suburb about an hour outside of Chicago.
Which begs the question: Why does she dive in dumpsters for food?
All four of us served our country overseas in the Balkans for three years, a handful of years ago now, and have remained close-knit friends since our contracts ended in late 2016. Living and working abroad together has forged an unbreakable bond of sorts. Overcoming personal challenges, scathing off racial slurs and surviving Eastern European winters has that effect, I suppose. I rifle through my memory bank recalling plenty of exchanges of gratitude between the lot of us, but it’s this current exchange I’m the most grateful for. Being back in the States for only a handful of months, these phenomenal women and I timed a trip to the Windy City to reunite for the first time on US soil.
Let that sink in.
Backpacking around the world for the last two years has enlightened my being, but more importantly, it’s overemphasized the pandemic of waste on a global scale. Living minimally – having everything I needed stuffed into my 60-liter backpack – has become far more than a concept, it’s become my lifestyle. Needless to say, when Stacie begun to explain the adoption of this method of reducing waste, I was enthralled to partake in and learn about the culture of dumpster diving. Putting aside that she, of all people, was now living in a suburb and not some tiny house on a cliff in the middle of an untouched forest somewhere in South America.
Stacie is one of those overtly eco-driven people that you come to love. She will go behind you and unplug your cell phone charger from the wall to reduce electricity output, doesn’t use toilet paper to reduce landfill waste and makes her own toothpaste and deodorant to reduce the amount of plastic-packaged products in her bathroom. I learn about eco-conscious methods, organizations and movements from this woman time and again. More recently I was dubbed “that friend” among my closest brood because I am constantly nagging them about reducing/eliminating single-use plastics from their lives. I drone on and on about how they’re choking our oceans and how it changes you when you witness islands made of plastic in the deep Pacific (a trip to the Maldives in 2017) or share stories of herds of decaying, beached marine life, bellies distended with you guessed it, plastic waste. It changes you.
Admittedly, when I hear the term dumpster diving the grimmest of images come to life in my mind. Stinking and decaying food in sloppy mounds. Maggots burrowing out of the heads of cabbage. Soupy mixes of mystery liquids, mold-covered bread. It’s not to say it isn’t that, but imagine the horrifying scene of an Operating Room; exposed insides and excessive amounts of blood, etc. A person can adapt to each of these atmospheres with a little preparation, sanitization and sterilization.
We approach the bulky steel container in silence under the cloak of night. We are not committing a crime, but we do not want to draw undue attention to ourselves. Armed with galoshes, a headlamp, recycled boxes and plenty of reusable/canvas bags we walked towards a dumpster full of excitement. My hysteria and my wardrobe had me outwardly giddy. It’s as if we were a pack on the hunt. An earth-focused league of superheroine. My childish grin grew with each thump of my wonderous heart.
Waste Management it read across the front. It was dingy, but the bright yellow and white of the logo reflected in the rays of artificial light beaming from above our foreheads. “This one is unlocked and there’s no sign stating no trespassing,” I exclaimed. Pointing proudly at the kill with a delicate combination of assured naivety. Loosening the grip, I flip the wobbling lid open. My mouth is agape and my eyes wide at what we find there.
Prepackaged vegetables in perfect condition, tubs of unopened salsa, hummus. Cartons of fruit juices, wrapped cheeses, even packaged lunch meats and bottles of liquor. Each item tossed for one of the following reasons: damaged lid or label, approaching or at the sell-by date, a returned item that therefore cannot be resold. All of it lying there being kept fresh by the brisk, Spring Chicago air. Waiting for someone, anyone to help it fulfill its purpose; to rescue it.
Have you ever had an understanding of something so deeply that you were certain your understanding of that something could never be altered? Or a strong belief that you’ve carried since adolescence only to discover the foundation of that belief was bupkis in your adult life? Here are a few humbling examples of my own. Feel free to giggle, they’re quite hilarious, but one hundred percent true. I grew up understanding that limes were unripened lemons and that Martha’s Vineyard was indeed inhabited primarily/owned by Martha Stewart.
Mmhmm. No exaggeration.
When the realities of both of these falsities found their way to my incredulous ears my blank stare provided gut-busting entertainment for the kind souls who cared enough to offer me the truth of each matter. Recalling these truths can leave me huddling embarrassed in a corner wondering how any institution saw fit to grant me a degree. But I embrace all elements of myself, most certainly those that have humbled me.
As my headlamp shone across heaps of perfectly edible food, my conversion as a dumpster diving disciple was cemented.
As we quietly loaded our haul into the pint-sized trunk I pondered deeply on the ideals of these findings indeed being rescued food. Reading my mind Stacie approaches me as I slam the door closed silently, but with enough gumption to shut it – it’s packed in there. She squirts some sanitizer in my hands and watches my face as I get lost in my head for a moment. My body’s response is on autopilot. I accept the bacteria-killing liquid and wipe the tropical fruit-scented substance over the surface of my hands.
“That was just one dumpster and only 20 minutes.” She says it calm and matter-of-factly so that I hear her. I shake my head as I process this fact. One dumpster in one parking lot at one retailer in one town, in one city in one State out of 50 in the entire United States. Let alone the world. These earth-moving realizations change you. It’s as if I’m standing on that plastic-covered beach again. “You want to know the worst part?” She asks me, rhetorically, of course. “It’ll all be back again tomorrow!”
Let that sink in…
**This blog post contains affiliate links